How can a photograph bring impact in attitude and behavior?

Nowadays, almost every photographers and artists create their works either relevant to their personal experiences and emotions, or related to any social and global issues. So do I, my recent project is about the problem of pollution and environmental protection. It is a huge topic, specialists from different aspects are now highly concern about side effects caused by pollution. When discuss about pollution and environmental protection, United Nations Climate Change (UNCC) is a strong stakeholder on these issue, especially the Paris Agreement under UNCC, its central aim is to put effort in keep the global temperature increase within 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial level, and now they are putting greater effort in control the global temperature increase within 1.5 degree Celsius (UNCC, 2018). This aim covered a wide range of considerations and solutions, such as wastes consumption, deforestation, afforestation, greenhouse gases reduction, etc. It seems not closely relate to our daily life, only the government need to figure out and achieve this aim with some long term policies. But in fact, our daily activities also strongly affecting the environment, the climate and the planet earth, like what we depose every day. And what I am doing in my first project, is trying to spread the above message and bring out my audiences awareness on above issue through my photographs.

In order to achieve the above target in my project, what I need to do is not just take a photograph with my camera. Apart from understanding more and deeper about what is a photograph, I also need to study how to spread message through a photograph? How to make audiences resonance with a photograph? And how can a photograph bring impact in attitude and behavior?

David Alan Harvey, founder and editor of the award-winning Burn magazine. He said the below sentences at the beginning of his speech on TEDxVerona, “Photography is now the world’s only common language. Mathematics, of course, can be considered an international language but not everyone’s a mathematician. Music, of course, is international, but not everyone can perform. We can all listen to music, in that sense. Photography is the only language the world can speak and we speak it all of the time” (Harvey, 2015). It is true that nowadays everyone trying to speak and share their ideas through photographs on different social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. But, how many of them can deliver their messages clearly to their audiences through photographs? Let pick my project topic as an example, below are several world famous photographers did similar projects related to this topic in the past (see fig. 1-8).

Are they all speak well through photographs? It is easy to discover that all the above photographs are talking about human wastes consumption activities. Their photographs mainly can be divided into two different types of photography. One is documentary photography (see fig. 3, 5, 7, 8). According to Roland Barthes said in his book ‘Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’, “A photograph is an extended, loaded evidence – as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence” (Barthes, 2000:115). Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician during the 20th century. These examples (see fig. 3, 5, 7, 8) documented the fact, they are not represent the wastes pollution problem, these are the proof of the real situation of it, showing what exist nowadays. Audiences can directly know what is going on nowadays, they can have a clear image immediately to see the impact brought by wastes consumption activities.

Another type tried to use wastes as a symbol, a subject to represent the problem of wastes consumption activities when they create their photographs (see fig. 1, 2, 4, 6). In some way, this type of photographs are more likely to be classify as a fine art context. Continue with Barthes said, “Photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look” (Barthes, 2003:21). It could be understand as, “To do”, an action of planning of taking a photograph in order to create a representation. “To undergo”, a study of a photograph by photographer in editing, or consumption of information by the viewers. “To look”, an observation of image which creates a change in cognitive understanding. A photograph of an apple is not an apple, it is a representation of an apple. Look at these examples (see fig. 1, 2, 4, 6), they are showing the representation of pollution problems with a specific symbolic subject to communicate with their audiences.

However, especially when doing a topic like environmental protection, is it enough to just let the audience notice what happened? People won’t remember, they won’t bare in mind that things are not really related to them. Like what Jacob A. Riis, journalist and social documentary photographer during the late 19th and early 20th century. He was also the author of ‘How the Other Half Lives’. In his book, he mentioned “The world forgets easily, too easily, what it does not like to remember” (Riis, 1971:207). The above photographs are too far away to audiences, what happened in the photographs are not affecting people’s daily life, and they are not willing to get involved into the situation. When they are in front of the image, they will simply feel ‘oh, it is sad, it is awful, what a pity’. Then, they will forget the photographs, the messages from photographer very soon, maybe next morning when people wake up. In hence, what should a photographer do? Obviously, photographer need to create the photograph more closely related to audiences, or try to make the image more interesting, these can make them easier and willing to remember it. At the same time, photographer should educate audiences through the photograph, apart from showing what is happening, leave a space to audiences to think about why is this happening, and rethink what should they do to stop or to prevent this happen. Also, let audiences being involve or participate in the photograph, is also a good method to stronger audience’s memory, make them easier to remember the image and the message behind.

