Image problem: are we using the wrong photographs to illustrate migration and climate change?

Image problem: are we using the wrong photographs to illustrate migration and climate change?

Alex Randall
Image: “A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by UNHCR Photo
Finding photos to illustrate stories about migration and climate change is difficult. It’s easy to choose images that don’t accurately represent the kind of human movement being talked about. Or that paint migrants and refugees as a threat. Here are some pitfalls and suggestions of finding the right images.

The disaster scene

It is true that much of the human movement linked to climate change happens during sudden disasters. People are forced to move immediately, under significant distress. Images like this imply victim-hood and helplessness. They also often illustrate appeals for help from wealthy donor nations and the need for aid provision.

The drought

Yes, some people are forced to move by drought. If you’re talking or writing about this, then using this kind of image is ok. But be careful. Changes in rainfall actually create a number of different kinds of human movement. It’s certainly true that in the Horn of Africa lack of rainfall has forced millions of people to move. However, altered rainfall in other parts of the world has seen people using temporary and seasonal migration as a way of adapting.

People crossing borders, arriving in boats or climbing fences

It’s unlikely that climate change impacts will force large numbers of people into the UK. In fact most people who move due to climate change won’t cross an international border. Images of people crossing borders and seeking asylum are likely to be photos of people fleeing persecution and conflict. So be extremely careful with images like this. This image could paint migrants (of any kind) as a threat. Just like the drought displacement images, photos like these can be used to imply that large numbers of desperate people might become a threat.
Key resource

Climate, migration, neoliberalism

The lecture sketches out a history of neoliberalism, and then looks at how the culmination of this political thinking is reflected in the policies that are being created to address climate change and migration.

Heroes and saviours?

If you are talking or writing about disaster relief and the role played by aid agencies and donors then it’s fine to use images that illustrate this. Climate change could reshape how and where relief is needed, and this should be topic of discussion. But avoid using generic “relief images” to illustrate general points about climate, migration and displacement. Not all human movement linked to climate change requires relief from developed country governments. And the role of developed countries in disasters is clearly not exclusively as providers of rescue, they are also the biggest emitters of green house gasses.

The sinking island

The Pacific islands have become the “poster child” of the migration and climate change issue. Images of people engaged in traditional livelihoods have become iconic of the threat to Pacific islands and their people. Use these images with caution. Much of the human movement linked to climate change will happen outside the Pacific. While some relocation projects are underway, the the bulk of human movement in the Pacific is not en masse relocation, but rather people moving to find work in nearby countries.

Some basic rules

Images should illustrate, as accurately as possible what you are actually writing or talking about. So ask the following questions:

What kind of climate impacts are being discussed?

Are they slow onset impacts like drought and desertification, or sudden disasters like floods or typhoons? Make sure the images reflect the kind of climate impacts you’re talking or writing about.

Where is it happening?

Get the country right. If you’re talking about floods in Pakistan don’t use a photo of flooding Bangladesh.

What kind of human movement are you talking about?

It it forced? Or have people had some say in where and when they move? If you’re talking about people who had some agency in their movement, don’t use photos of displacees.

IMAGES IN THIS PIECE:
“SG Visits the Philippines” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by United Nations Photo
“Darfur’s forgotten refugees” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation
“Pacific – IWRM” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Global Environment Facility (GEF)
“A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by UNHCR Photo Download
Key resource

Climate, migration, neoliberalism

The lecture sketches out a history of neoliberalism, and then looks at how the culmination of this political thinking is reflected in the policies that are being created to address climate change and migration.

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