OPINION: Visual imagery has not lost its power

Wandering round hilltop towns in Umbria this summer gave me plenty of opportunity to study Italian painting from the 13th to 16th centuries. What struck me was not the quality of execution, nor the stylistic variation over time, but the sheer repetition of subject and the clear reinforcement of a set of messages.

Annunciations, nativity scenes, piétas and scenes from the lives of saints hung on every wall and above every altar. Many featured the immediate locality as background and included local characters in the crowds surrounding the Holy family. These were paintings designed not just to show off the talent of the artist – and to earn a crust – but to put across to a largely illiterate population the basic message of the Testaments and to make it relevant to them.

Returning to the UK, it struck me anew how essential the visual image remains in capturing the essence of a story and keeping it alive.

The latest inquiry into Diana’s death commanded acres of media space with the release of the CCTV footage of her last day. Madeleine McCann’s parents’ valiant efforts to keep the search for their daughter alive have continued for five months with the help of different pictures of a very photogenic little girl.

It is hardly an original thought that a picture tells a thousand words but, in our written cultures, we spend far more time crafting and arguing over words than we do in creating strong, educative visual images. Literacy levels may be very different from the 13th century – but so is the competition for attention.

When we are striving every day to promote awareness of climate change, or convince the population that smoking kills or that the future is in public transport, we need to think harder about what role visual imagery should play in making complex concepts simple and relevant for our audiences.

So next time next time you issue a press release with explanatory ‘notes for editors’ as long as the release itself – stop. Think visual. Remember Signorelli or Perugino – the in-house PR teams of their age. They knew how best to reach their audience and understood that ‘seeing is believing’.

Helen McCallum is director of communications, The Environment Agency

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