There was a time—it may seem like ancient history given the tidal wave of cannabis legalization sweeping the nation—that to be photographed smoking or growing the plant was to risk being arrested.
How much has that changed? Just ask Ophelia Chong, founder of StockPot Images, the California-based agency that has become a clearinghouse of cannabis-related photos, some 20,000 of them, the first and largest such collection, available for use by magazines, websites and anyone else who needs a photo, but doesn’t have the time or resources to hire a photographer.
For a 58-year-old who avoided cannabis most of her life, it’s the culmination of a long career in the visual arts and major opening-of-eyes regarding the plant. And she’s on a very personal mission to show that the stereotypes that have long been associated with cannabis are very wrong.
“My whole passion is speaking for people who are on the outliers [of society],” said Chong. “That was always my specialty . . . How do you talk about this community and bring it into the mainstream in a powerful yet educational way?”
Chong (no relation to cannabis icon Tommy Chong) grew up in Canada, a child of first-generation Chinese immigrants. After graduating from the ArtCenter College of Design in 1989, she began photographing musicians for magazines and record labels.
“I believe everyone has at least six careers in your life,” she said. Her first career involved photographing and spending time with ’90s radio mainstays such as the Goo Goo Dolls and Alanis Morissette. Alcohol was very prevalent in the scene; cannabis, not so much.
She produced films. She taught art. She took photos. She marketed photography. But it took a personal experience to bring her into the cannabis industry.
Around 2015, Chong’s sister came to visit her in California, in search of help with the incurable skin disease scleroderma, which causes the skin to harden and tighten. In its most severe form, it can lead to organ failure and death.
Her sister wanted to try cannabis as an alternative to pharmaceuticals to treat the pain. “I said, ‘Oh my God, my sister is a stoner,'” said Chong. “I started to cry. Here I was stereotyping my sister into this thing, and I realized how wrong I was.”
“My whole passion is speaking for people who are on the outliers [of society].”
Her eyes thus opened to cannabis as a medicine and not a drug, and Chong began looking around at the types of stock images available related to the plant. Most were of addicts, convicts or drug dealers.
“I realized, ‘This is how the mainstream sees cannabis.’ I was first outraged by my own ignorance, and I was further outraged by how everyone else thought too. I wasn’t the only one.”
So, StockPot Images was born. She wanted a way to show cannabis as medicine, consumers as patients and not as criminals, and people like Dennis Peron, who founded California’s
first public medical cannabis dispensary and fought for much of his life for legalization before dying earlier this year.
It took a lot of cold calls and a slow gaining of trust to get people to be photographed growing or smoking a Schedule I substance.
Said Chong, “I basically started from zero. I didn’t have a foothold in the community. I didn’t know anyone in the community . . . I didn’t even know how to roll a joint.”
Trust she built, as well as a large network of photographers, since most of the 20,000 images in the StockPot Images collection were taken by others, who receive a royalty when their photos are used. She said her royalties are much more generous than what other major stock photo companies offer.
The more she immersed herself in the industry, the more she wanted to convince others of its benignness.
Asian Americans, many raised by conservative first- or second-generation immigrants, have not always played a huge role in the nascent industry. Chong hoped to change that by co-founding the Asian Americans for Cannabis Education, to help change attitudes and invite more of that demographic into the industry.
The goal, she said, “was to reach out to my own people and tell them what cannabis is about. By highlighting Asian Americans in this industry, I can show that yes, we have families. We pay our mortgages. We have children, and we’re normal. And we’re in cannabis.”
After all, if she can change her own opinion, why can’t others? She even consumes cannabis now, strictly at night to help her sleep.
“That’s the great thing about the market. If I can market it to myself and bring myself around, then I can do it for my own age group as well.”