As every great teacher knows, a picture is worth a thousand words. But the story you end up with depends on the picture you pick. Get it right and you can stimulate new perspectives, behaviours and emotions. Get it wrong and you might reinforce negative stereotypes, leave people feeling helpless, or create a totally false impression about the subject in hand.  As a society, we have never shared so many photographs. Social media streams are filled with images that are seeking to hook us into an issue. In classrooms we are using photos and videos more than ever before. There is growing interest in this area in the sustainability communications world with plenty to learn for environmental educators.
Research into the effect images have on audiences can help us make smarter choices. Climate Outreach have recently launched Climate Visuals, a library of images for climate change communications.  The library has been compiled based on new research into what makes an effective image. They have distilled their key findings down to seven key principles for visual communication of climate change images:

  • Show ‘real people’ not staged photo opportunities
  • Tell new stories
  • Show climate causes at scale
  • Climate impacts are emotionally powerful
  • Show local (but serious) climate impacts
  • Be very careful with protest imagery
  • Understand your audience

More detail can be found at, along with a gallery of images to download and use in your work.  Climate Visuals is worth exploring alongside Common Cause for Nature (PIRC, 2013), which looks at communications more broadly, and is designed for conservation organisations. But, similar to Climate Visuals, PIRC make recommendations that translate to a broader range of environmental and development issues.

It is particularly important to consider the emotional power of images. Climate Outreach found that “survey participants … were moved more by climate impacts – e.g. floods, and the destruction wrought by extreme weather – than by causes or solutions”, but warn us that although “images of climate impacts can prompt a desire to respond … they are emotionally powerful, [and can therefore] also be overwhelming.”  PIRC also flag up this problem:

“Strongly negative messages can evoke feelings of terror or dismay – focusing our attention, and conveying a sense of importance, but also leaving us feeling disempowered, overwhelmed and paralysed (it’s too big a problem – what can I possibly do about it?), and so less motivated to act. Instead, we frequently try to avoid these threats, or want to exert control elsewhere – often by chasing materialistic comforts, with largely negative effects on the environment.”

PIRC recommend that we “take care when raising awareness – including of scary and depressing things – so that audiences are not overwhelmed.”  Climate Outreach suggest we couple “images of climate impacts with a concrete behavioural action for people.”
Rob Bowden, from Lifeworlds Learning, gave an excellent practical example at a recent Eco-Schools roadshow event. In teaching about deforestation, he ensures that bleak images of destroyed habitats are countered by images showing the positive actions of children and adults taking action to redress it. Images of tree-planting days and animals thriving in forest environments provide the main backdrop for the session.  Keep Britain Tidy recently commissioned TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham to create an exhibition of photos, two of which are included here, to raise awareness of the impact litter has on the natural world. His photos juxtapose litter and nature, communicating the wonder of the natural world and the seriousness of the issue, but in a way that does not leave the viewer feeling helpless or totally overwhelmed.

Pictures are worth a thousand words and evoke a thousand emotions; use images and use them wisely.

Morgan Phillips was the manager of Keep Britain Tidy’s Eco-Schools programme when he wrote this article.  He can now be contacted at:


This article was first published in NAEE’s Summer 2016 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 112).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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