I’m quite fascinated by how we use imagery to communicate information and inspire action. In previous projects I have analysed the photographs used in a textbook chapter on climate change – in short, anything negative was clearly foreign and everything positive was obviously local. I even used a photographic method to see how local outdoor educators pictured climate change.
I find that it isn’t just the surface message in a photograph that creates the message being communicated. For example, one of the textbook photos was, on the surface showing that personal vehicles and transportation generally contribute to carbon dioxide emissions. However, the types of vehicles along with the buildings and street signage signified that it was not traffic in a location like Alberta, where the textbook was an approved resource for the government mandated curriculum. The traffic that contributes to climate change, the image clearly said, occurs in other countries on other continents.
Clearly then, the question about which types of images are most effective at communicating about AND inspiring people to act to combat climate change is a much more complex question than simply, is the subject of the image related to climate change. And yet, this is as far as many studies take the question. They lump causes, effects, and actions together and then look for patterns in people’s responses.
While still not at the deep level of analysis that I would like to see in the future, Carlson and others (2020) began to explore this question by comparing the reaction times of participants after viewing a climate change photo from one of the three categories side by side with an uninteresting photo. Now, you might be wondering what reaction time can tell us. Imagine that you are looking at two images, one of which you are engaged by and the other you are not. If the images are then removed and a dot is placed in one of the two spaces how fast would you notice the dot and would that speed change if the dot appeared in the space where the engaging image was compared to if it appeared in the spot of the less interesting image? This is a test called the dot-probe task and it can tell us the impact of and difference between emotionally relevant images.
Carlson and others (2020) found that positive images of climate change, like solar panels and wind turbines, resulted in faster reaction times, indicating that they were perceived as more emotionally relevant. On the other hand, negative images such as those of consequences (eg. drought) or causes (eg. industrial areas) actually resulted in a delay or a momentary freeze in the reaction. The researchers recognize that there are limits due to their small sample size and high female bias in participants but the results do indicate that which images are choose to communicate about climate change matter and we need more research to identify the most effective approaches.