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How can pictures and video footage help us to communicate the health and climate connection?

Here are some elements to consider:

Show ‘real people’

Imagery containing people or animals tends to be more powerful, and people often respond more strongly to photos of one or two individuals, rather than many. People often respond strongly to photographs where the subject makes direct eye contact.

Authenticity matters

A person expressing an identifiable emotion is powerful, but it’s important to convey this in an authentic manner. Staged photographs often feel manipulative to their viewers. More natural photos showing people ‘in action’ are seen positively, even if their actions are mundane

Credibility matters

Closely linked to ‘authenticity’ is ‘credibility’. Studies have shown that politicians ‘posing’ for photos to illustrate climate change are often disliked, because of a lack of credibility and an underlying sense that politicians “abuse” the topic to their own ends.

If an image shows a politician or leader figure to convey a positive signal, the depicted person should be as authentic and credible as possible – doing something useful rather than posing for a photo-opportunity.

Show something new

Some images are very recognizable, and can easily guide people to the right topic.

These classic images (e.g. smokestacks for the topic of climate change or a hospital scene for the topic of health) may be especially useful for audiences with limited knowledge or interest in climate change and health and to create recognizable campaigns. However, they can also prompt cynicism and fatigue with your viewer.

Less familiar, more complex and/or more thought-provoking images can help tell a new story about health and climate change and can help people make new connections.

Images can be funny, ironic or subversive. Visual communication that can get beyond the ‘classic’ climate imagery using humor or contrast is usually highly appreciated by viewers.

Don’t assume that your audience sees the same connections as you do

When showing personal behavior, people do not necessarily understand the links between climate change and their daily lives. Individual causes of climate change or environmental pollution may not be recognized as such, and if they are, may provoke defensive reactions.

When communicating the links between ‘problematic’ behaviors and climate change, it might work better to show these behaviors at scale (e.g. many different individuals at once).

Motivate people to take action

Most people believe that using emotional appeal is the most effective way of communicating climate change. Comms research has shown that fear is the most used emotion to depict climate change, and that people are moved by pictures of disasters and climate impacts.

Although it might leave a strong impression, it can also act to distance and disempower people in terms of their sense of personal engagement with the issue. Coupling images of climate impacts with a concrete behavioral ‘action’ for people to take can help overcome this.

Images depicting solutions to climate change generate mostly positive emotions across the political spectrum.

Show local (but serious) climate impacts

When images of localized climate impacts show an individual person or group of people, with identifiable emotions, they are likely to be most powerful.

But there is a balance to be struck between localizing climate change (so that people realize the issue is relevant to them) and trivializing the issue (by not making clear enough the connection to the bigger picture).

Be careful with protest imagery

Protest is an important part of how climate change has developed in the public mind. But images of ‘typical’ environmentalists (from white, western backgrounds) with face paint and banners can be a ‘turn-off’ for people who are not already actively interested in the climate issue, (although the recent youth protests and the DAPL protests in the US are rapidly changing this perception).

When showing images of protest, make sure that the viewer can easily identify the protesters as authentic and genuinely pressing for change, rather than potentially having a fun day out.

Arthur Wyns

About Arthur Wyns

Arthur Wyns is a tropical biologist and science journalist who writes about climate change, environment and migration. He manages Programs and Partnerships for Climate Tracker since 2017.