This symposium explores three urgent questions about creating impactful communications on the climate crisis, in advance of the UN Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP26) to be held in Glasgow, Scotland starting 1 November 2021:
- How can visual images and stories impact the climate crisis agenda?
- Are there new global voices and perspectives emerging?
- How can images improve public engagement ahead of COP26?
Hosted by VII Insider, the symposium is a collaboration between Climate Visuals, University of the Arts London’s Photography and Arts Research Centre, Slideluck Editorial and The VII Foundation. VII Insider events are made possible by the generous support of PhotoWings.
This hour-long event, held on 30 June 2021, also introduced the Climate Visuals programme, its evidence base and previewed submissions to ‘Visualizing Climate Change: An Open Call for Photography’, which is a partnership with TED Countdown.
Participants and Agenda:
Toby Smith, Climate Visuals
Introduction to Climate Visuals, its evidence base on impact, and the concept behind the ‘Visualizing Climate Change’ initiative
Maria Teresa Salvati, Slideluck Editorial
A personal selection from the Open Call highlighting new voices and perspectives on climate change
Nichole Sobecki, VII
Recent photographic work on the climate crisis
Toby Smith / Climate Visuals: So. Cool. Great to be back after quite a gap in our symposiums, and a warm welcome to people from the photography community and London Climate Action Week, which this is one of the formal events of. I’ve got 15 minutes and I’m going to give you a whistle-stop tour through Climate Visuals. So Climate Visuals is a unique, evidence-based photography program. It’s a project of Climate Outreach, where the wider team were a bunch of social scientists, communication specialists, focused on making sure that climate change is communicated in a much more impactful and— a much more impactful and meaningful way that resonates with people’s values. And I look after Climate Visuals, which is the photography specialty of Climate Outreach. Before joining here, I spent 12 years as an environmental photojournalist. And really understand how imagery leads and supports nearly all media headlines, information and messaging in today’s digital space. And I think that’s one of the reasons why, obviously my background in photography, and looking towards COP and campaigning and communications, photography is just so integral. And I think we really need to start improving the choices we make. Because what we’re still seeing is that the generation, curation and application of climate imagery, whether that’s with the media or campaigns or on social media, is just really disengaged with some of the social research into what actually works across societies and different audiences. It’s quite a niche area of academia and I think within Climate Visuals, we’re trying to make that, those insights into what imagery is effective and powerful, kind of get some traction with both people who produce photography, people who select it, and those who who distribute it.
Toby Smith / Climate Visuals: So I kind of wanted to come at this from two angles, really. I wanted to firstly highlight the resources that we have online. So I’m just going to dive in and and share my screen. And when it works, I would love one of my colleagues to give me some nice nod. Excellent. So Climate Visuals has a website. ClimateVisuals.org. I’d encourage you to have a quick look in there. It has some great resources and evidence as to what makes impactful climate change photography. It also is an image library, as well. Because not only are we trying to improve the kind of way in which images are chosen, but we recognize, and that’s a really important part of this, that the access and the resources, whether that’s kind of finances or connection or the ability to commission or purchase or license imagery, is something that is often— people really struggle to do, either smaller organizations or individuals. So our image library as a way of connecting people with what we know is really strong content, but also there’s a lot of good Creative Commons and free to access imagery within there.
Now specifically around this and we’re partnering at the moment with TED Countdown and actually, specifically we have less than 24 hours left for this initiative. So with with TED Countdown Climate Visuals has an initiative open at the moment called Visualizing Climate Change. I’m really pleased to have $100,000 USD creative fund where we are looking for new global voices new photography content and strong images from around the world matched in with TED Countdowns themes and we are using this creative fund to license that content from the photographers at $1,000 an image. And then leading up to the TED Countdown Summit and COP26, that collection of 100 images selected by our judges that fits with our social science will be available to educators, climate change communicators and editorial media completely free of charge in the lead up to COP as a way of trying to kind of stimulate and improve quality and accessibility of photography. But before we release that collection, and it’s almost worth sharing our judging criteria, and also a kind of distilled kind of version of the Climate Visuals evidence base and what we call the seven principles for climate change communication.
So for some of you that may seen my talks before, this wouldn’t be a new set of slides, but I have illustrated them today with some content that’s already been submitted to the TED Visualizing Climate Change open call. So I’ll run through these quickly and that’ll be the end of my the end of my talk, and I’ll hand over to Maria Teresa, but running through these in order, you’ll be amazed how brutally efficient and honest every single person is at reading images. And it’s really important that photography has a sense of truth and honesty about it. So our first principle is to show real people. Staged or manipulated images are just not as effective. So there’s an image of Kenya here of a— of a community scout ranger protecting a restored mangrove forest. Some of the best photography that is really impactful with people shows real people doing real things in real scenarios, and not artificial or kind of manipulated, or stock photo staged calls. So in that way it actually often favors more of a photojournalistic style.
A second, perhaps obvious, principle is to tell new stories. The three images I put here: the polar bear, smokestacks and the kind of deforested tree or cracked ground, I’m sure when you see these any of you in climate or photography will immediately think of climate change. And our evidence suggests that you, that these images signify climate change to people. However, the problem is from a social science perspective, it’s proven that these metaphors, these quick tableaus, have absolutely almost zero kind of impact on you emotionally. So they signify climate change but they don’t encourage anyone to do anything. But telling new stories, new facets of sustainability or climate change, resonates with people. It stays with them. It’s much more poignant.
