Can Photography Change the Way We See Climate Change?

Images are powerful. When words aren’t enough, we rely on images to make sense of the things around us. Helene Joffe, Psychology Professor at University College London, in her 2008 research for UNESCO, said that its power is being vivid and emotive, drawing the audience and making it memorable for them. Its authenticity makes powerful in shaping persuasive messages. It is along this line that makes images important in communicating climate change.

While hard data and statistics are important in communicating the facts, people can have fatigue. They simply do not do the job in persuading people to act. “Statistics conveys little about what it represents – what they feel, how they sound and look. Visuals strike more emotively than numbers,” Joffe says in her research. Robert Zajonc, an American Psychologist, said in his 1998 paper “Emotions”, that without affect, information lacks meaning.

The right use of images will affect people’s perception on climate change and what they want to do about it. We are bombarded with climate change images everyday, especially on the Internet. Recently, an image from National Geographic of a starving polar bear in the Arctic became viral on social media. We also see a lot of images on climate change impacts such as the California wildfires and the Vietnam floods in 2018.

National Geographic captures a video of a polar bear in the Arctic. Source: National Geographic

Studies by Stacy Hespanha, Saffron O’Neill, Anne DiFrancesco, and Nathan Young show that most climate images we see in the media are climate change causes and impacts, graphical or scientific representation of climate change, and politicians talking about climate change. In her 2009 research, O’Neill found climate change impacts have the highest coverage in the media and they range from agriculture and sea level rise to drought, forest fires, and glacial landscapes.

However, researchers Stacy Hespanha from the University of California Santa Barbara and Saffron O’Neill from the University of Exeter found that most of these images are non-human in nature, which contributes to the perception that climate change is a remote issue and unlikely to have personal implications. Further, they found that fear-inducing images only capture the audience’s attention but leaves them with feelings of helplessness and enhances fatalism and disengagement.

What kind of images can then help the audience act on climate change? Study by Stacy Hespanha shows that these images are that of political leaders signing an agreement, climate protests, and people installing solar panels. They promote self-efficacy. Images of protest, however, must be used carefully as they tend to resonate only to those who already consider themselves to be activists. Researcher Daniel Chapman from the University of Massachusetts found that protest imagery can be seen as “inauthentic” and overused.

Images that depict “the everyday” make it become a more personal issue. Researchers O’Neill and Cole found that, “Climate change images that take into account a person’s values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences are important in creating meaningful engagement.”

Telling climate stories through photographs

In 2017, I led a photo book project for Climate Tracker. What we wanted to do was to tell climate change stories that haven’t been told in the media. We thought, we rarely hear about stories about how climate change impacts cultures and traditions — non-material things but an important part of how people live their lives. We wanted to tell stories of “the everyday” for people we don’t normally encounter, and we wanted to tell it through photographs to capture what everyday life meant for them.

We chose nine photographers from seven countries — the Philippines, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Kenya, and Botswana — to document the lives of people in a community affected by climate change.

Alanah Torralba, an independent photojournalist from the Philippines documents the changing harvests in Digongan, the prayers made to their gods, seemingly unanswered in the last few years. 

Alanah has been working on underreported issues in the country, including climate change. When asked what good photography is, she says, “We are bombarded with a million images everyday, and it’s quite easy to forget a visual since so many things are competing for our attention. Good photography, on the other hand, can make an impression, a memory. A good photograph makes us feel something and helps us make sense of the world.”

For Alanah, collaboration among photographers, writers, and the scientific community could bridge the gap in climate reporting.

“For a wider audience, the human costs of climate change are difficult to grasp if told with just data, graphs, and scientific jargon. Photography, and photojournalism in particular, has the unique feature of interpreting these data into a universal visual language, something that most people understand.

A good photograph and story can tap into our most primal emotions and help us process the depth and heft of climate change as a societal problem. I think it’s important to note that while photography is a great way to incite a reaction from the public, it can’t stand alone in providing the context necessary to build an informed public,” she said.

Alanah also believes that there should be more diversity both photographers and subjects — women, people of colour, the LGBTQI community. This diversity, she says, will enrich the discourse on climate change.

Jeckree Mission, also from the Philippines, documents a protest of indigenous peoples to protect their land from institutions that fail to help them.

Adriana Ramos and Julio Angulo from Peru tell a story of melting glaciers, young people migrating to the city, and loss of faith from Pachamama. 

Probal Rashid from Bangladesh tells a story of a country submerged in water and how the source of life has now taken lives.

Speaking to Probal Rashid and his process of taking photographs, researching and immersion in the community is important. “My photographs explore the relationship of humanity and environment in a simple manner. When I am photographing people I try to see what is on the inside as well as what is on the outside, this is where I find true expression,” he said.

Like Alanah, Probal also believed that what makes a photograph powerful is its ability to evoke emotion. “The image that has the ability to inform and challenges to the audiences on a personal, intimate level can affect direct action in passionate and committed individuals, as well as in governments, policy-makers, groups and organizations,” he adds.

Daryll Griffith from Trinidad and Tobago documents the Temple by the Sea, a refuge for Hindus who have faced oppression, now slowly being swallowed by the sea.

Sharon Tshipa from Botswana documents the gradual loss of traditional food and clothing.

In Kenya, Susan Gitonga tells the story of traditional porridge making for women after childbirth, handwoven baskets, and carpets and the difficulties they face continuing these traditions. 

And in Afghanistan, Farshad Usyan documents migration due to climate change, shepherds being displaced, and subsequent loss of traditional carpet making.

What have I learned in the process of creating this photo book project and working with these photojournalists? I learned that photographs that have an impact are those that show what it is like to live another person’s life. With the advent of mobile phone photography, anyone can take a photograph, but what separates a good photograph from a bad one is also just as simple as a good resolution. If we are to show images that can capture the audience’s attention, it must have the fundamental elements of good photography: good lighting, correct colour and composition, and high resolution. After all, no one wants to look at blurry and dark photos.

The challenge on how we communicate climate change through images remains. How can we make sure that images relate to the audience and that it will not be forgotten in the long run? How do we make the audience more engaged? There seems to be no perfect formula yet. As O’Neill and Cole found in their research, images that show animal and human suffering on both local and global scales are perceived most important to the audience. However, at the same time, they also feel remote to the audience.

According to Climate Outreach’s research, there are seven principles to make an effective climate visual. The next step is to test the ongoing use of this imagery to see if it influences perceptions, or not. The answer, perhaps, is to keep trying. There will be no dearth of climate change stories, and certainly no dearth of images to show. And, as Alanah Torralba said, more effort should be put into showing diversity. Let’s steer away from the usual arctic sea ice and polar bears. Let’s show how climate change impacts everyone, everyday.

Images though need to be striking and high quality. Authentic but badly lit or poorly composed, will never make an image stand out from all the others. Mundane imagery will never do.

Written and Published for the Tyndall Centre