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How Photography and Visual Stories Can Accelerate Sustainability Progress

There is a clear need for effective communication, both internal to drive cultural change and external to protect reputation, but…

How Photography and Visual Stories Can Accelerate Sustainability Progress

19th June 2024

man drinking water out of plastic bottle

By Andrew Cameron

It’s all words

There is a clear need for effective communication, both internal to drive cultural change and external to protect reputation, but text alone is ineffective. People need visual stories. I once discussed biodiversity loss with a group of construction project managers who had no idea what I was talking about until I showed pictures of trees and birds. The phrases meant nothing to them, but the images were immediately recognisable, and the implication of removing trees was clear.

I regularly review companies’ sustainability reports and find that most describe their progress towards sustainability in text only. Some include charts, tables and images from online photographic libraries. Just a few include original photography, and none have any visual stories.

A research paper published by the Nielsen Norman Group titled, How People Read Online, found that where images were included with text the viewer moved from image to text to image to text and so on, in what they described as a lawn mower pattern. They stated that ‘People still primarily scan, rather than read. Scanning all of the text on a page, or even a majority, is still extremely rare.’

Challenges with embedding change

A Harvard Business article described one of the enemies of achieving sustainability as cultural, ‘Established firms, founded in the 20th century, were simply not designed for sustainability, and consequently they have not developed a culture of sustainability.’ ‘Changing people’s hearts and minds is the biggest challenge’

On the same theme an MIT Sloan Management Review article in 2023, titled Sustainability Progress has Stalled at Most Companies, identified several areas that companies needed to address including culture: ‘Our research has identified the lack of a sustainability culture as one of the biggest impediments to progress.’ ‘Communicating sustainability progress to employees is a key component of a sustainability culture, because it keeps issues top of mind. Celebrating successes will pique employee interest and legitimize the importance of sustainability to the organisation.’

There is a clear need for effective communication, both internal to drive cultural change and external to protect reputation, but text alone is ineffective, people need visual stories.

The picture superiority effect

Nielson Normal Group states that ‘Pictures can communicate concepts better than words alone, partly because people tend to remember information better when presented visually. This is known as the picture-superiority effect.’ An MIT study found that people can identify an image in just 13 milliseconds, interpreting whole visual narratives in seconds.

In photography we have conventions for building a coherent narrative, which include establishing shots, close-ups/detail, action, environmental portraits, and portraits. Using these conventions, we can create compelling photo stories or photo essays.

A typical visual narrative for a sustainability story might include:

  • An establishing wide shot that locates the issue or challenge
  • Environmental portraits or action shots that provide more detail about the issue or challenge
  • A detail shot that visually links the organisation and the sustainability challenge
  • The initiatives themselves, which might require two or three shots to convey
  • Portraits or other relevant shots that capture the positive impact of the initiative and the progress being made

We can see that this simple narrative structure might require 6-9 photographs to get the message across and fully engage an audience.

Why visual stories are more effective

The power of an image to stimulate the imagination so that the eye and brain read a story from what can be seen has been used to inform, motivate, and educate for thousands of years.

When we use speech or text to communicate, it is easier to be understood if the person speaking or writing is using the same language as the audience. Therefore, spoken and written language has created a divide between those people who do and don’t use the same language.

Whereas imagery is a universal language, it is truly inclusive, and we can read the meaning of an image in seconds that would otherwise require thousands of words in multiple languages to convey. Images are not just more effective; they are a more efficient way of communicating.

Reputational risk

Today, we hold companies to account in ways that were simply not possible 20 years ago technology has made the world smaller and research easier. Social media has meant that consumers can also be journalists and critics. Stakeholders can be activists and fund managers can be influenced by investors. It has never been easier to demonstrate displeasure with an organisation and call to question its ethics, values and reputation.

At a time when such risks are a very real threat, sustainability and CSR communication is essential. A survey of UK businesses in 2023 found that 20% had so little information about their sustainability initiatives that they admitted to publicly exaggerating progress, and 25% admitted to not knowing if their sustainability efforts were making any positive difference at all.  

Possibly because they aren’t actively documenting or celebrating the work they are doing and sharing it?


  • Efforts to deliver against sustainability goals are stalling for a large percentage of businesses
  • Sustainability is mainly being reported using text which research shows is unlikely to be read by employees, customers or investors
  • Achieving success with sustainability initiatives requires cultural and behavioural change – it is essentially a change program
  • Successful change programs required a regular drumbeat of communication to build momentum and turn the flywheel
  • Visual stories are universal and can be understood in a fraction of the time it takes to read
  • Organisations should be making use of visual storytelling to support progress towards sustainability goals

About the Author

Andrew Cameron started creating visual stories for businesses in 1994, then established his agency in 2000 specialising in visual communication to support change narratives. He has worked with organisations on sustainability stories since 2006.

To find out more visit:

To start a conversation drop him a line or give him a call: [email protected] +44 7884 185649

Categories: Advice, Articles, Creative

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