So here’s a great story that I pulled out the archive, the new archive, this morning. Something I’d never even heard of about— the idea of how we can have agriculture underwater and what different species of plants can actually be grown in an underwater habitat to both clean the water and generate crops using land that’s otherwise flooded. Fascinating story.
Our third principle is to show climate change causes at scale. If you use images of individuals or individual actions, say, for instance, someone enjoying a steak and its relative carbon issues of enjoying red meat, or you’re showing an individual kind of polluting car; people get really defensive when they’re shown individual actions that confront their way of life, whereas showing images that depict these issues at a much more societal scale, as this picture of Bangladesh of all of our plastic, rather than one individual’s plastic, a much more effective way of communicating the sense of these climate causes and climate impacts. Emotion is a really powerful tool. So we encourage you to share emotionally powerful impacts. I think one of the emerging areas of climate and climate visuals is the really strong and tragic intersection between climate change and conflict. I think this is— this is a picture to me that was a real grower this morning. How fishing communities in Mali are really struggling to meet their nutritional requirements. And at first glance this image doesn’t have a huge amount of meaning, but actually the net in the left hand side of the frame is now the size of net needed to catch fish in this part of Mali because the fish stocks are dwindling due to rising ocean temperatures.
Another principle we often talk about is how to understand your audience. And this is such the pillar of social science. Because different images resonate with people differently depending on their political spectrum, their geography, their age, whether or not they already care about climate change or not. And I think this is a really, a key principle. And I often think that people should also understand their platform. That is to say that, you know, different platforms— Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, inherently have different styles of audiences. Or different newspapers— the Guardian or the Times across typical sets of the political spectrum, have different political positions of their readership, and photography should be tailored to resonate and work with those people.
And nice geographic context here. To the English might look like kind of quaint earthenware, but actually in India this is a real, genuine sense of how to produce fantastic, sustainable crockery and storage to replace tupperware in a way that actually can cool and keep products fresh without needing to use plastic or refrigeration. Such a simple— how a change of context resonates with a different audience. We always think about showing serious impact, but really localized to people. Here, a picture in
Denmark. We normally think of kind of heat waves and drought and problems of agriculture as happening maybe around the tropics but here, even in in Western Europe, we’re experiencing huge changes to climate that are rapidly causing, you know, problems in in agriculture here. We also encourage people to be careful with protest imagery. Not many people, despite the rise of school strikes and protests, XR [ed: “extinction rebellion”] movements, it’s surprising how many people still feel quite disassociated from the concept of protest. So although protest images are an obvious choice in newspaper articles or campaigns, they can actually turn off a surprising amount of people who don’t feel able personally to protest themselves.
Finally, two extra principles I’ll end on. These came out of some work we did with with Getty Images last year. I think they’re a really valuable addition, especially for our open call and how sustainability must be everyone’s objective, it’s really easy to kind of think about the “green bubble,” and the different potentially classes or area of society in which environmentalism is popularized. But we must start to think about sustainability as being something as more of a universal principle and something that is much more accessible and fair: climate justice and equity.
I love this picture that actually I think one of the VII photographers sent us from Afghanistan, looking at the kind of dual usage of irrigation to bring extra water and livelihoods to communities growing their own crops.
Finally, a really positive note, to end on. Emotional images, negative images, climate impacts are really powerful, but they need to be coupled with a sense of solutions. And that’s why our open call is focusing on solutions imagery to try and improve the number of solutions imagery in circulation. And the idea of how to kind of overcome our fear and our, maybe, our lethargy to act, with a really concrete vision of the future, and a vision of the future that involves our community and steps forwards that we can take ourselves. To hear to contrast the kind of testing of newer EVs in some of the coldest parts of the world, in China. And finally, a lovely image to finish on, about the idea of kind of having good Karma with nature, in this instance feeding migratory birds in Delhi. How that’s food for thought. Check out ClimateVisuals.org for our open call and our image library. Cool, um, back to you Paul.
Paul Lowe: Thanks, that’s amazing and very short time, Toby, well done. Okay great. I think we’ll leave the questions for now until after the all the presentations. So we’ll move on now to Maria Teresa. Thank you very much.
Maria Teresa Salvati: Hello. Thank you, Paul Thank you, Toby. I’m Maria Teresa Salvati. I launched, a few years ago, a platform called the Slideluck Editorial. And we, we usually— We launch biennial calls on important social topics, and two years ago we launched one about climate change, called Everything Is Connected. Our job has always been that one of trying to mix different languages in order to reach a larger public, and trying to understand how we can really talk on a public that is not usually the one that goes to museums or really even is interested in certain types of topics. Because we strongly believe that the change will come if a large public is involved in the conversation about climate change. We also launched, a few months ago, a new platform called EverythingIsConnected.eu, which is an evolution from the the the call, which was mainly for the graphic project, but has evolved into more interdisciplinary project where we try to put together a different disciplines that really will work together, you know, in in trying to invent, in a way, or experiment new paradigms for communicating climate change. And when I mean new disciplines, I mean not only artistic disciplines, but also science, architect, urban planners, institutions, mass media and more.
