Without prompting, Ophelia Chong mentions that she is "not related to Tommy." It's something she points out often — "not related to Tommy" is in her email signature— because it's a question that she is frequently asked. "Maybe we came, somewhere way back, from the same village, but no," she says. "Unfortunately, no."
It might not be just the common last name that links the two in the minds of strangers. Comedian Tommy Chong has long been an icon in marijuana-advocacy circles. Meanwhile, Ophelia Chong recently launched Stock Pot Images, a stock-photo service that specializes in cannabis-related images.
A veteran of the stock-photo industry who teaches a class called Marketing and Self-Promotion for the Photographer at Art Center College of Design, Chong wasn't previously involved in weed culture in any official capacity. But last January — while was washing her hair, she recalls — Chong wondered to herself whether anyone had thought to establish a cannabis-specific stock-photo agency.
When a quick Internet search came up empty, she checked the major photo agencies and noticed that their related images consisted of pot leaves and lame stoner stereotypes. "I thought: This is not right." Other people agreed.
It took her just four weeks to get the funding to start Stock Pot Images and six weeks to obtain an LLC. On April 20 (naturally) she launched the service with 50 photographers, roughly half of whom were her current and former students, and 2,300 images. Less than a year later, she oversees the work of 100 photographers and has curated 7,000 photos.
"I always believed that images are a weapon for change," says Chong, who started her career as a photographer for Ray Gun magazine. Today she shoots only iPhone pics, but she takes pride in her work as a curator. Stock Pot Images hosts a beautiful and diverse selection of images that show the many facets of a controversial plant and the people who use it. There are photos of pot farms and grow rooms and product-style shots of various strains of weed and other derivatives of cannabis.
Unlike other photo services, Stock Pot Images doesn't use models. Instead photographers shoot a wide variety of cannabis users. There are photos of an elderly woman growing weed in her backyard, portraits of vets with PTSD and a series of documentary-style shots of a family that has incorporated medicinals into the treatment of their young daughter's brain tumor.
Finding photographers who want to work with Stock Pot Images hasn't been difficult. Chong likens it to a Reese's commercial, where chocolate and peanut butter collide to form something fantastic: "After a while, photographers were approaching me and saying, this is great, two of my favorite things in the world, cannabis and photography!"
She has been able to score work for photographers whose pictures otherwise might not leave their private collections. The photographers are based around the world and, while some use aliases for professional or legal reasons, others do not.
Building the business wasn't much of a hassle, either, since the only things the outfit deals in are photos of marijuana. So far clients include magazines, dispensaries and collectives, so the photo galleries reflect changing attitudes about marijuana.
Chong says she stays away from images that she considers "Cannabis 1.0," like photos of sexy nurses. In fact, Chong won't include sexualized images of women in her collection. It's a move that's in line with the clientele, since many of the photos are geared toward medicinal marijuana businesses. "Your mother or grandmother, they don't want to open up a brochure and see someone half naked with buds between her boobs," she says.
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Chong continues, "If you are a cancer patient, 55-year-old woman, do you want to go into a dispensary that has that?" she asks rhetorically. "Also, would you trust a dispensary that has that to give you the best advice for what you have?"
She's also predicting changing trends in the marijuana industry. Now that the plant is legal in several states, and getting closer to legal in California, ideas about who uses weed have and will continue to evolve. Chong is working on creating a library of marijuana's myriad strains, all of which are shot on basic black backgrounds. "We're approaching the connoisseur as well," she says, adding that, in the same way wine lovers can tell the difference between varieties of grapes, weed aficionados will be able to visually recognize various strains.
Since first conceiving of Stock Pot Images, Chong has delved into cannabis-related research. It's an area where constant reading is a must, she says, since right now the laws surrounding marijuana are in a state of flux. That's also encouraged her to educate others about cannabis beyond the photo collection. Chong joined forces with attorney Tiffany Wu and creative director Monica Lo to form the nonprofit Asian Americans for Cannabis Education.
"If you can imagine 78 years of being taught that something is really bad and not questioning it, this is where we are," Chong says. But, times are changing and Chong and her photographers are at the forefront of the movement.