Why Sustainability Photography Needs to Change

©. Venice after a different storm. (Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images)

Words and numbers are great for keeping track of data, but they're not so good at stirring up emotion. Photographers, on the other hand, can turn facts and figures into fear and hope.

For instance, remember that man blocking Chinese tanks after Tiananmen Square, or the naked Vietnamese girl running in terror? Those photos were more real to people than any statistic about political pressure or wartime mortality rates.

But climate change, pollution, and other environmental issues don't have their iconic photo, the thing that could affect people who aren't wearing pollution masks or running from wildfires.

Part of the problem is that sustainaiblity photos focus too much on nature says Adam Corner, a psychologist and director of an organization trying to get better climate change photos.

Smokestacks, solar panels and lonely polar bears might be realistic ways to talk about the environment, but humans care more about themselves.

“Images without people on them are unable to tell a human story,” added Corner. In fact, a survey found that human faces in particular bring out empathy in a way nothing else does.

This may seem obvious, but I rarely use human face photos in stories that aren't directly about humans, and perhaps that's a mistake.

I have another theory too: I think meaningful photos have to show a common situation that, thanks to one or two tweaked details, looks totally alien. For instance, a group of Vietnamese children running is normal. A group of Vietnamese children running naked is strange, and strangeness attracts attention. That's why I'm using a photo of Venice underwater for this story. A couple tourists leisurely sitting outside and reading the paper is normal. Doing that while the city is underwater (thanks to one of those extreme weather events that's getting more common as more carbon gets into the air) is strange.

I'm planning on trying to do this more. So if any of you have photos that put an unexpected human face on the environment, feel free to link to it in the comments.