Thank you for inviting me. I’m really going to share with you a personal take on— one second, I’ll open the presentation. Mine is really a personal take on the seven principles and the research that the Climate Visuals have been conducting in the past years, that we think is an amazing starting point to understand what kind of images, and how we can evolve with the research around images, that can be effective in communicating climate change.
We’ve always been interested in communicating climate change and, of course, sometimes we believe that we give a lot of responsibility to images. And obviously we know that images are very powerful because they have the ability to connect on an emotional level. And can create empathy and other types of emotions. But at the same time I strongly believe that together the images won’t be able to really change drastically the situation. So probably, we need to work also with other disciplines in order to have more impact. So from my research, I’ll give you a little bit of a context, so mine is more like, again, a personal take into the submissions open from Climate Visuals, but also there are a lot of open questions, because I echo Toby in saying that this is all a work in progress. And there won’t be one image that works for all the contexts, so that we need, you know, to contextualize everything we talked about, and probably for every audience, you need a different kind of image that works for all of them. So why we need to address the issue of effective climate change communication, of climate change from different perspectives.
We, we know that most of the images so far— I’ve done the research recently on some of the major magazines around the world, and if you type for climate change, the articles that appear often have images of, like, weather disasters happening in faraway places. And in these— For example, one of the most iconic images that we’ve been seeing over the years has been, for example, the polar bear grabbed in the last piece of ice, on the last piece of ice. So the problem of this kind of image is that the issue is perceived as being too far from, or maybe later in the future, if we talk mainly to Western public. Because we are Western public and you know, often in the magazines in our countries we see issues that happen in faraway places. Another issue that I would like to make us reflect on is the fear. So the power of fear.
Obviously fear is a very powerful feeling that could trigger some action, but it can also be paralyzing or could, like, not make you do any effort, anything, because you know it’s just too scary to even approach the issue. then there is another stereotype around the the “green consumer,” which is, there is a perception that a single action could be pretty insignificant to make any major impact around the world, because we know that there are big corporations, there are millions of other people doing other, like, the opposite things around the world. So people tend to think that my action one have any impact. So people tend, maybe, to do nothing.
That’s— Another myth that is important when we consider how to be effective is about the the overpopulation. So people still blame overpopulation for climate change. So where the problem, I believe, is in the distribution of resources. We know that there is a small minority of wealthy people that produce the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions. So the consumption habits have a greater impact than overall population numbers. And so, you know, how do we talk with these people or are these the real people we need to talk with, and then there is another important point, because most of the areas of the photography genre we refer to in our symposiums is mainly documentary photography. And so it would be good to think a little bit about the role of aesthetics. So this is something, of course, we haven’t done yet. But it was interesting also in going through the research of the submissions I’ve seen that probably there is a
role. And there is something to be discussed further. Because probably different visuals, different visual aesthetics, can have a different impact on different publics.
So in terms of far away disasters, my question was if people feel the image is not related to their own lives, what we rely on to to trigger action? What we really want to touch on, on an emotional level? If I feel it’s too far. Do we believe that empathy or pity could be enough? And also, faraway places showing disasters related to climate change could be perceived as relevant only if there is a sense of togetherness and connectedness and— But we know that most, for most of the people around the world, this really doesn’t happen.
And if there is already the sense of togetherness, then we don’t, you know— they are already doing something from what they can, in order to address the issue. So for all these kind of macro areas I’ve identified, I selected the five images from the submissions of Climate Visuals, that Toby was referring to. And so as opposed to what we’ve just seen, what if we show images that are closer to us?
So showing social and cultural scenarios closer to the culture the images are going to be spread within could prompt more empathic and inspiring actions, as well as trigger maybe maybe imitation process. Again, the sense of connectedness could be activated by the feeling of belonging, and so recognition within a familiar scenario. This is, again, as I said in the beginning, are all open questions that we can discuss further after.
Another point to discuss is, what is more powerful: inspiration or fear? We’ve done in the past a presentation about the environmental sublime, and there was a statement from Kant, the philosopher Kant, that said, Fueling the sublime object becomes more attractive the more fearful it is, provided the viewer is safe. So my question is if the viewer feels safe, and in fact what I mean is when we see something majestic, enormous, like, gigantic as some natural disaster, also, sometimes. We still are seeing it from through a magazine, through social media, through an online platform, and so we are safe in the sense that we are far away from it. We know we are in a safe place and we see something dangerous, but this feeling of being safe can be strong enough to activate a proactive and positive behavioral change to mitigate the impact on climate emergency.
I’ve selected the three images that show more inspiration and three that show fear. Another important point was empowering communities. It was very clear across a lot of images i’ve gone through, that images that refer to processes of enabling local communities to take better control over their lives and environment, for example by education, technology and farming, probably call to inspire other people to work together and to feel more connected. So self determination, but also self representation opens a new perspective into documentation of faraway communities and participative narratives. I have a few examples, but really this opens other questions which we are not going to talk about now, about the role of a documentary photographer into the representation of communities, and in what way they can really work together in creating participative narratives. I believe these images are pretty powerful when you see really people working, you know, working together and working for their own communities.
