Brand Building with Photography
Reflections on Believing is Seeing
December 18, 2016
In Reflections on Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris interrogates how photographs can convey truth and knowledge. The book is a collection of essays, and each one focuses on a controversy around a set of photographs where the truth of the photograph or the intention of the photographer is questioned. In interrogating the fuzzy relationship between photographs and truth, Morris sheds light on the power of photography.
Photographs, true or not, have a special ability to convey authenticity, engage people’s emotions, and project flexible meaning. These features also happen to be great tools for marketing and building a compelling brand. In managing the Bard College at Simon’s Rock website, I use photography to connect with audiences and create an emotional relationship.
Photography is seen as evidence of the world—a true record of history. It provides a window into a specific moment that is representational of a larger time period, and it elicits emotional engagement.
Compared to text, people are more likely to believe a photograph and take it as real. A college can state it has happy and engaged students, but a photograph of students in action and smiling is more likely to be seen as the real thing. People are less likely to question the message of a photograph—it is seen as evidence and it is more likely to bypass people’s skepticism of marketing.
The thing I like about old photographs is that they offer me a different sort of visual, and hopefully, therefore, emotional experience of what I’m looking at, that words can’t do, or that words can only do part of.
Roy Flukinger, as quoted in Reflections on Believing is Seeing
People relate to seeing other people’s faces. Something in our brain makes us want to smile when we see someone smiling. This reaction happens when we see a smile in real life or in a photograph, whether spontaneous or posed. Visual imagery is a shortcut to emotional engagement, and emotional engagement is an essential part of building a brand. Show a photograph of happy students, and viewers not only believe it, they feel it.
We project meaning onto photographs. The nature of a photograph is to provide a slice of a larger picture. Spatially the scene is cropped by the frame and the moment is extracted by the shutter. Photographs are often of people and places we don’t know. Yet we make meaning anyway by filling in the context. Marketers and storytellers can shape the meaning that viewers project in order to strengthen the intended message.
Context and Bias
Marketers and storytellers shape the meaning of photographs. Captions, text, and context will shape the way viewers understand the photograph.
Yet, marketers should be aware that users will bring their own context. Photographs may be better used to reinforce a message and provide emotional resonance rather than change someone’s mind. After reviewing how a situation where multiple journalists overlooked photographic evidence, Morris writes, “But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.”
Photographs are a vehicle for confirmation bias—reinforcing a viewers already held beliefs. The medium “is powerful because it is vague. It’s vagueness allows us to imagine all kinds of diverse scenarios, depending on our political sensibilities.” In order to understand a photograph, viewers build a context that reinforces their preconceived assumptions. These preconceptions are so strong that they often ignore contradictory photographic evidence.
Of a Moment, Yet Timeless
A photograph is a small slice of a single moment. It freezes that moment and yet becomes timeless. The moment is expanded into a generalization and becomes symbolic of how things always are. Dated clothing or era-specific coloring may limit the time-span, but even in these cases the photograph is likely to be seen as representational of a several year time period. The timelessness helps to shape the perceived essence of a place.
Photography is a powerful tool and we have a responsibility to use it honestly. It may not be clear what is “truth,” but we must commit to giving an accurate impression. Morris focuses on controversies in journalism where photographs are accused of being staged. I think people expect marketing photos to be staged, yet they still reflect something real. Even if staged, the photographs are assumed to be of real students at a real place and representational of what a real student might actually be doing. My rule of thumb is don’t do anything you would be embarrassed if the whole truth got out. With that, go forth and build your brand.
See more of my notes on reaching audiences and inspiring action, view my Marketing Remarks.