When a spotlight is needed

02 February 2011 | News story

Visual communication for conservation has its strengths and weaknesses, writes Juliane Zeidler, CEC Regional Vice-Chair for Eastern and Southern Africa. Juliane also volunteered as CEC sub-editor for arborvitae's special issue.

Reprinted from arborvitae 42: Communicating Forest Values

“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera,” legendary photojournalist Lewis Hines is imagined to have said. Hines, a pioneer in capturing images as evidence of social progress and/or deterioration, would most likely also endorse photography as a means to convey messages about conservation and sustainable development.

A few years ago Louisa Nakanuku, then the head of the Environmental Education and Information Unit at the Environment Ministry in Namibia, designed a photographic exhibition on how environment contributes to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). For this exhibition, Louisa organized a launch event and invited cabinet ministers and other dignitaries. She produced an attractive brochure to brief such highlevel decision-makers. Louisa says “The event was really well visited and I received very positive feedback from Ministers and other key leaders from the country. Journalists from all media asked for more information about the MDGs and the relevant activities by the Ministry. And the Environment Minister found it important that the spotlight of the exhibition on Environment for Development and Development for Environment should also benefit people outside of the capital. So he made it possible to take the exhibition as a road show to our major regional towns. The exhibition was also followed up with radio discussions on the links between the MDGs and the environment.

Louisa is a biologist and professional photographer, and a strong advocate for visual communication: “It is extremely powerful. It is directional and offers an objective perspective on a particular issue. Better yet, people who cannot read or write can relate to photography - images therefore can become a two-way communication tool. Letting people take their own pictures, through participatory photography or videoing, can be really appealing learning tools”.

However, she also cautions about the potentially “dangerous” effects of the power: “People sometimes think that just placing a pretty picture is doing a fine job. Underestimating the importance of placing the ’right’ image, ‘wrong’ messages are being transmitted. For example, when we speak about sustainable use of forests or try to relate a message about the negative impacts of excessive deforestation, we must ensure that it is clear that we do not promote the callous cutting of trees”.

“Just placing a picture of tree stumps will not necessarily do the trick,” says Louisa. “The viewer might think that we want to cut trees!” She suggests that photographs can be used in association with appropriate text. The combination of photography and text helps to find a balance for the intended message, especially for a photographic documentary on a particular issue.

“And it is always important to actually test your message and the effect on the viewers. Sometimes we only realize much later that our image had exactly the contrary effect in its communication power – and it takes a huge effort to reverse the impact”.

Contact: Juliane Zeidler, j.zeidler@iecn-namibia.com

Juliane is Director of Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia and the Regional Vice-Chair of IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication for Eastern and Southern Africa. Louisa is a CEC
member. The author would like to thank Louisa Nakanuku, Kim Awbrey and Frits Hesselink for their constructive inputs into this piece.