The Power of the Visual

November 19th, 2012: Along the beach in the Rockaways, NY (Image: Jenna Pope)
November 19th, 2012: Along the beach in the Rockaways, NY (Image: Jenna Pope)

The complexity and pervasiveness of climate change sometimes make this a difficult subject to communicate. We are after all talking about the basic physics, chemistry and biology of our ecosystem and the way in which human activities are changing these in profound and fundamental ways; what some have termed a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene.

And yet, the physical and social implications of climate change are becoming daily more evident.  One of the most powerful ways in which this can be conveyed is through visual imagery. For instance a growing procession of extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy and its impact upon New York City have provided a multitude of powerful images of the micro realities of extreme weather and how even the centre of global capitalism is no match for a ‘climate on steroids‘.

As Jenna Pope‘s photo above demonstrates this is not only about our vulnerability in the face of nature, but also how ordinary people are making the connections between extreme weather events, escalating greenhouse gas emissions and anthropogenic climate change. Importantly, this extends to the social and political implications of climate change and the role of civil protest against the expansion of fossil fuel development (e.g. the recent protests in the United States against the Keystone XL pipeline, or the 350.org divestment campaign).

Climate protest Feb 2013 Washington D.C. (Image: Jenna Pope)
Climate protest Feb 2013 Washington D.C. (Image: Jenna Pope)

Communicating Visually

Visual imagery plays a central role in our sensemaking of climate change. The visual is critical in making abstract ideas and concepts ‘real’ for us. Visual imagery is more than just an empirical record, like other discourses it also can have political intent.

There has, for instance, been a long history of journalistic images changing public attitudes (such as the 1973 Pulitzer prize-winning photo ‘Napalm Girl‘ during the Vietnam War) . Indeed, the increasing sensitivity of those in authority to such imagery highlights the power of the visual as an engine of social change – (witness the campaign against Wikileaks after the release of the infamous  helicopter gunship footage).

My growing appreciation of the importance of visual imagery has affected how I communicate my own research in lectures and conference presentations. In the past, I’d fallen into the trap of trying to pack empirical data and conceptual issues within word-dense slides and numerous bullet points (so-called ‘death by PowerPoint’). I’d believed that if I could get more text up on the screen I could communicate the issue better!

It’s been a gradual evolution, but I now try to give precedence in my presentations to visual imagery (stills,  video and graphs) to provide examples and thematic background to the messages I am trying to communicate. This fits with others’ views on the importance of visual imagery in presentations which can provide a jumping-off point for story-telling and other means of effective communication.

Of course Al Gore highlighted the effectiveness of this approach in his famous An Inconvenient Truth image-rich presentations. I’m still learning how to harness the power of the visual image in engaging with people about climate change and its social and political implications. I’d be interested to hear others’ experiences in both capturing and communicating visual imagery of climate change.

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