This interview originally appeared on Climate Visuals as part of my consulting work.
“A lot of the issues facing environmental and climate change photography are facing the stock imagery industry as a whole. There is a lack of education on image rights, people just want images quickly and they want to move on with their day. Which makes sense, I totally get that. But there is little value placed on the good images out there.” Larry Westler.
Larry Westler is the content director at Aurora Photos. Behind him, in the agency’s roster, are some of the world’s best visual creatives focusing on the outdoors and the environment. Aurora markets their imagery to buyers all over the world and Climate Visuals has partnered with them to bring you the Aurora Collection.
When communicators need an image to illustrate something, they often turn to stock agencies. From big players like Getty to smaller specialised collections like Aurora, these companies hold the keys to our visual language. So, what roadblocks exist within this industry that are hindering a better visual language for climate change? We asked Larry:
“A number of climate change organisations – editorial websites, NGOs or textbook publishers for example – have come to us recently and they don’t have any budget for images. Which makes it really hard.
We have these photographers, who are professional photographers, trying to make a living by shooting and it is very difficult to sell the professional images to these companies, even at a discounted non-profit rate. Some of them are just asking for donations for credit. We are put in a hard position because we want to be able to help but we can’t for the most part.
Extrapolating from that I assume that this is a big problem throughout the industry. Many clients looking for images to portray [climate change] either do not have a budget or are not valuing the visuals as much as they should. So it is harder for them to get professional images, harder for them to portray whatever issue they are working on at that moment.
This is then reflected in what kind of images are submitted to us and what kind of images are out there. We are a capitalist society and if there is no pay off for shooting an image, photographers by and large are not going to shoot it.”
Essentially the push for free imagery is creating a race to the bottom, one which favours certain clichés and a belaboured (melting ice, polar bears) subject matter. When we undervalue imagery and take from the bottom of the pile we lose a key opportunity to connect with our audience and we continue to reinforce the narrow visual language that currently dominates climate change coverage.
Go to any stock agency and type in ‘climate change’ and you will see that language on display. This is another roadblock according to Larry:
“If you go to a website and you type in climate change, you get a lot of polar bears, and perhaps those fake scientists in those fake labs. This is a curation issue. How is the stock agency accepting images, how are they presenting that sort order for their clients? And again, what is being valued? If climate change photography is a small percentage of their sales then they are not going to prioritise those clients as much as they would big ad agencies or magazines.
How do we get these images that are 10-15 years old in front of buyers where they might be relevant again? How do we organise it to enable a better search? How do we organise it so that when you type in ‘X environmental issue’ or ‘climate change’ you don’t just get thousands of the exact same result?
The way to do that is through more specific searches and radiating outwards. It is using words in combination, like ‘environment & bees’ or ‘climate change & oil’. It then becomes a matter of how do you keep refining the search engine? How do you keep refining the image selection and the value you are putting on your images and how do you educate the users of the website?”
At Aurora they have tried to alleviate this issue with their ‘Focus on the Environment’ collection. This is a curated and growing body of over 3800+ images that focuses not only on the ‘classic’ environmental imagery but also on the lesser recognised stories. It is a good example of how agencies can be proactive in educating their clients.
It remains to be seen how stock agencies will continue to engage to dismantle these roadblocks. One thing is a given: as the gatekeepers to our visual language, stock agencies play a big role in making good climate change imagery accessible and valued.