Published on Development Impact

Beyond the trite “I was there” photo: Using photos and videos to communicate your research

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One signature feature of many academic presentations by development economists is the use of photos. Go to a labor or health economics seminar and you will almost never see a photo of a U.S. worker or U.S. family participating in some early childhood program, but go to a development seminar and odds are incredibly high that you will see shiny happy people holding hands. This is often the source of much eye-rolling among non-development economists (and even among ourselves), so I thought I’d speak up a little in defense of the use of photos, as well as share some recent experiences with trying to use them better.

Why do development presentations have photos when most other presentations by economists do not?

  • Signaling “I was there”: some development research involves a substantial amount of time travelling to far-flung locations, and there is sometimes the desire to demonstrate this effort by showing a random field shot. Not really a good use. This is not to negate the tremendous benefits of speaking to participants in the program you are studying, but we don’t need the photo proof.
  • To fix in mind the specifics of what population or intervention we are talking about: I do a lot of work on firms and entrepreneurs. But people have very different pictures in their minds of what these words typically mean, and there is large heterogeneity in the sector. I find it useful in my own presentations and those of others working on this topic to see a few photos to get a sense of the scale and sophistication of the firms we are talking about. Likewise, when I see presentations on new agricultural technologies, it is often useful to have a photo to demonstrate what is being used.
  • To illustrate impact: this can be difficult to do, as I’ve noted in a previous post, but when you can show visual evidence of what the intervention has done, it can be powerful. One can go further and use the photos as a source of data if they are taken systematically.
  • For visually more interesting presentations: maybe it’s not us, it’s them – perhaps the problem is that most other presentations by economists in other fields are not visually interesting enough.
Using photos and videos better
So how can we use these better? I’ve had a couple of recent experiences where we were asked to put together content for a more general audience, which impressed upon me the need to improve how I do this. In the past, I would often take a few photos while I was visiting firms, after asking permission from the owners. But these photos would be taken with my iphone, and the permission was usually the natural verbal permission. But higher standards of both consent and quality are needed for more broader use, and public communications may require different material from what you might normally collect. Some of what follows also draws on Science’s  guides to researchers, which are provided after manuscript acceptance – I thought I would share here, since some of this is much easier to collect along the way than after the research is completed.

Consent: Make sure that people understand what the likely uses of the photo/video are, and that you know whether they would like to be identified by name or anonymous. Images of children may require additional parental permission. Ideally this permission will be written, but in some contexts people are much less comfortable with signing this than verbally okaying it. For media use, they will also typically want the credit information for the photographer, so know who took the photo.

Quality: photos should be high-resolution (at least 300 dots per inc). We hired a professional photographer to take photos for projects in Togo and Nigeria, and the quality was definitely much higher than we would get ourselves. So think about including budget for this into your grants. Science tells authors “The Press Package team has consulted with reporters at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, STAT, and The Economist, and the verdict is in: they want videos, and having them can make the difference between their covering research – or not”. So think about whether you can profile your research with short videos as well.

Representativeness: Don’t just profile outliers, but use profiles that are consistent with your broader research findings.

Different types of photos/videos for different audiences: the types of photos I tend to take for academic presentations often focus on specific features of the firms, and often don’t have a person in them at all (e.g. I might be wanting to illustrate how the factory floor is organized, or the types of products firms make – I was way too excited to get to photograph an o-ring). In contrast, if the purpose is communicating to a more general public, you might want photos and videos of the intervention in action – so of people taking part in a business training session, or a teacher teaching a lot of students in a classroom. These are things I feel that most of us can easily imagine and so aren’t really needed for fixing an idea or population in mind for an academic presentation, so you might want to plan ahead and take these for communicating to a broader audience.

Here is a recent example of an immersive story the World Bank communications team (thanks especially to Rachel Coleman) did for our personal initiative training study in Togo, along with a short video. Here is a more amateur video that we did for illustrating the process of collecting RFID tags.

How do you use photos and videos/how would you like to see them used?
The main point of this post is to get people to think about collecting media content more carefully and earlier in their research process, rather than waiting until publication and finding out then what people would like to see. So it would be great if others could share experiences of how they have used (or wished they had used better) photos and videos, or what concerns they have about their use. Or if you work in communications/media, things you wish researchers would keep in mind/do better?


David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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