The Power of Imagery: Utilizing Photography to Communicate Issues Authentically

October 30, 2020

“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”— Irving Penn

We’ve all heard the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and there’s a great deal of truth in it. But what does it really mean, and how can we use its meaning to improve our work? By nature, people are visually inclined – our brains are wired to use imagery to understand complex information. We’re naturally drawn to pictures, and our brains can process them at record speed. In fact, “the human brain is able to recognize a familiar object within 100 milliseconds… recognize familiar faces within 380 milliseconds.”1 Visuals become a shortcut our brains use to make sense of information quickly. Photographs can evoke strong emotions, beliefs, and values, and often an image can override the written messaging that accompanies it.

We can use the power of imagery to communicate the issues and messages of our clients effectively, but it’s important to be aware of the good and bad that comes with that power. For example, we all like close-up images of an adult or child. It draws us in and triggers an emotional response to that particular person. But when we crop a photo and use it close-up, we block out the context and focus the viewer’s attention only on that person. Doing so gives the viewer permission to think about that one person as being the exception to the rule or blame them for the situation they’re in. A photograph taken at wide-angle, on the other hand, shows the environment around the subject and supports a policy message for systemic change because we, the viewer, can see the full context of the issue. As communicators, we must consider the composition, angle, color, and tone of a photograph and how that adds strength to our message.

There are risks to everything, of course, and selecting images for digital and print communications is no different. Knowing the strength visuals bring to a message makes it much more important to find the most authentic and diverse imagery for our clients. If images don’t authentically represent the communities and issues being communicated, we risk audiences misinterpreting the message and reinforcing stereotypes.

Image A
Image B

For instance, Image A shows a close-up of a man holding a sign that he lost his job. The close-up focus of this photo depicts the consequence of unemployment and obscures the causes of it. It runs the risk of reinforcing negative stereotypes about the unemployed being lazy and blaming people for their own circumstances. On the other hand, Image B is of a man at the factory where he was employed, which is closed due to COVID-19. This image provides context and demonstrates cause and effect. It’s clear this man is an employee of the factory who has been displaced by the pandemic, which is a circumstance beyond his control.

With each piece Hatcher designs, we research images that reflect the people, culture, abilities, and communities we’re communicating about and for. But that’s no easy task. Stock photography has limitations in its representation of people of color, body shapes, abilities, and identities. There needs to be more support for diverse photographers and the creation of diverse stock photography options in the marketplace, so we can use the images that really suit the issues we’re addressing. And where possible, we need to promote hiring professional photographers from the communities associated with our client’s messages, because they often produce the most impactful, authentic images of people, places, and programs.

In support of diverse stock photography websites, here are a few options to consider:



Disability Images

Body Liberation Photos

Diversity Photos

Getty Images Disability Collection

Gender Spectrum Collection


“As American photographer and educator Ralph Hattersley said, “We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.” Let’s use the power of imagery to bring purpose and authentic meaning to our work.”

by Debbie Rappaport, Graphic Designer

1 James Balm, “The power of pictures. How we can use images to promote and communicate science.” BMC. August 11, 2014.

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