A Picture’s Worth: Climate Change Photos Should not Alienate

Last week, National Geographic announced that its April issue will be devoted to the topic of race. The magazine recently conducted an audit of sorts, looking through its previous decades of literature to assess its coverage of race. This post will look at some of the key findings from the audit and how these themes relate to media reporting on climate change. Photography can be a powerful tool in driving change in society, but it can also alienate or mislead the public. If a picture is worth a thousand words, are those words useful or harmful?

One article featured in National Geographic’s “audit” was a 1916 article calling Aboriginal Australians “savages” with the “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” Blatantly racist stories like this one likely mirrored imperialist ideologies of the time. John Mason, a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, conducted the historical review of National Geographic. Mason said that the magazine did little to move readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture. “A magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them,” he stated.

Mason also discovered a pattern of photos in which “the native person [is] fascinated by Western technology.” He argues that such stories create an “us-and-them” divide between the “civilized” and the “uncivilized.” He also noted the paradox of reporting on people of color in other countries, as “exotics, unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché,” while rarely featuring people of color in the United States as people with a culture worth studying.

Instead of giving power to images that reinforce colonial gaze, dehumanize photo subjects or portray them as “savages”, this post will try to use alternative photos like this one. Australian Aboriginal Woman, 1937. Photo from: http://guides.slsa.sa.gov.au/c.php?g=410294&p=2795809

Many of these themes Mason found are applicable to coverage of climate change. Stereotypical images of melting ice caps, stranded polar bears, brown people in far-away flooded villages or in dusty drought-stricken plains show distant viewers the effects of climate change. As a result, viewers may think that these exotic “others” are more susceptible to climate change, or experience certain types of environmental phenomena that do not affect everyone. We need to find ways to illustrate how climate change affects our everyday activities—from the groceries we buy to our health. Weather reporters can also do a better job of enforcing this message—70 degrees on the East Coast in February is an effect of climate change, not just an excuse to celebrate the sun.

In recent years, coverage of horrendous hurricanes in the US utilizes this type of divisive photography to cover natural disasters on our own soil. There is a sense of condescension and exploitation present in the news articles, photos and videos. This victimization through photography was certainly present during and after reporting of Hurricane Katrina, and it has resurfaced now with the coverage of Puerto Rico and other hurricanes last year—poor, sad, sweaty, soaking, helpless (brown) people. These areas are in the US, but the media covers them like they are third-world countries. The result is that viewers are alienated—“That’s not me.” “I’m not poor.” “President Trump would never throw a paper towel roll at me!”

Brigada PDT, community-led group in Puerta de Tierra, Puerto Rico cleaning up areas after Hurricane Maria. https://www.facebook.com/BrigadaPDT/about/

In the early 1900s, British colonial travelers would use photography as a way to exert power by creating a “structured field of vision.” Anthropologist Erik Mueggler writes about two early 20th century botanists who traveled through Western China and Tibet in “The Paper Road.” Mueggler writes about how Western photographers of this era widened the distance between the viewer and the viewed by exerting a colonial gaze and creating exhibitions of the colonized worlds. Often uncomfortable in their travels, being gazed at themselves by local residents, photographers would use their cameras as weapons to regain control by objectifying “natives” around them.

Photographers hold the power of information and the ability to control how information is shared. The subjects of photos very rarely get to see the photos, so these images are dead ends of communication. Philosopher, Michel Foucault explained how the invention of photography created a new way of making history. New power structures were created, and pre-existing power structures were strengthened further.

National Geographic attempted to change this power imbalance in its 2015 issue on Haiti by giving cameras to local people, who would normally be the objects of photos. Haitians in the project could photograph items they felt were important in their own ways.


Photos from the “Showing Haiti on Its Own Terms” National Geographic Issue, 2015.

Mason’s other observation from reviewing National Geographic’s history is that what matters is not only what is covered but what is left out of the stories. In regards to climate change, one example that comes to mind is the proportion of articles in the media about Chinese air pollution compared to articles about other Chinese environmental problems such as soil pollution, desertification, and biodiversity loss. A reader, relying solely on the media, may think China’s only environmental concern is big city air pollution and that it is the only country with such grave air troubles.

Wrapping all of this back up into media reporting on climate change—while we cannot give plants their own cameras, we should be able to photograph the environmental effects of climate change without creating a further divide between the viewers and the objects/subjects of the pictures. Educating the public by showing scenes they are unfamiliar with does not have to mean exotifying the subject matter. And if an image or story seems like a cliché or stereotype, maybe using a different image or viewpoint can be more effective! Hopefully news coverage and photography can make readers feel closer to these environmental phenomena rather than more distant, so that we feel more responsibility for creating a solution.

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