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A Changing World: New Rules for Using Images

A Changing World: New Rules for Using Images

Whether you’re capturing the climate crisis, the pandemic, or political action, the goal should be to communicate a situation truthfully.

Our brains process images in one millisecond. That’s 60,000 times faster than words or text. As previously explored in the article “Slow Content is Better Content,” our brains have shortened their attention spans. A recent study by Microsoft concluded that the human attention span has dropped to eight seconds.

Choosing the right images can essentially make or break a story’s narrative or reshape the framing for an intended audience. Strong visuals can connect with an audience faster, and with more emotion than words alone

Illustration of male photographer lying down and shooting with digital camera
License this image via GoodStudio.

With that in mind, we’re entering a new world where the rules of how we, as creatives, previously used visuals needs to be rewritten.

As visual storytellers, we’re more responsible than ever before for shepherding narratives to audiences. While the goal isn’t always to create an action, there should be and is a general goal to move an audience.

Below are rules and guides for how to choose visuals that communicate topics which are poignant in today’s shifting landscape.


1. Climate Crisis

The climate crisis is one of Millennials and Gen Z’s biggest generational concerns. One could imagine it’s difficult to capture a generation’s greatest looming threat in a single image.

Similarly, a majority of the imagery in circulation depicts the climate crisis through a doomsday lens. With that, evidence shows that visuals used to convey threats with no solutions to climate change are problematic.

When depicting the climate crisis, we have to showcase solution-oriented visuals. Framing the crisis in this manner gives individuals hope and serves as a jumping-off point for action.

License these images via Chaay_Tee and Pand P Studio.

2. War Photography

War photography involves capturing conflict, violence, and the effect it has on civilians and scenery. The exposure to graphic violence causes a numbing effect when people become accustomed to seeing these pictures or videos, reducing the impact on emotional reactions, war news, or scary media.

Negative news might trigger depression, PTSD, or anxiety. With a topic so innately graphic in nature, it’s important to document the reality of war and not edit the photos. Editing can cause distrust, not only with your viewers but also your subjects.

Ukrainian refugee says goodbye to his wife who is fleeing Russian aggression
License this image via Yanosh Nemesh.

3. The Pandemic

Early images from the pandemic showcased fear: desolate city streets, exhausted doctors and nurses, mounting death tolls, and more. At the heart of the imagery, what was so desperately trying to be communicated was the need for science.

As a recent science research article has outlined: No matter what the content is, images, graphics, and visual representations are a vital part of almost any kind of science communication.

When thinking about communicating the pandemic, we’re actually communicating science, and in communicating science through images, we must showcase people first.

Whether that’s showing people doing research or showcasing the reality of the current situation, this helps humanize science. 

License these images via Gil Cohen Magen and Yandry_kw.

4. Political Action

Politicians need to mobilize a voter base and recent research shows it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

How can we motivate viewers? Through effective imagery.

When photographing someone in political power that you wish to be seen in a positive light, how you light and angle the shot must be taken into consideration.

Lighting should be flattering and the angle should focus on highlighting the subject from straight on, or slightly above, as this triggers the sentiment of equal power.

If you’re looking to photograph a cause, ensure it’s captured through the lens of a possible solution and highlights as little conflict as possible.

Student activists with the Sunrise Movement behind Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez during a press interview
License this image via Rachael Warriner.

Whether you’re aiming to capture the climate crisis, a war, the pandemic or political action, the goal should be to communicate a situation or narrative as truthfully as possible.


License this cover image via PRESSLAB.

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