People power is picture power

August 5, 2013

Our brains are visually and story-driven. Nonprofits can take advantage of this: champion your cause with visuals that showcase your story’s cast of characters. The hard research: Babies as young as four months old demonstrate a preference for photos of people over animals or other things. There’s no better way to help people to see themselves in the same situation than to include people in your shots.

As John Russonello, lead public opinion researcher for Belden Russonello Strategists says, “Environmentalists love sweeping vistas of landscapes because it speaks to them, but most audiences react more strongly to how the environment relates to people, whether it is the person who is responsible for degrading the environment or the person who hopes to appreciate the environment.”

If you want people to care about the Great Lakes, don’t just present them with a photo of Lake Michigan. Take a photo with a young girl on the shoreline to bring home the message that lake cleanup is being done for future generations. Photos of children evoke powerful feelings of morality and stewardship for future generations. A simple picture of the lake would have answered the question, What? But, by placing a person of the next generation, you have just answered the more important question for motivating people to take action and join in – Why?

Here are two important visual science findings as you think about using more photos with people in them:

  1. We engage immediately with faces. We are biologically programmed to do this. Travel back in time again to cave man days and think about the importance of recognizing other’s moods – is that stranger friendly or are they about to club me over the head?
  2. When seeking to evoke an emotional response, babies reign supreme. We instantly look to them, in real life or in photos to assess if they are okay, whether we are the baby’s parents are not. (Remember that phrase, it takes a village…) It is important, too, to show the environment the baby inhabits, if that is relevant or at all in question (as in, in danger) in the communication.

What if you are a group focused on protecting animals? National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry talks about the importance of connecting with viewers by “giving animals a personality” in photos; for example, when photographing manatees, use one of two manatees touching each other. People react emotionally to animals that behave in ways that are identifiable to humans.

Finally, when it comes to photographing people, remember the Golden Rule and always remember to treat your subjects with dignity.

Liz Banse

Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a 3-part blog series called People First, about the importance of using people in visual communication. Read Part 2 here and stay tuned for the rest of the series.