Addressing the Climate Crisis Digitally: The Power of Imagery to Communicate the Urgency of Acting Now

Toby Smith, Visuals and Media Program Lead at Climate Outreach in the UK discussed how Climate Visuals, a program of Climate Outreach, translated research insights into seven accessible Core Principles and created a reference library of hundreds of photographs for public use. The focus of Climate Visuals is on how images can motivate action – emphasizing digital media.  Toby’s talk proved very popular,  with over 350 people attending the virtual event from around the world, demonstrating the  widespread need in the climate community for best practices on selecting and distributing visual content to motivate action.

Toby has a strategic goal of expanding the Climate Visuals programme’s presence, influence and impact in the media and photographic sectors. He uses an evidence-based, targeted approach and over 12 years experience from deep within the media and editorial sector as a freelance contributor. He is an Associate Scholar of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute after serving as their inaugural Artist-in-Residence in 2015/2016.

Hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Communication and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, this was the second talk in the spring 2021 mini-series on the power of visual communication in the climate sector.

Below, four high-level take-aways from Toby’s insightful presentation.

  1. Nothing apart from a shutter sound happens when you press that button on the top of a camera: The life of a photo is defined by the way it is used, whether it be by NGOs, campaigns, social media or the editorial world. The placement and distribution of the image are what determine its impact. Photographers sit at the bottom of the media food chain. 
  2. Two sides for environmental photography: On one hand, environmental photography is an art like any other – there are techniques and aesthetics to consider. On the other hand, there’s so much to learn empirically from message testing about how images factor into communications, into what makes them land. Toby reflected that his career is trying to balance the two. 
  3. Ineffective imagery: Type “global warming” into google, and you get a clipart of the earth on fire. While it may be illustrative, it is not effective. What is effective is people-centered narratives and positive solutions. “Imagery must resonate with the identity and values of all viewers, not just… those already in the green bubble.” Illustration is not impact, the stereotypical images of climate change only prompt a huge amount of cynicism and fatigue.
  4. Seven Climate Visual Principles:
    1. Show real people: staged or over-composed photographs often come off as gimmicky, even manipulative to most audiences.
    2. Show climate change causes at scale: Images that focus on individual actions, the driving of SUVs or the eating of meat, often prompt a reactionary backlash from viewers. Large photographs that contextualize the broad scale and impacts of climate change in everyday life are better.
    3. Understand your audience: Levels of skepticism, political orientation, and many other factors change how different people see the same images.
    4. Tell new stories: The old stories are cliché: the polar bears, the smokestacks, and the clear-cut forests. Image testing reveals these have become ineffective at generating engagement.
    5. Show emotionally powerful impacts: Message testing shows that destruction brought by extreme weather events is impactful and causes a broad desire to change behavior.
    6. Show local (but serious) impacts: You must strike the balance between making it clear how impactful climate change is locally, while not trivializing and minimizing the global impact it has.
    7. Be careful with protest imagery: The greatest level of cynicism, the most polarization, and the most alienating photos are those of climate protests. The average person does not identify with them.