What effect do visuals have on our relationship with nature?

Soil Functions infographic

An infographic by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Source: http://www.fao.org/resources/infographics/infographics-details/en/c/284478/

Looking at the bright, modern visuals used by the International Year of Soils 2015 in the image above, we see a clean (almost clinical), optimistic portrayal of nature and the environment. We see this trendy style of visual repeated not just in depictions across environmental communications, but those of food, business, corporate social responsibility and leisure, pretty much wherever we look.

But have we ever stopped to ask ourselves about the effect of these visuals on our relationship with nature?

As you know from some of my previous blog posts, I’m really fascinated by how communication can alter how we think and feel about nature and the environment around us, and in this post, I want to share some of the core ideas that came out of a really interesting study into visual imagery and the environment, which was carried out in 2008.

In this study, the authors, Anders Hansen and David Machin looked at a collection of environmental images from the Getty online image bank. They found that images of the environment are often decontextualised; in other words, all of the messy, untidy – perhaps even dangerous – detail which is part of nature, had been removed from the images. Instead, the visuals favoured a corporate, generic feel where backgrounds were frequently out of focus, or there was no background at all. Elements such as plants, trees and lawns were taken completely out of their original context or juxtaposed with items such as office interiors or desks and chairs.


Source: Pixabay

The authors offer one possible explanation for this, which is that the more generic a Getty image is, the wider the range of uses it will have, and the more likely it is to sell repeatedly.

They also point out that the images have a “‘conceptual’ feel”, which is important because selling a product or service is not usually about promoting the features of the product itself, but instead the values of that product (they use the example of an insurance product being sold on the basis that it alleviates worry).

I think that this is all very interesting because:

1) communication (including imagery) shapes how we think and feel about environmental issues (see Cox – second edition). And,

2) the need for images to express values, and to have as many meanings as possible, has led to a trend towards decontextualised imagery. But,

3) as a result of this decontextualisation, imagery may not portray the reality of nature.

Time has gone on since this study, and I don’t think the decontextualisation we see used so widely is just down to commercial need. In my opinion it has become a trendy and aspirational style of design (although arguably still corporate in style), and also results from the types of technology widely in use now (e.g. animated ‘explainer videos’, which are likely to lack the detail of a documentary video).

The trend towards decontextualisation in environmental imagery is only one of many observations made by Hansen and Machin in their exploration of the Getty image bank, but I think this idea and its potential effects are worthwhile considering. We are in a time where we need to be more engaged with nature, not less so, so does our visual imagery help or hinder that?

Hansen and Machin’s article is a complicated but very worthwhile read, and has heavily influenced my thinking on environmental communication over the past few years – every time I read it, I see new things and interpret its ideas in a different light. If you have the time and motivation to dig deeper, it is definitely worthwhile getting hold of a copy.

Do you have any thoughts on the use of visuals in environmental communications? Do you agree or disagree with any points made in this article? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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