Under the above point of view, what exactly a photographer want to do is to influence, to change audience’s attitude and behavior through a photograph. It is a really difficult aim to achieve. It is trying to push the meaning of a photograph and photography into a higher level form of communication medium, more than simply a proof, a picture, an index, or an icon, etc. At the end, it may affect the way of thinking, behavior, even the daily routine of audiences.

To some extent, advertising photography is a really good example demonstrated how to bring impact in attitude and behavior to audiences through a photograph. The main usage of an advertising photograph, is to persuade audiences to buy a product or a service, or to do something. It is also a kind of impact in attitude and behavior. John Hegarty, worldwide creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH). According to his interview in the book ‘Photography in Advertising’, he said, “Advertising photography is always about optimism, about selling a dream” (Hegarty, 2004:11). It is telling a message to audiences that, if you pay your money to buy something or to do something, you will become the person in the advertisement, your life will become better, the word ‘you will become’ is so powerful in advertising photography. Under the guide of this message, when audiences look into an advertising photograph, it makes them feel what they ideally want to be, they see their dreams and ideal life through the photograph. It leads to audiences are willing to pay their money to go for a product or a service. It is already an impact in attitude and behavior to audiences.

Also, another interviewer in the book ‘Photography in Advertising’, Nikko Amandonico, an art director. He said in the interview, “Advertising photography usually is about flirting with the public, the audiences” (Amandonico, 2004:78). It is similar to those boys and girls in a night club, flirting with each other, trying to persuade the other side to have a further and deeper relationship. ‘Will I have fun if I go further with that person?’ Advertising photography also, it is persuading audiences to do something, making them doubt themselves, question themselves, like ‘Should I spend my money on it? Will I become better if I do something?’ It ends up maybe also can change audience’s attitude and behavior.

Maybe it sounds crazy and unbelievable, but photograph does really have the power to bring impact in attitude and behavior to audiences. So, can photographers apply the concepts and ideas used in advertising photography back to their global related projects? Sure they can, both their photographs and advertising photographs are promoting and selling something, the different between them is just one hand is promoting a physical items, the other hand is promoting an intangible idea. In fact, it is all about how to target and approach the right group of audiences. It seems like a marketing question, nothing related to photography, none of a business to photographers. But, is it true? If it is true, then what is the purpose for photographers to start a project and create a series of photographs?

Why the way of target and approach audiences can affect the impact in attitude and behavior from photography? In fact, target and approach audiences play an important role in photography. First of all, the way to target audiences may affect photographer’s creativities. Like what Alex Vita, a photography website designer, founder of ForegroundWeb said, “If a photographer market to everyone, the message gets too generic” (Vita, 2016). Photographers may try to follow the taste of the targeted ideal audiences to create their photographs, it can draw audience’s attention and bring out audience’s interest to look into images. Also, it probably can strengthen messages in the image, and communicate to their audiences powerfully. It is easy to understand, if people get into a foreign country, a foreign culture. The best way to communicate with the local people is try to speak in their language. Similar situation, photographers are trying to make a photograph to get into audience’s world. In order to communicate with audience successfully, perhaps one of the best way to do is try to follow the taste of audiences and make the photograph.

Second, the way to approach audiences is directly affecting the message delivery of a photograph. In China, there is a phrase ‘Play piano in front of a cow’. In other words, it means casting pearls before swine, or talking to the wall. If a photographer use a wrong method to approach audiences, approach audiences in a wrong situation or location. It may ends up audiences cannot understand the photographs fully, cannot get the messages behind the image, everything done by the photographer are in vain. What a pity, is it?

