Worth a Thousand Words: What Do Your Photos Say About Who You Are and Who You Serve as an Organization?

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I recently learned about a magazine called Catalyst Wedding Co. that looks different from most wedding magazines. The people on its pages are a diverse mix of races and sizes. There are tattoos. Mixed-race and same-sex couples appear often.

The magazine’s founders say that their aspiration was to “increase diverse representation in wedding media and to engage in critical dialogue” about love and marriage.

The photography in Catalyst communicates a lot about empowerment and inclusion. It makes you feel something. Hope. Recognition. These aren’t soft-focus fairytales; this is what real couples look like. And they’re beautiful and authentic.

It made me think about the images that organizations use in their branding and how subtly they can communicate ideas about who they are trying to reach and engage.

“Images can … play a role in presenting the end goal of your organization, inspire those interacting with your brand, and help to differentiate your organization in a crowded room of competitors,” writes Kimber Dulin in Push 10.

But there are possible pitfalls. “Certain images that may conjure sympathy with donors may make your organization’s constituents feel isolated or misrepresented.” Dulin suggests avoiding entirely “images that fall under the category of ‘poverty porn’— photography that promotes a sense of guilt or shame in order to rally immediate action.” Images that focus on the solutions provided by your organizations rather than on problems are more positive anyway.

On a website or in a publication, you have the opportunity to use groups of photos that represent the breadth of the work that you do. It’s very challenging to represent complex ideas with one image. Take advantage of the opportunity of using a group of images to demonstrate the geographical, generational, cultural, and social diversity of your work.

Depending on the work that you do, you might serve populations that look different in subtle ways. Urban places look different than rural ones. Images can easily evoke differences in economic class. Be conscious and intentional with these differences. “For international entities, it is important to be sensitive to unintended bias towards imagery representative of the Global North,” writes Dulin. “Be careful that you are not only promoting the historical, economic, educational, and political perspective of the Global North.”

Of course, being aware of the representation of gender and race is important. Dulin encourages balance and aiming for authentic inclusiveness that closely aligns with your organizations goals.

According to a report from YouGov and Johnson & Johnson-owned parenting site BabyCenter, 80 percent of parents say they like seeing diverse families in ads. This also reflects very real changing demographics is the U.S.: 2 out of 5 families are “non-traditional” in their structure. “For brands, the good news is that there’s lower risk when stepping into this territory,” Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov BrandIndex, told AdWeek. The same report suggested that making sure that diverse families were depicted authentically was important, and named “This Is Wholesome” campaign from Mondelez's Honey Maid as a good example.

There are a bunch of positive examples of brands that have thought strategically about how to use inclusive imagery. The Dove Real Beauty campaign, launched by Unilever in 2004, was designed “to celebrate the natural physical variation embodied by all women and inspire them to have the confidence to be comfortable with themselves.” The campaign included images of women who were not models. It also included images of women who were racially diverse and of different sizes. It went viral, was widely written about in the news media, and won two Cannes Lions Grand Prix awards.

The NYC fashion house Chromat has attracted media attention for including diverse models in both their advertising imagery and runway shows. “Designer Becca McCharen has made it a point to consistently feature models of all ages, genders, and sizes on the runway,” writes Janelle Okwondu in Vogue, “but her latest outing took the concept one step further with a cast that featured dynamic women of all backgrounds.” In 2016, the Chromat fashion week show included model Lauren Wasser who strode down the catwalk in a cage-topped sheath dress and a gold prosthetic leg. In 2018, the show included model and musician Viktoria Modesta in sporty neon swimwear and daring dresses, and a prosthetic from the knee down.

Thinking twice about the diversity of experience represented in images requires an investment of time. And it may even require thinking outside the box and going beyond the images that we are used to seeing. But it will bring freshness and renewed intentionality to the look of your organization.

Why is it worth it? Because images reflect an organization's values and purpose. At Catalyst, the publishers say that their images are standing up for equal rights. What values are your organization’s images communicating?