Another point I mentioned before, is the role of aesthetics today. In the era of overwhelming proliferation of image creations and consumption, the more pictures photographers make of destruction violence, of poverty, the more accustomed we become to seeing them. So my question is, is it possible that the role of aesthetics today has changed? And it could draw attention to the topic in questions, and so become a catalyst rather than distracting. Again I selected some images that are— they push a little bit more the boundaries of aesthetics and that, like they make a bit of distance from a more— what is considered a more traditional documentary.
Just just a little note, which can add some new levels of conversations, because I don’t think it’s just a matter of images when we talk about effective communication of climate change. Because we probably need also to discuss the language we use, for example. So probably you will make more— we talk about climate change and we refer to a lot of issues related to environmental problems, and when we talk about environmental issues we also include the loss of biodiversity, food waste, plastic pollution, deforestation, air and water pollution, food and water insecurity, melting icecaps, global warming from fossil fuels, human health risks and so on, and I guess all these issues might have a different level impact and resonate differently with different people, based on the level of education, political views, and places where they live. So obviously this is all a work in progress conversation, and we’re just starting to address the issues, everyone with their own experience, and I think we need to do more of this. So thank you very much for listening to me, I suggest you to visit to the new website, EverythingIsConnceted.eu. It is just that the first stage and we are going to move on to the next stage in a few months, where we will launch a think tank of different experts around Europe that can work together in trying to change the paradigm for communicating climate change. Thank you.
Paul Lowe: Thank you very much, Maria Teresa. So if we can now move on to Nichole’s presentation?
And as I said, unfortunately Nichole’s not with us but she has put together a very good presentation we’re going to watch now.
Nichole Sobecki: For much of my career, I believe that my role as a photographer as a journalist was to raise awareness. If people truly understood the reality of the future we face, they’d change their behavior. I don’t believe that anymore. Everyone already knows about climate change. Everyone knows. And yet we continue to fail to act in the ways that are necessary for our own survival, and the survival of our planet as we know it. And I get it it’s hard. And human societies are not designed for quick and dramatic transformation. But there’s too much at stake to allow for acceptance or complacency. Without a revolution in how billions of us conduct our lives, parts of the earth will become uninhabitable. And with that will come the predictable crises and conflicts. Resources will become increasingly scarce. Many will be pushed in their homes entirely.
In parts of the world like Somalia, this is already happening. Where Land Was is a longterm personal photo project, exploring the relationship between the environment and security in Somalia. The work began in 2015 when my reporting partner, Laura Heaton, and I discovered the only existing land survey of Somalia, which had been hidden away in the British countryside for the last 35 years. We decided to return to the locations where some of these images were made and rephotograph them as a way of understanding the degree to which Somalia’s land had been impacted by climate change and environmental degradation. On the left you’ll see the archival image and on the right is the image I made when we returned to those locations. And what you can see, unfortunately, is real and dramatic change. But, ultimately, it was the human element: the people we met in the process of rephotographing these locations, and their stories that matter the most.
Meet Ion, a 16-year-old I met in southeastern Somaliland. Just two weeks before this photo was taken, Ion’s uncle was shot and killed in a dispute over increasingly scarce grazing lands. This is an elder in Puntland, where they’re facing debilitating problems with erosion. And Achmed, who holds tight to the rope around a porcupine he captured after it tore apart his fields.
This is the story of the mother who didn’t flee civil war but fled the drought. Of the fisherman pushed into piracy by empty seats, empty nets, and a depleted, lawless sea. Of the farmer who felt the pull of Al-Shabaab when his crops failed for multiple seasons.
Somalia has long been beset by extremes, but climate change and environmental degradation are compounding those problems and leading to the end of a way of life. 00:31:27
This is a scene from the 2011 drought, that and also a famine. And you see a couple carrying a woman too weak to walk in a wheelbarrow down the streets of Mogadishu. A lone bush, covered in plastic bags and other trash, in the port to Berbera.
Most people here are herders, and their ties to their animals are intimate. This camel was given the name “Barud,” which means tough, because his pregnant mother had nearly died and the drought. The bodies of sheep and goats that were not so lucky lie where they fell in an animal market at Garissa. Aisha Jama watches as her daughters practice Arabic. Their family became migrants after drought killed off their herds, and access to education has been Aisha’s only consolation.
A full moon sets over the Gulf of Aden. Before the droughts, a herder told me, there would have been so many camels here, they would have blocked out the view of the sea. Gudai Adams animals were also killed in the drought, and her family displaced. Soon after they arrived here, a cyclone hit and once again they had to start over.
A mother camel touches nose with her 10-day-old infant. Over the centuries, hundreds of Somali poems have been composed about camels. A mother bathes her son in the port of Mogadishu. As fishermen go to the sea for the night, beside the shell of the once grand Aruba Hotel.
Here, a local security for searches a fishing boat for arms in Puntland, the home of Somalia’s infamous pirates. While that’s a topic most people are familiar with, what’s poorly understood is the environmental roots of piracy. Meet Abdul Kadir, a former pirate turned taxi driver, who began his work as a pirate after illegal foreign fishing boats destroyed his nets multiple times. Broke and livid, he and some friends gathered arms and took out the sea to wait for foreign trawlers to hijack.
In the arid lands outside Marero, in Puntland, migrants walk to caves for days, where they then wait for the boats that will carry them away. A wooden dock looks out across the Gulf of Aden, to Yemen, and the migrants eventual destination: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The sun sets across Berbera Airport IDP camp in Somaliland, where more than 2000 families are living after being displaced by drought in 2016.
