We’re all crafting an image — but whose?

Let’s spend less time worrying about trying to check all the boxes & more time wondering how we could choose images that tell our stories in a way that reframes the narrative.

This article was written by featured writer Janice Chan

We’ve been over how people give to people. The last two months you have probably been receiving fundraising appeals that follow some version of this formula: a close up picture of a person — ideally making eye contact with the reader — whose life is impacted by our work, plus a story of how our organization works to help this person, plus how you can help people like this person.

I am not making fun of professional fundraisers for nonprofits. Nor a time-tested formula. (Okay, maybe a little, but that’s not why I’m here.)

I’m here to talk about the images we choose. How do we choose to show the people whose stories we tell?

Nonprofit organizations and the in-house or freelance graphic designers working with them want to help (potential) supporters connect with people benefiting from the donation and the organization’s work. One of the most effective ways to do that is to tell an individual’s story. Which brings us to the fraught conversations and decisions around choosing images.

The goal of any appeal or campaign is action. That action can be making a donation, getting a flu shot, or calling one’s members of Congress. You want to compel people to action. And so the image needs to be compelling.

It also needs to respect people’s dignity.

Let’s tackle compelling first. What compels us to act on someone else’s behalf? Maybe it is suffering — someone who is clearly worse off than we are and who needs are help. Sure, but we also need to believe we can do something about it. What else? Maybe it’s people who visibly represent certain groups, or my favorite, “look diverse.” (While I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman might say, I’m not sure diverse is something an individual can be.)

Maybe it’s because they seem like us: someone from the same neighborhood, a student with the same interests, someone whose story could have been ours if someone else hadn’t intervened. In college, I organized a poetry reading through a soup kitchen with a writing program. A classmate came up to me afterwards, saying that she used to think homeless people were all lazy or addicts. That night she’d heard from a woman who used to be a teacher but had difficulty holding jobs due to a chronic medical condition. The classmate, an aspiring teacher, remarked, “That could be me.” I have no idea whether she changed her actions, but she was certainly compelled to change the way she saw homeless people.

Not all communications have a specific call to action, but even if it’s an annual report, we still want our images to be compelling. If a picture tells a thousand words, what are we telling?

This brings me to respecting people’s dignity. This extends beyond humans. You’ve probably seen those commercials for the animal shelter full of sad dogs and cats in cages, or chained and left outside. Does it make you want to give or does it make you want to change the channel?

Okay, clearly that’s extreme. But that doesn’t mean that happy-looking pictures are automatically better.

Consider all the things people do merely so they can post pictures of themselves doing these things on social media. Like when you’re in a developing nation and decide to snap a selfie of yourself helping these poor, helpless people.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. Being entrusted to tell someone’s story is both an honor and a privilege.

If this seems weighty, it is. We should work to earn that trust, especially if our organizations aim to help lift people up or to empower others. But I prefer to think of it as an opportunity.

I once worked on a instructional manual for coaches new to working with kids who have disabilities. We struggled to pick a photo for a cover. Thankfully, we had a great partner, with years of experience running an organization that helps people with all types of disabilities play baseball, looking through photos with us.

“We need to show kids with disabilities being active.”

He was emphatic about the importance of people seeing kids (in this case, it was aimed at youth programs) with disabilities being active and playing sports. He asked about a photo of a boy in a wheelchair batting a ball at a joint event. The photo had been set off to the side because another organization hosted the event and so we didn’t have the permission form signed by a parent. Turned out the partner knew the kid’s parents and offered to ask.

Until that moment it never occurred to me that people with disabilities are often portrayed as passive. It’s not much different from pictures that only show the destitution of people in developing nations.

I’m not saying that we can’t show real situations, but when we choose an image to help tell someone’s story, we are framing the narrative.

Even if we simply tried to pick the sharpest photo of a kid who’s both smiling and looking into the camera. Even if we believe we are simply picking a funny GIF. We know that a passive choice is still a choice.

Why not choose to reframe the usual narrative?
Photo was taken at the Olympic MTR Station in Hong Kong by Janice Chan, 2017.

In an early job, I occasionally researched prospective donors. Years later I still recall clicking on one company’s website and seeing a picture of their CEO: Asian, and a woman. Until then, I never realized that I had never seen someone who looked like me in a top position — and that, it had never occurred to me that CEO was a possibility. Career aspirations aside, the power of that image remains.

Whether you’re a mission driven organization or a graphic or web designer, you’re in a place to choose images. Let’s spend less time worrying about trying to check all the boxes and more time wondering how we could choose images that tell our stories in a way that reframes the narrative. Every time we choose an image is a chance. Let’s make the best of each one.

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