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Visualizing Climate Change - Photography Brief

Climate Visuals has developed the following guidance and briefing note for this open call  based on our research and evidence into people’s response to climate change imagery as well as  insights developed across our practical partnerships and projects.  It should be used in conjunction with the TED Countdown Themes. 

These principles are effective guidelines to help the commissioning, production and editing of photography to ensure it can be both illustrative and impactful. Images submitted will be assessed by our independent judges balancing their subjective views, lived experience and these 9 principles.   

Principles 1-7 are based on the original Climate Visuals principles and founding research, adapted and refreshed using insights from our 2020 Hackathon with Exeter University A draft version of the full report can be accessed here and will be released as a full multimedia resource ahead of COP26.

Principles 8-9 are adapted from a partnership with Getty Images and the ‘Visualising Sustainability Guidelines’ released in conjunction with their Visual GPS Research


1. Show real images of real people

  • Show real people not staged photos. 
  • A person expressing an identifiable emotion is powerful, but ‘authentic’ images have more impact than staged photographs. 
  • Imagery of politicians tends to be perceived as low on credibility and authenticity.

Construction workers are building stronger river banks along the Nile river to protect it from erosion.

2. Tell new stories to new audiences

  • Less familiar, more thought-provoking images can help tell a new story about climate change and remake the visual representation of climate change in the public mind, especially focusing on solutions, which are still presently visually underrepresented.
  • The public responds positively to images they can quickly and easily understand – featuring impacts such as smokestacks, deforestation, polar bears on melting ice, or solutions such as wind farms, solar panels.  Familiar, ‘classic’ images may be especially useful for audiences with limited knowledge or interest in climate change, but they also can prompt cynicism and fatigue as they have become stereotyped. They are effective ways of communicating to an audience that ‘this story is about climate change’, but it may not be a story they want to hear.
  • Tell new stories that go beyond the obvious and accepted images. 

See the title image as an example.


3. Show climate causes, impacts and solutions at scale

  • People do not necessarily fully understand the links between climate change and their daily lives. Individual ‘causes’ of climate change (such as meat-eating) may not be recognised as such by an audience, and if they are, may provoke defensive reactions. 
  • If communicating the links between ‘problematic’ behaviours and climate change, it is best to show these behaviours at scale – e.g. a congested highway, rather than a single driver. 
  • Likewise, with climate solutions, showing scale is important as a means of conveying the potential to effectively tackle climate change.

Huge number of vehicles contribute to the daily traffic jams in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

4. Show emotionally powerful impacts and positive actions

  • Climate impacts are emotionally powerful. Often an audience is moved more by images of climate impacts – e.g. floods, and the destruction from extreme weather – than by ‘causes’ or ‘solutions’. 
  • Images of climate impacts can prompt a desire to respond, but because they are emotionally powerful, they can also be overwhelming. 
  • Coupling images of climate impacts with a concrete and attainable positive behavioural ‘action’ for people to take can help overcome this.

A student goes to school wearing a mask to protect him from the smoke that blankets the city of Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan.

5. Understand your audience and their platform

  • Unsurprisingly, levels of concern and scepticism about climate change can determine how people react to imagery, but other differences exist.
  • Images of ‘distant’ climate impacts often produce flatter emotional responses among those on the political right. 
  • Images depicting ‘solutions’ to climate change tend to generate mostly positive emotions – for those on the political right, as well as those on the left.
  • People respond differently to images depending on where and how they are published - consider how your images will sit in different platforms. 

A fisherman casting his net, Ghana

6. Show local (but serious) impacts and achievable local solutions

  • When images of localised climate impacts show an individual person or group of people, with identifiable emotions, they are likely to be most powerful. 
  • The same is true for localized images of climate solutions being developed and applied.
  • However, there is a balance to be struck between localising climate change - so that people realise the issue is relevant to them - and trivialising the issue, by not making clear enough links to the bigger picture (see point 3).

Woman and child walk through the flood waters in east Jakarta, Indonesia.

7. Be cautious with protest imagery

  • Images depicting protests (or protesters) are not as effective as they may seem, and mainly resonate with the small number of people who already consider themselves activists, campaigners or environmentalists. 
  • Most people feel a certain degree of disconnect with climate change protesters, so images of protests may reinforce the idea that climate change is for ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. 
  • However, protest images involving people directly affected by climate impacts were seen as more authentic and therefore more compelling.
  • The topic of environmental justice is one of the more impactful ways to represent protest imagery, especially where those most affected are moved to take a stand.
  • Greta Thunberg, School Strikes, Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Fridays for the Future have done much to diversify the concept of protest but not enough when considering the need for true representation and diversity within society.

Campaigners gather to demand clean air after the zone failed to meet Scottish Air Quality Safety Standards, Scotland.

8. Sustainability must be everyone’s objective

  • Climate change affects everyone across the globe, so intentionally include representation across ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion and culture. Empower and feature all underrepresented voices. Break stereotypes of every kind.
  • Visual content relating to environmentalism and sustainability should not be separated from visual content that is inclusive and diverse. Representational efforts should extend to sustainability.  
  • Climate change causes, impacts and solutions affect people all over the world, so their visual representation may need to vary for maximum impact with different audiences.
  • Strive to include representation of a wide range of demographics, as we aim to represent as many as possible, to show that climate change and its solutions relate to everyone.

Christel Jacques, 55, leads her Wildlife Club of 8-year-old children on an outing to learn about mangroves.

9. Overcome present-day fears with a vision for the future

  • Visual content that helps visualize the concrete actions, positive steps, outcomes and real solutions will pave the way to a better, more sustainable future.   
  • Content should reflect authentic stories, including both the positive and negative aspects of outcomes and activities of individuals, communities and businesses who are innovating and collaborating to achieve sustainability - from those who are making small lifestyle changes, to industries who are driving innovative sustainable initiatives and new technologies.  
  • While many members of the public understand that they should participate actively in tackling climate change, convenience or affordability often takes precedence. It is important that we show how individuals can participate, by creating aspirational, future-facing imagery.

Afghan technicians are finishing installation and testing of the solar array.

HOW TO ENTER: Visualizing Climate Change

* Users registered before 1st June should contact Climate Visuals for access
** Only accessible to registered users


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