When the drought hit, Rachma Hassan lost her herd of 20 camels and more than 300 goats and sheep, “We were like a soul living on top of another soul,” she told me. A swarm of locusts fly across the same camp during the worst outbreak of desert locusts Somalia has experienced in over a quarter of a century. And Fara here searches for the last of her family’s water in their temporary home at the IDP camp where they were living.
A woman leaves a food depot in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya after picking up her rations. The population of Dadaab, estimated at nearly 220,000, has risen and fallen with droughts in the Horn of Africa. A crumpled welcome mat outside the home of a refugee in Dadaab. The irony was lost on no one.
The women in these portraits are all mothers whose children had been caught up in a human trafficking ring in the camps in Somaliland. Smugglers circulate among vulnerable young people, and those who follow them are thrown into camps in Libya, held hostage and tortured until their parents can save up for ransoms have between $5000 to $17,000.
This is a market in Dadaab, in northern Kenya, were hundreds of thousands of Somalis forced from their homes have fled. Girls recite the Quran in a madrasa in Dadaab, one of the few opportunities to learn available to them.
Nastai Hassan Abdi, who’s about 16, holds her two-year-old son Masib in Dadaab. When her family’s goats died in the drought in 2016, Nastai’s grandmother sold her, then 12, into marriage to a man Nastai thought was old enough to be err father. The men beaten and raped her. Nastai escaped to Dadaab, where she found out that she was pregnant.
Sabaad Ali takes apart her family’s home and Barawan Camp. She came here during the 2016 drought, but now the government has told them they must move again. Sabaad’s sister, Dakha, pauses from their packing to pray as dust settles across the camp. Two women on the move, yet again. And finally, a hawk takes flight in the— And finally a Hawk takes flight in the ancient city of Maydh, which lays quiet and nearly abandoned.
I’m not a scientist and I don’t write policy. I’m a storyteller. And what’s so extraordinary about this action week is that we’re all here together, virtually, with all of our varied skills and expertise. I believe that in order to adapt to the changes to come, and those already underway, we’re going to need new ideas. We’re going to need new stories. And we’re going to need to understand that the task ahead of us is far greater than any one of us as individuals. That is what I learned from Ion, and Nastai, and Rachma and so many others.
This is not about borders, and Somalia’s problems are far closer to our own than they may at first appear. To move forward together, we need a new vision of who we are. A human community existing beyond any single identity, time or place, facing a problem that none of us can solve on our own. Thank you so much for having me here today. It’s been a pleasure.
Paul Lowe: And big thanks to Nichole for that great presentation. So we’ve got a couple of questions in the Q and A, but before we start please feel free to add more there. I wanted to pick up on a point there that Nichole was making, which really brings me this — you know a lot of the documentary tradition has been about other people’s lives, so the photographer comes and tells other people’s stories. And I think Nicole is beginning to imply that perhaps a different kind of paradigm, where we tell stories together. So rather than telling stories about other people’s lives, we join with those people in trying to— in a more participatory, a more collaborative way. You know, either Toby or Maria, do you seen evidence of that being a successful strategy in the research that you’ve done? So, instead of being, you know, storytellers about other people, we’re much more part of the story ourselves. Or indeed, allowing communities to tell their own stories.
Maria Teresa Salvati: Yeah, I guess Toby can— I mean, I can say something. And this is something very important. And we have, in the research we have been doing, there is a work done by Misha Vallejo, which has done a very long work with the Amazon community in the Ecuadorian side, whereby he’s been there for probably five years, if I remember correctly. And because he’s— it’s really not just about documenting. He’s really worked with people, in a really participative narrative, also involving kids. And one of the key, one of the key way of working, that we’ve been asking him was about the sharing with the community something in exchange, where they say, Well, you come here, you take photos of us, then you take these photographs in your community, probably selling to magazines, so we don’t know what happens with our photographs. So every time the community asked to leave something back. To really do a fair exchange. So we give you— you can talk about our our communities, but maybe you can help us raise awareness about the oil extraction, for example. There is a very strong community of activists in the Amazon. And so, through the work of a Misha, they’ve always found— he became almost a conductor, a link, for talking about this issue in the western world. So I think that’s a very important example of participative narratives, and really we need to start to ask ourselves in what way we can really interact with the community and work together. It’s not about the photographer going and taking photographs, it’s about working together in developing the story, and being very careful of what you leave back when you leave the country, not just going away and selling your photographs.
Paul Lowe: Yeah, thanks Teresa. Toby, do you want to add to that?
Toby Smith / Climate Visuals: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a huge paradox here between journalism— photojournalism research ethics and maybe kind of almost… developmental or NGO or conservation or climate interventions as a whole, in that— I wanted to call it the old model, but actually, sadly, it’s still it’s still perpetuated, this idea of parachuting in or making decisions outside of a community or a country or even in a different hemisphere, whether that be research interventions or photographic, and then taking them out of context. It can be so effective, but also really damaging and dangerous. I’m really pleased Maria Teresa brought up Misha Vallejo in, you know, in reference to indigenous communities, especially in Southeast America, or Southeast Asia, where, you know, incredible risk to values and ethics are happening with that style. And then I think it’s an improvement when things are done collaboratively. Certainly, and I think fantastic work is done in that way.
