How UNICEF Harnesses the Power of Visual Storytelling

On Medium, the organization uses moving photo essays to connect digital audiences to crises around the world

Courtesy of UNICEF. ©UNICEF/UN014189/ Sangmooh Han

What's the power of an image? The United Nations Children’s Fund is betting on photography as a part of its social strategy and its goal of reaching digital audiences around the world.

Medium International spoke to Christine Nesbitt Hills, UNICEF's senior photography editor based in New York. Nesbitt, originally from South Africa, is a photographer herself with a career in photojournalism, and occasionally gets a chance to shoot herself, though most of the time she's at the UN headquarters.

“We use Medium for long-form visual storytelling,” said Nesbitt. “The photo essays that we publish advocate for women and children through visual evidence and storytelling in support of their rights.” She added: “It’s just such an incredible visually-led platform where everything looks beautiful. We just love how the formatting looks and how it presents photography.”

Connecting with readers

“For us, what works in the photo essays is we’ve found greater and greater resonance with the personal narrative,” said Nesbitt, “being able to establish a person who faced some challenge or a hero in a narrative. It’s defining that person by more than the obvious.”

Courtesy of UNICEF. ©UNICEF/UN03231/Jiro Ose

This is especially important for UNICEF’s work with refugees and trying to draw connections between its audience and those in the photos. “It’s trying to show more of the whole picture so that it breaks down some of the othering that happens with audiences in an industrialized world who are looking at people in the developing world, and tries to sort of draw on those similarities,” said Nesbitt. “Children are children everywhere, parents have the same urges for their children, the same desires to watch them grow up in any part of the world.”

In September, UNICEF published a photo essay about Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, defining them beyond being refugees by focusing on a couple in love. Photographer Andrew Esiebio met them at the refugee camp, where the two reunited after being separated and decided to get married.

“What was really incredible about these pictures you see in the refugee camp was the fact that it was a ritual that everybody can relate to: that of being married,” said Nesbitt.

“All of it was playing out there in the refugee camp and the photographer was incredibly sensitive. You can see the joy in the husband and the wife as they partook of their first meal together. There’s these incredible sensitive little moments of post-marriage wedding portraits that are happening in a refugee camp. And normally when one looks at these portraits you imagine them happening in the gardens of a neighboring church or mosque.”

“It’s that same moment, that same universality that comes across that helps people also to realize that everyone is still the same. It provides that moment of relationship, that act of crossing over a boundary where one loses their reservations because someone looks different or their circumstances are different.”
Courtesy of UNICEF. ©UNICEF/UNI196107/Andrew Esiebo

“We find that personal narrative helps to break down the possibilities of stereotyping people,” Nesbitt said. “So rather than defining them as victims, one defines them as a multi-faceted child or adult [who] has many different emotions — not only the one we’re seeing in that specific moment in time in the photograph. There’s a moment when people actually realize this person is actually a little bit like me even though I’m not living in the same country or faced with the same challenges.”

A multilingual approach

UNICEF manages “Photography and social change” publications in four out of six of the UN official languages:

…and Chinese.

“Here at headquarters, we construct our photo essays in English,” said Nesbitt. “Our choice of photo essays is based around our global advocacy pushes, issues we want to raise awareness around, and any particular campaigns that UNICEF may be involved in at that stage. We have different content language producers for our website and they will actually make a call if these fit for their markets. Then it will go off for translation if it’s for their audience.” (Previously, UNICEF ran a fifth Medium publication in Arabic, but after product changes, it was no longer technically possible to write in right-to-left languages. Nevertheless, Nesbitt hopes to restart the publication again in the future.)

What's ahead

This year, UNICEF is focusing on the Syrian crisis, including the neighboring countries of Lebanon and Turkey, as well as the refugee crisis in Europe and education in emergencies for children fleeing conflict or displaced in their own countries.

Courtesy of UNICEF. ©UNICEF/NYHQ2015–2619/Gilbertson VII

The UNICEF team works closely with photographers in the field. “Generally there’s a high level of engagement,” said Nesbitt. “We’ll be speaking together with producers before they go into the field to brief them a little about our areas of interest are, what they’re finding out on the ground. We also want our producers to act as journalists, to be independent producers to go out there and look for stories and interesting things that would be visually appealing and would appeal to particularly a millennial audience.”

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