Train your brain to see positive angles in photo stories (and land more assignments)
There is a lot of sour and dour news out there, coming at us on a daily basis. For conservation photographers, that’s mostly what we deal in. It is our job to address the bad, and spark movement toward the good.
And there’s the key.
Sparking movement toward the good – that all-important positive change – means finding the silver lining in every story. It’s an essential step in crafting a narrative that will both wake up an audience and inspire action.
In fact, having a positive angle to a story is beneficial in several ways, including your story and audience as well as your mind and your bank account.
Why a positive spin helps your story and your audience
As bad news batters us, we can easily build up walls to protect ourselves from the overwhelm and loss of hope. It’s all too easy to just shrug and think, “Well everything is going to pot so what difference would I possibly be able to make?”
But that loss of hope, and loss of understanding our own individual power, is as great a threat to a sustainable future as the direct impacts of pollution, habitat destruction, species extinction and all the rest.
As conservation visual storytellers, not only do we have to show the realities of what is happening, but it is also very much within our ability – and indeed our responsibility – to show our viewers what their best next step is for action.
Finding that positive spin to your story helps move people from the problem to the solution, and inspires their action. And goodness knows we need everyone to take action on many issues.
Why a positive spin helps your mind
Compassion fatigue is a very, very real thing. And luckily there is a growing acknowledgment of its existence and effects.
“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” Dr. Charles Figley is quoted on The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.
Those who suffer from it have symptoms that include isolation, high levels of stress and anxiety, insomnia, physical and mental fatigue, feelings of helplessness or powerlessness, poor self-care, and other worrying effects.
If you, as a conservation visual storyteller, are constantly documenting the depressing, frustrating and frightening aspects of an issue, you’re prone to it.
But, by training your brain to find the hopeful spots, the potential avenues for change, the paths to get there, and can find examples of successes that serve as precedent to improvements that the issue you’re documenting might see, well then you have strong and useful tools to stave off the looming concern of compassion fatigue.
Why a positive spin helps your bank account
It’s not just for the mental benefit of everyone to find the positive angles of a story. It also helps your income stream. Editors are more likely to turn down a bad-news story, but may accept a bad-news story that is wrapped up in hope or action. Why? Because it’s easier to market.
Editors know that if they continuously depress their readership, that readership will decline. But if you can address an issue and in the process help readers feel empowered, or hopeful, then they may take action – or in the very least share the article with friends, family and followers.
Now I want to be clear on one very important thing. Finding a positive angle for your story does NOT mean sugar-coating it, or playing down the cold, hard truth of what your story is about. We aren’t letting anyone off the hook, or allowing them to waive off the gravity of a conservation situation.
What we’re doing is both informing AND inspiring action through hope. So, with that in mind, here are five ways you can train your brain to find that positive angle.
5 strategies for finding silver lining
1. Find the “So What” for the audience
Why does this conservation issue matter to your audience member? Be careful that you're going beyond why you think it should matter to them. Yes, there is of course a reason why a conservation issue matters to the audience from a conservation perspective, but there's also a reason it matters to them from their perspective. That might be how it impacts their family's health, their financial security, their shopping decisions, or even how it plays into what they know or understand about their political leaders.
How does your conservation issue impact your audience, even if what’s happening is on the other side of the world.
Once you know this, then even if it's a negative impact, you can find a positive way to frame the story in at least two ways:
- future pace your audience and illustrate for them for what it would look like if the negative impact were solved
- future pace your audience and illustrate for them how taking an action now would result in a positive change
2. Plan the Call To Action for the audience
What can someone do about the issue? If you know how the issue affects them, you can more easily identify the high quality actions your audience can take so they can avoid those negative impacts.
Once you identify at least one action, you’re well on your way for creating hope. Because few things inspire hope as knowing you have the power within yourself to do something effective.
Actionability is positive in and of itself, so find at least one thing a viewer can do that makes a difference and highlight that.
3. Image what a solution looks like and reverse engineer productive actions or event that get to that solution
If you’re struggling to see how your issue affects any audience, take a step back and just think about what your own ideal solution would look like. If this conservation issue were to be solved, what does that look like? Spend some time picturing the perfect version of the issue you’d like to see.
Once you can envision what an ideal situation looks like, you can reverse engineer the actions it takes to get there. If the end goal is this, then Action Z needs to happen. And for Action Z to happen, then Action X needs to happen, and if we're going to get Action X to happen then Action Y is needed. And so on.
Start with the perfect ending, then build a map to get there.
After you have a series of possible actions involved that get you to that ideal solution, then you can go back to ideas #1 and #2 to find those energizing action steps for your audience.
4. Connect your story to broader positive aspect of the species, location, or activity that you're documenting
If you're zeroed in on one particular thing, and that happens to be a bummer of a story, then look for ways to expand out and connect that particular thing to a larger context that does have some positive angles.
For example, if you're focused on shark finning and the extraordinary decline of shark species worldwide, you can expand out a bit and provide information about how the presence of a sharks as an apex predator directly benefits the health of coral reefs, and since coral reefs house around 25% of ocean biodiversity, sharks are amazingly important. You can then point out how places that have recognized this and banned finning have seen a bounce back of coral reefs.
Yes, you're still focused on ending shark finning, but you have this amazing positive benefit of the species to focus on as the silver lining to the hard, depressing work of ending finning. This silver lining also helps shape your “so what” factor and your energizing calls to action.
5. Find precedent for success that can be used as an example for where your conservation issue could also find success
An incredible amount of hope can be found in seeing where there has been similar success elsewhere. So, research if there have been successes elsewhere that can be highlighted as examples for potential successes for your issue, or if there has been legal precedent on a different but similar issue that could spark hope for getting needed laws passed for your conservation issue.
Let's go back to that shark finning concept as an example. While shark finning remains a problem, there are many countries around the world that have taken significant steps that help battle the problem. Many have banned shark fin trade, but going further, quite a few have embraced sharks as an ecotourism draw. Sharks have become more lucrative for a country alive than dead.
Smithsonian writes, “One place that has had great success in transitioning from a fishing-based economy to a tourism economy is Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, Mexico. “Instead of selling a fish, if you bring people to snorkel with that fish, you can make a sustainable living off of the life of the animal,” explains John Vater, head of Ceviche Tours, a company based out of Isla Mujeres. … “Tourism is really the only product that Isla Mujeres has to sell,” Vater says. “It has really helped the families of Isla Mujeres and the surrounding areas of the Yucatan.”
If your conservation story revolved around shark finning, or the loss of a species that could become a tourism draw, you have precedent for success around that behavior change and economic change.
Seeing the possibilities actually playing out inspires incredible amounts of hope. And since the successes already exist, figuring out what a solution will look like for your conservation issue, coming up with the necessary action steps, getting an audience on board with a “so what” that matters to them, and future-pacing your audience so they can see the potential if they take action becomes a much easier task.
All the pieces come together into one glorious, hope-filled whole!
Look for the silver lining anywhere and everywhere, and it pays off for everyone in the long run.