And I think sometimes— That means that a photographer’s own individual style or objectives or pressures on finance are reduced because they’re starting to embody and get closer to the community, but it’s that third point, Paul, that you mentioned, that to me is the point that things need to be moved towards. And it’s participation, and enabling people to tell their own stories, collectively, and that needs to start as far ahead in the, in the design. And that process is possible. And there’s there’s challenges there.
But, you know, especially around, you know, kind of resourcing and where things start to come in with the curve, but in photography I think one of the things that I really hope COVID has accelerated is the idea that, distributed around the world, communities and individuals and countries need to have the ability, the means, the training and the access to audiences to tell their own stories. And I think, you know, I don’t want to kind of suggest that our little initiative with with TED is a solution to that, but it’s one of the things we hope to achieve. To kind of reach people and new voices, to enable them to tell their own stories. And I think, you know, that’s the way photography and many other interventions and climate need to go, and we need to go there as fast as we can.
Paul Lowe: Thanks. Another thing that occurred to me looking at Nichole’s presentation is that, obviously, that was an extended one, Nichole’s kind of long form storytelling. And as Maria Teresa noted, you know, these are very complex issues that are really multifaceted. So I wonder about that sort of dynamic between the single you know, inverted commas, “dramatic image,” versus the story in the longer form. Where do you see the the the strengths and potential weaknesses between those two poles, as it were, those two approaches. You know, do people have the attention span for long form storytelling? But, equally, a single picture can’t really, you know, potentially express all the complexities of a particular situation.
Toby Smith: This is one of my first criticisms of social media, is that I think it’s really accelerated that pressure on a single image. I mean, yes, you can swipe left and right on Instagram or or Twitter, but primarily there’s a lot of pressure on images now, on a small screen to capture our attention with either the kind of cinematic, or the aesthetic, or drama. And I think, as a result, the value of an image that performs well as a single image without context has gone up even further as a result of that. But I’m also pleased that images have gone up in in value in the digital space. So there’s a kind of balance to be had there.
Long-form photography and its relationship with the text is something that we need to carve people’s time for. And I think can be much more effective, especially in one of the Climate Visuals principles, and one of the things that I certainly see happening, is that negative stories’ emotion impacts needs to be effective, and to be balanced, and to be encouraging, and to be hopeful. Needs to be paired with something hopeful, or something solution-based, or something tangible that we can do. And a single image very rarely can tell that full narrative arc. You can’t show the issue, the struggle and the solution in one picture. And actually some of the world’s most successful images are ones that grab elements of that. So I think, I think to round off, I think this is often where the skill of a good editor comes in. Or a good web publisher. And the ability to represent a story with a single image. But it should be kind of a headline, or a tease, that can then lead into a larger piece of reporting, whether that be multiple images, or text, or resources, or also a call to action and something that appeals to an individual. And I see images working in complement to other aspects, rather than—
I think as Maria Teresa would agree before I give her the mic, we can’t load all of the responsibility, and pressure, and demands on a single image, even as people that are living in photography, that’s that’s too much for an image to be expected to handle.
Maria Teresa Salvati: Yeah I totally agree. Just to add the one point, I don’t think the two exclude each other. I think the the single image can be the power to attract the attention to be a catalyst into a story. And on this point, I would like— there is a question from the public asking the role of the aesthetics. Well, I think the single image can have the power to attract attention via also the aesthetics, but you know there isn’t the one single answer. Because it really depends who are you talking to. Often Toby refers to the editorial world, but maybe because iIm more into, you know, I I curate festivals, I’m an editor, so I don’t necessarily work with the the editorial magazines, and so, you know, when I’m interested in taking photographs to public space, for example, and I know that through these channels—
So really the streets are unusual places. You need a strong image that really attracts your attention. Once you grab the attention of the public, then you can go deeper and explain more via a platform, via is the full story, the text, everything that you need to deepen the conversation. But not everyone is interested in going deeper, unfortunately. We know that. So, you know, the two don’t really exclude each other, but maybe they can work together. And once attracting the attention, then you go deeper into the into the full story.
Paul Lowe: Toby, I wanted to just follow on that, from Maria raises the comment about aesthetics. Because it was raised by Brendan in the audience there. I mean, is there a sort of fatigue, if you like, with conventional images of climate change in the environment? Do we need to find radically different ways of dealing with this aesthetic? Or are those more formal aesthetics, perhaps counterproductive, because they serve to distract from the drama— not the drama, the kind of the essence of the situation, if you like. So how do you know what you’re reading into— how complex can we make these issues, or how subtle can we make them?
Toby Smith / Climate Visuals: I mean, I think the key word is reading. You know, from a social science perspective, which is what kind of what underpins Climate Visuals, we’re looking at kind of image testing as to what works and doesn’t work with people within the context of the image, but the the kind of beautiful or elephant— the beautiful elephant in the room is the subjectivity about what works visually for different people and how they read images and respond to it. And as Maria Teresa said that is obviously, it’s also conditional on so many other things about that person, but also the environment they’re reading that that image. So I think, you know, you kind of see— you kind of see different image trends and move from being popular to unpopular and moving out and there’s different factors of an image that make things work in different environmental contexts. And there’s different things about us as individuals who are— or our geography, or our background, or our politics, which which helps read images differently.
