III. Worth a thousand words: Why the picture matters

To change a narrative, we all need to consistently repeat it through the words and stories we use. The Narrative Initiative says that narratives are built up gradually like a mosaic: every word, story and image you use is like a tile that contributes to the greater picture people have of the world. This means that not every picture and word you use needs to be perfect or “positive”, but you should be conscious of the overall effect of your communication, and try to be strategic about using content that builds up the values, emotions, attitudes, behaviours and ideas that you wish to promote.

If we want to change narratives, we should put as much thought into the images we use as the words. The images we use can reinforce messages—or inadvertently undermine them by reinforcing harmful narratives.

"Images have the power to subconsciously trigger or lock in a narrative in a fraction of a second, long before the more rational parts of our brain have a chance to interpret text."

We want human rights communications to create empathy for other people, and determination to act. But when we only show images of human rights violations, we risk creating despondency (a sense that human rights violations are inevitable and cannot be stopped) and dehumanising the people portrayed as “vulnerable” “victims” without agency. When our social media feeds are dominated by images of angry protest and violence, we feed the narrative of a divided society.

We know what it looks like when human rights are violated, but we have a less consistent visual narrative when it comes to showing what it looks like to enjoy those rights. For example, we offer images of community as an alternative to the scales of justice, which symbolise how rule of law brings balance to society (and its absence brings chaos). As people rarely use weighing scales in daily life, images of a community in harmony are another way to visualise balance. If a news story documents how successfully new arrivals are integrating into a country but illustrates the story with a dehumanizing picture of a “wave” of people crossing borders or in a boat at sea, the message is instantly undermined.

Human rights imagery also needs to speak to the things we want to have in our lives, not just things we hope to avoid. What if our imagery focused less on the process or problem of human rights, but on the outcomes we are trying to achieve?

Key conclusions of cognitive and behavioral science on what makes people care include:

Opinions change not through more information but through compelling, emotional experiences.

Visual language works much better than dry facts and abstract concepts.

Art can trigger empathy, as can comedy, and feelings of hope and control over one’s own life.

Provoking an emotional response should be done carefully. People will become despondent, shut down or not respond if one simply evokes sadness, guilt or fear.

In the context of general desensitisation to social issues, campaigns that evoke awe and inspire hope are most effective.

Humans are social animals who mimic the actions and behaviour of other people in their community.

We need to identify images and symbols that we can repeat constantly to reinforce support for the values and ways of thinking that underpin support for human rights. Our goal is to establish the images that most speak to a shared human rights worldview: once we have that we can experiment with ways of making our message more original and exciting.

"In order then that the distant situation shall not be a gray flicker on the edge of attention, it should be capable of translation into pictures in which the opportunity for identification is recognizable."

Walter Lippman

The work of identifying the most powerful images to associate with human rights will support the work of finding the right words: As Walter Lippmann wrote in 1922, “Pictures have always been the surest way of conveying an idea, and next in order, words that call up pictures in memory.” If we can agree what pictures we want our words to evoke, the behaviour and outcomes we want human rights work to lead to, it can contribute to a new vocabulary for human rights activism.

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