Pictures – it’s a matter of perspective

Why a deeper understanding of how images are produced and consumed is so important for the climate change conversation.

This meme was circulating on Facebook yesterday courtesy of Greenpeace UK. At last check it was running at 8,007 likes and 7,532 shares.

Pitting a wind turbine against a coal-fired power station is a common theme among climate change communicators. Green energy company Ecotricity used it extremely successfully in its viral ‘Collapsing Cooling Towers’ video (which has had almost 3 million views to date).

There’s also this photograph on popular image-sharing site Imgur, with the sarcastic caption “No matter how much we love green energy, we have to admit that wind turbines completely destroy the picturesque landscape.” (Can you spot the wind turbine?)

There are no, doubt, many more examples. And why wouldn’t there be? The wind turbine is an icon for sustainability; clean, elegant and, with its smoothly spinning sails, evocative of both a pleasant past and a progressive future.

But there’s also one significant problem with these images. And the caption that accompanies Greenpeace’s illustration highlights it perfectly: “If you’ve got things in perspective, join the movement to protect our planet”. Begging the question, what do they really mean by perspective? Arguably, someone who has “things in perspective” will also recognise – and perhaps point out – that it would actually require hundreds, probably thousands, of wind turbines to replace the single coal-fired power station depicted. Of course, all these images are designed to be symbolic, powerful illustrations of a point that is not designed to be dissected. But the problem is that these images can and will be dissected by anyone whose ‘perspective’ is not totally aligned with the messenger’s.

As we describe in our updated Talking Climate guide to visually communicating climate change, images are powerful tools for getting a message across. But they can also prove to be a bit of a stumbling block. Wind turbines are a common visual trope in both media and marketing when discussing climate change solutions. But it’s possible that their iconic status could actually be doing them more harm than good, with the line between fact and fiction becoming dangerously blurred.

There is a delicate balance to be struck between making an image powerful and ensuring its message is meaningful. It’s important one is not achieved at the expense of the other. Particularly in the liquid world of the internet, where information moves lightening fast and can cross ideological borders with ease. How quickly one of the visuals shown above could be appropriated and then up-ended to make a powerful point that is completely at odds with its original conception. This is just one of many reasons why continued and specific research into how images are produced and consumed – across all types of media and by a variety of audiences – is vital for a better understanding of the climate conversation.