And I think the bit that I’m also really conscious of is if we need something, I mean use the word radical as well, Paul, if we need something different, and we need something more inspiring and more interesting, I’m already far too old in my career to, I feel, have an accurate sense of what that might be in the digital space or with the next generation of documentary storytellers. And actually they’re probably not going to be documentary storytellers, because that’s maybe an outmoded word for actually what they’re doing with photography in a digital space, such as TikTok or et cetera, and in relation to climate change. So I think we need it, but I also—
And I’d love to be able to capture it as a professional, but I also have faith in visual culture that it will provide its own radical solutions and will change itself as time goes on. And it’s hopefully our job in the editorial publishing community to work out what some of those most effective and beautiful and brilliant and powerful and impactful images always are, and present them to a larger group of people so that they can be even more impactful. I probably didn’t answer your question there Paul but—
Maria Teresa Salvati: Can I add something?
Toby Smith / Climate Visuals: Maria, please.
Maria Teresa Salvati: It’s just that I don’t feel old enough to have an opinion about aesthetics. But also because I teach to young people, and with the Everything Is Connected, we’ve done an experiment with very young people, like six to ten years old, and we showed them a series of images with very broad examples of more traditional documentary photography, versus very, like, fine art or very much more like pushing boundaries on the on the aesthetic side, and I will say that young people are not drawn much to images that are really realistic, and so more like traditional documentary photography.
Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t, you know, there isn’t a future for documentary or traditional documentary photography. It means only that when you’re talking with kids, you need to know that with kids it works a different kind of aesthetics, maybe just to draw the attention. And then you can work with them in order to understand with what kind of content they are able to interact, and what they take home from the interaction with the images, and how they read the images. We’ve done an experiment, by which we asked them what they see in the image, without context, without telling them what it was. And what came out of this experiment was really incredible, because you can really see that the naïveté of the the gaze of a kid, it’s very far from we what we see as adults. And we use them as as an awareness campaign in Germany, with the sentences from the kids. So it was like—
This was an idea from Kublaiklan, a collective, we worked together. And so it was about, you know, the climate change seen through the eyes of children and then used the awareness campaign to draw attention maybe from the adults and then go back into a platform where they can discover more. So it’s about really working together. There isn’t anything agreed, I think, in this field. There is, there’s a lot we still need to learn, and we can only learn by really putting together different expertise and skills. As Nichole was saying, no one can really do big things by ourselves, you know. There is no image that is going to change the world, and there is no expert that is really going to make a major difference. But probably working together we can really emphasize the result of the studies.
Paul Lowe: Now so I want to pick up something else that Nichole was saying, which kind of links in to Ted [inaudible]’s first question about the kind of connections, I suppose, between you might argue the failure of photography to be able to affect change in other areas, including conflict and, you know, things like famine, and the coverage of— the representation of the majority world in general. There seems like there are a lot of parallels in the coverage of climate change.
So I think it’s sort of Didi-Huberman’s great line when he was talking about images in the Holocaust, that we kind of simultaneously expect too much and too little of photography. Expect it to save the world, and then criticize it when it doesn’t. And I wonder if, you know, what can we sort of read across those things, and link that back into, well these people are kind of decolonizing the camera. And perhaps, you know, this idea we talked about earlier, that finding ways to be much more collaborative in our storytelling, and give our voices to people outside of our predominantly Western, you know, euro- and America-centric world is a really important way to move forward. So that makes me think a little bit about what kind of initiatives might we want to undertake to shift that balance of power in representation more towards the people that are being — the communities that are being very much affected by climate change. Any thoughts on that either Toby or Maria Teresa?
Maria Teresa Salvati: Well, I think we need to have a balance, because obviously the point of view of an external photographer that goes to a faraway place and documents what happens is still important, but it’s the way he works with the community that makes a difference and that the— the giving back to the community, and giving back to the story, as well, that will make a difference. I don’t think there is a— again, it seems like we can give any answer, but it’s because these are all very contemporary questions that still need to be addressed. And so the participative narratives, but the real participation with the public, and so allowing them to self-represent themselves,
00:56:46 also, with putting your personal gaze as a photographer, because that’s the other point, you know. If you allow the, the subjects to self-represent themselves, what is the role of a documentary photography? Or what is the personal gaze, you know? How can you see, really, the stylistic signature of the photographer? What is— how can you find that balance?
So it’s— I think one of the key thing is to study. So I think it’s when we try to address important social, cultural, political issues, one of the most important thing is not to improvise. Just not to go there as a tourist and just take photos of what’s happening. It just, like, it needs to have a research at the back. Strong research, and the building of a relationship with the subject, with the community, and so the photographs becomes, you know, a representation of that, of that relationship and the building of the relationship. But still, as you were saying, we give a lot of responsibility to images. And they can really have a major impact around the world because it’s a universal language. But I don’t think alone is enough. I don’t think any photographer with a personal story, or with a single story, can really make a major impact in addressing the— addressing the effectiveness of communication on climate change. Because we keep talking about, you know, now everyone
00:58:23 produces projects about climate change. But when we talk about effectiveness, we still need to address the exact definition of effectiveness. So to whom? In what way? What does it produce? What is the action that come out of this action? What is the action that comes out of this relationship with the image? What happens after? Do I talk with people? Does it really change my life after I interact with these kind of images? So, and again there isn’t the one answer per, you know, single answer. We need to address issues differently, based on who we talk to. It’s a very— I mean, there is so much, there’s so much that I can say. But Toby, do you want to add something?
