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Are your images telling the right story?

As reported in Forbes, “Digital marketing experts estimate that most Americans are exposed to around 4,000 to 10,000 ads each day. At some point, we start a screening process for what we engage with and start ignoring brands and advertising messages, unless it’s something that we have a personal interest in.”

Let’s dig a little deeper… Based on the stat above, a crucial and relevant question that’s missing is: Of all the ads, which ones are inclusive and which propagate unintended biases? Do the images accurately reflect the values of the organization using them? Does it even matter to you? Do the ads — not to mention websites, blogs, and posts — advance harmful stereotypes?

Beginning in summer 2020, Miller Center embarked on a deep and serious exploration of our own Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) practices and formed a DEI working group to keep our center accountable, progressive, and on track. To date, our work has included implementing new diversity hiring practices, incorporating inclusive terminology and phrasing to describe our programs, implementing image usage guidelines, and facilitating biweekly social justice forums with our entire team to address important issues.

Taking account and recognizing our faults

Photographs and visuals are incredibly powerful tools to help quickly communicate key messages and should be in alignment with the work that we do. We started off examining our most public facing asset, our website. After conducting an audit of our visuals, we found that most of the images were of the people our social enterprises serve and not actually representative of the entrepreneurs we work with day to day. And the results were much worse in our archived content.

We’re not going to sugar coat it… We fell into the trap of trying to pull on the heart strings of our website visitors, rather than giving them the whole picture. Scroll down to see before and after examples.

This is problematic on two fronts:

  1. Using photos of people living in poverty does not accurately reflect WHO we work WITH. We work with the enterprises that are doing the hard work to create impact in their communities. It really does a disservice to bypass the people we are working with as an intermediary organization. In other words, it’s simply not authentic.
  2. We risked falling into the trap of “poverty porn” — images that exploit people, sometimes children, or trivialize their lives for fundraising purposes. At Miller Center, our work aims to promote a better understanding of the issues underlying poverty and elevate and accompany the local leaders working to create sustainable solutions. Our visuals should be true to that aspiration.

Implementation – Interrupting the bias

After close examination of our visuals and research into best practices, we developed a list of criteria to ensure that our images adhere to new standards. These include:

  • Focus on images of our social enterprise alumni engaging with our mentors and staff
  • Use images of our alumni entrepreneurs working within their communities and with their customers and partners
  • Ensure diversity in our photos. For an organization like Miller Center that connects with organizations around the world, we should reflect the geographic, racial, and gender diversity of those we work with.
  • Remove images where children are the focal point
  • Do not use stock photography
  • Eliminate images that convey a “white savior” relationship, even if that is not the actual relationship as we know it
  • If choosing to use photos of people served by our social entrepreneur alumni, select empowered images. And as often as possible, establish a clear relationship to the social enterprise (e.g. in an enterprise success story or with a photo caption)

 

Breaking the bias is one of the hardest parts of any marketing job, especially when it’s up to one person. Varied perspectives are key to inclusive representation, and a diverse group of people will be better at spotting and interrupting biases.

Other Considerations

  • Are there power dynamics within the composition of the photo that need to be addressed?
  • Evaluate your photo selections with the eyes of someone unfamiliar with your work. You may understand the good intentions pictured, but someone outside your organization may see “white saviorism” or other biases.
  • Are skin tones accurately being reflected or are you having to adjust the lighting and exposure. If this is the case, don’t do it.
  • Are photos absolutely necessary and can you use an illustration to represent the same idea?

 

Above all, prioritize inclusivity in your marketing. At Miller Center, we’ve committed to creating marketing assets that meaningfully reflect the diverse stakeholders we engage with, and adopting equitable and inclusive approaches to sourcing and showcasing imagery that best represents our work and aspirations. And while this may require a culture change, it’s a shift that we should all adopt. It’ll allow for better conversations, give more mindful intentionality behind the selection of photos and other assets, and make your brand materials much more authentic, engaging, and dynamic.

Before and After Examples

Hover your mouse over the image to see the change. 

Before Image After Image
Homepage hero image initially showed an up-close image of African children. Now it highlights the relationship we have with our social entrepreneurs and highlights a key focus area: Women’s Economic Empowerment.
Before Image After Image
Other areas of our website relied heavily on those served by our alumni, with whom we do not have direct contact. Now, our images showcase the relationships that exist between our alumni and their end-users, communities, and the positive outcomes of their impact.
Before Image After Image
While not overtly problematic, the original image can be perceived as privileged and staged, while the alternative is a candid photo of student fellows in their Action Research environment genuinely interacting with their colleagues.