Altered images: Photoshopping the climate future is playing with fire

Altered images: Photoshopping the climate future is playing with fire

Experiments in photo editing have been a bit of a talking point this week.

We all know why. 

Banner headlines have lurched from the withdrawal of the now infamous royal Mother’s Day picture by news agencies, an apology by the Princess of Wales for having caused any confusion in what appears to have been some ham-fisted visual meddling, and many UK newspapers then rushing to defend her from further public criticism.

Yet a few discrepancies with royal cardigan cuffs and hand positions are hardly comparable to terrifying artificially-produced images of a world on fire.

You may remember the campaign by Climate Central last summer that featured AI-generated images of how many parts of the UK could look in the year 2100, with artificial photos of wildfires in Manchester and Brighton’s pier underwater. They were designed to shock and of course, their creators made no claim that any of the images were genuine.

Another non-profit chose this week to post an interesting article about the importance of genuine photography in capturing the impact of climate change over time,

“Images offer compelling proof that climate change is a tangible reality unfolding before us. By visually portraying the challenges through storytelling, photography emerges as a vital instrument in combating the perilous effects of global warming,” it said.

But another piece, by Climate Outreach, outlined the need for authenticity in climate images, and warned of the potential harm in overuse of visual stereotypes, such as polar bears. It pointed to the technological advances in generative AI over the past two years, and the sophistication of fake images that can now be created quickly and easily.

Sometimes, AI-generated photos can be used not just to underline dramatic climatic changes that are predicted, but the power of the technology, such as this publicity exercise by UK start-up Midjourney that depicted a dire future for global landmarks such as the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and Mount Rushmore.

Celebrities wilfully improving genuine photos of themselves is nothing new - see this round-up of some of the worst failures for a quick chuckle. And newspapers and magazines have photo editors who spend every day retouching and ‘improving’ what their photographers take.

Even Queen Victoria was at it, when photography was in its infancy. Plus don’t ignore Henry VIII’s “spectacular codpiece” (thank you, Daily Telegraph).

The temptation to use doctored images to enhance climate change storytelling, whether that be to further the aims of a NGO or to highlight the challenges that a company is tackling through positive action, can be high. As has been pointed out here on our sister publication PRmoment in the past, the range of images being used to depict the climate challenge is hardly broad. And the more readers are confronted with the brutal and terrifying reality of the impact of climate change on the natural environment and their lives through words alone, the more those words may start to wash over them, or even become counterproductive.

But there is clearly a big fat line to be drawn here: artificial images of climate change impact will not just be labelled as such, but the communication should be able about a projected change, with the inauthenticity central to the point being made. Genuine photos, meanwhile, can have an enormous impact in demonstrating the challenge and what damage has been caused over time, but they must be the real deal. Manipulation risks mistrust.

In communications, it has long been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. We should be careful that a faked image won’t undermine many legitimate, and critical, words.

Written by Steve Earl, partner at BOLDT.

Lead image credit: iStock/ivansmuk

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