Toby Smith / Climate Visuals: Yeah, I think— it’s difficult. It’s almost like I would like to document this event for, in a documentary style, factually, for posterity, but I need it to have impact and change now. So this is kind of— in working with a community, and again, thinking about social media and digital publishing, there’s something about the speed and the potential of collaborative work that might be much more effective than, say, the traditional editorial model of image purchasing and illustration. Or better, commissioning photographer to cover events and then publishing. So it’s almost like there’s one element which is, you know, participatory work with a community or around an event, using someone who is immersed, changes it from being documentary to participatory and therefore it’s faster.
But I also think, you know, photography doesn’t need to be so critical of itself as needing to rely on itself to change the world. An exhibition or a magazine on its on its own might not have such political significance. It’s so difficult to measure it. That’s such a challenge I have, working in the philanthropic space. An interest in photography is proving its value, but one of the things where I think it can be really valuable, and I see where we can we can improve things, and I think that’s, again, where a digital space helps, is collaboration. Photographers on their own, as much as it’s a kind of romantic image of a career using photography or taking images or documenting something can affect change, they’re only going to be as effective as the partnerships and collaborations, and audience reach, and political groups or campaign groups or development groups that potentially they are a tool of.
And certainly my own career, I never felt that my photography alone as a piece helped change things— kind of helped change things, but I certainly felt a fantastic sense of satisfaction and nourishment and energy as a documentary photographer, that I was producing images as resources for development groups, or NGO groups, or political pressure groups to then be kind of part of the resources they had to influence change. How can I measure what my images contributed to that weight? It’s very difficult.
And that’s one of the reasons why photography has always struggled to potentially prove its value, is because we can’t statistically measure the change we’re making. And with regards to climate change, that’s a whole other issue. How does, how does someone who works in the climate change space measure one’s own energy in an impactful in a positive way? I’m not going to try and answer that question.
Paul Lowe: Right, just as a final question, or maybe comment, I’m going to pick up again on Ted’s point at the end here, about, you know, we perhaps have to look at our own carbon footprints, and the conference, the organizations that we work with and for.
So I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit, Toby, but as a photographer, are there any practical things that somebody could do to try to be more aware of that carbon footprint, or, even better, to actually reduce it? What do you think, because obviously one of the big questions people get lost with is, What can I do? And there’s often a lot of confusion about whether huge gestures or small gestures are the most effective. But particularly the perspective of photography, if that’s possible, do you have any suggestions as to how people might either make themselves more aware of what their carbon footprint is, or actually take some positive steps to reduce that?
Toby Smith / Climate Visuals: Firstly, I’m going to signpost BAFTA and and also because actually the film, and the documentary industry, and the filmmaking industry is actually taking some really great steps in reducing the carbon footprint of film production, whether that’s documentary or otherwise.
And then I think I’m going to cheat a bit and think about maybe what we’ve talked about, with the idea of participatory or capacity building photography, and also that photography is more powerful if it’s local issues. I mean, recently, and at this point in my career as someone who’s documented, you know, I feel a huge sense of parallels and would see someone like Nichole as a peer of mine in regards to photography, but I’m starting to be much more comfortable with making choices that as a documentary photographer I am perhaps most appropriate and carbon neutral by focusing on local, even within the UK, stories about climate change, rather than chasing sensational air miles, stories that are actually potentially not that effective here in the media companies that are sending me off on those assignments. So I think there’s a kind of area here that, you know, is—
As photographers, we look for maybe these large stories, these primary stories, or the attention grabbing ones, but I think back to your point on long-form, even in— if all parts of society and all parts of localism need to come together and change their behaviors to talk about, to be effective against climate change, then maybe the best stories are the ones that we should be documenting are the ones that we as community members and, well, regardless of nationality and where we are, should start getting involved in. And then actually we’re the best people culturally to do quality long-form bits of photography. Because we live here and we’re immersed here. It’s far too easy to suggest that’s a solution for everybody, but personally I found satisfaction doing that for the last couple of years, and I’ve been surprised at how engaging little stories near me can actually be on a stage.
Paul Lowe: Wonderful, find the find the global in the local.
Well, thank you very much everybody. It’s been a great session, as always, really interesting, and enjoying asking— as often is the case, it’s asking more questions than answers, but we’ve got some really good, actionable things to work on there. Thank you very much to VII Insider for hosting today’s event. Thank you very much to our panelists, Toby Smith, Maria Teresa Salvati, and of course in absentia to Nichole.
And behind the scenes, thank you to David Campbell for hosting this session and making it all work very, very smoothly. And of course, thanks to our audience. I was going to give a big shout out to Paul Merata who is one of our loyal supporters who was in the room, but I think he’s just logged out because we actually without knowing it, we actually showed one of his pictures that he’s contributed to the project, so he was very happy to see that. So anyway, thank you very much everybody, and hopefully see you soon at another VII Insider event. Bye for now.
Maria Teresa Salvati: Thank you. Bye bye.
Toby Smith / Climate Visuals: See you later.