So, let’s back to those photographs shown above (see fig. 1-8) and pick a few examples to discuss how do those photographers target and approach their audiences. Such as ‘#MermaidsHatePlastic’ (see fig. 1) by Benjamin Von Wong in 2016. He presented this photograph mainly on the internet and social media like his own online album, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Also, he put his whole working process and related educational information into several videos, to describe the project idea development and educate his audiences. It this project, he was experimenting “how do you get people to talk about something ordinary ugly and boring?” (Wong, 2016). Obviously he was decided to target the public, it is also the reason he made his photographs in a dramatic way. In order to draw audience’s interest into his images, then tried to let them think about the message and the problem behind his images. Also to rethink what should they do to help this problem. Is his project brought impact in attitude and behavior to his audiences? Honestly, it is hard to answer, because everyone is different. But for me, as one of his audience, I did reduced my plastic bottle consumption as much as possible after I saw his photographs. And I got into a habit to throw a plastic bottle into a recycle bin rather than a waste bin if I really need to throw one. In this case, his photographs seems successfully bring impact in attitude and behavior to his audiences.

Apart from ‘#MermaidsHatePlastic’ (see fig. 1), Benjamin Von Wong also did another project in 2018. It called ‘#RethinkRecycleRevive’ (see fig. 2). It was talking about the problem of electronic wastes (e-wastes). He used the same methodology to make his photographs and to approach his audiences. At the same time, it is a really good example in how to use title to guide audience’s way of thinking. ‘Rethink’, ‘Recycle’ and ‘Revive’, simple wordings but powerful and direct.

Sometimes, a photograph must accompanied with wordings in order to deliver a stronger message. Like Mandy Barker’s ‘PENALTY’ in 2014 (see fig. 4), it is a strong example on showing the importance of wordings when present a photograph. If audiences just look into her photograph, what they see mostly just footballs, and that is it. However, if look into her project description as well. Audiences may understand more why Barker used footballs as a subject in her photograph and what is it represent. Barker used footballs as a subject because 2014 was the year of FIFA World Cup, football was a symbolic object during that year, people were interested and talking football all the time. So, she collected footballs in different coastlines around the world (see fig. 9) and made the photograph in ‘PENALTY’. She targeted the taste of audiences during that period and used footballs as a medium, to draw audience’s attention and interest, also to symbolise and represent the serious problem of ocean pollution.

Pieter Hugo, also did a project to talk about e-wastes problem in 2009 named ‘Permanent Error’ (see fig. 5). Both Wong’s and Hugo’s projects are talking about the problem of e-wastes. But Hugo used a totally different methodology with Wong to make his photographs and approach audience. In Hugo’s project, he presented his photographs in exhibition, as well as publication. It seems he was targeted those big countries governments and international big companies as his audiences and complained their e-wastes consumption activities through his photographs. Maybe he was also targeted the public as his audiences and telling them the fact of the impact to third world countries brought by e-wastes consumption activities from those big countries governments and international big companies. So, can Hugo’s photograph bring impact in attitude and behavior to his audiences? In this case it seems not really effective, as every countries and companies got their own rules and policies to follow. How about the public? Surely public audiences could get his messages, but what happened in his photographs were too far away to the public. It is not saying that Hugo’s photographs are bad. But it is a good example that a photograph is difficult to bring impact in attitude and behavior to audiences in some situation.

Overall, if a photographer want to bring impact in attitude and behavior to audiences through a photograph. In order to get this outcome, there are series of processes need to be consider and carry out. First, target the right group of audiences, make photographs in their taste to draw their attention. Second, represent the issue clearly. It can be either showing the fact, document the real situation; or replace it to a symbolic subject or object to symbolise the issue. Third, try to let audiences get involve in the photograph, make it positive and related to audiences, or make it more interesting to draw their attention. Also, try to provide a space for them to think about the issue and rethink what they can do. These definitely can stronger audience’s memory on the image. Forth, approach audiences and present the photograph in a correct way and location to maximize the power of the image and message. Finally, if audiences can understand and resonance with the photograph, most likely it can bring impact in attitude and behavior to them in some ways. Honestly, it is really difficult to accomplish the above processes, but if it is easy and everyone can do it, then where is the value of a photographer?

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Vita A. (2016) ‘How to define your target audience & elevator pitch (and use them on your site)’ In: 20.04.16 [online] At: (Accessed 08 December 2018).

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