The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

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  • Elisabeth
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The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

I would like to draw your attention to the subtle power of images used in our publications and websites. This is in the context of equity and decolonisation of knowledge / decolonisation of the internet. I urge you all to pay special attention of how images may reinforce stereotypes and make people feel excluded or "not invited". This might happen without the authors really planning to but just "by chance" and when not examining the chosen images carefully.

I feel that I have recently become more sensitised towards this issue and would like to discuss this with you. Part of my sensitisation took place via my work on the English Wikipedia. At the English Wikipedia, very subtly, a lot of the content is geared towards North America and Europe which is due to the bulk of volunteer editors coming from there and them not thinking about this carefully or not being sensitised enough. For example, an article about "floods", which is global in nature, may use many image examples from floods in Europe and the US but very few from floods in Africa. This might give off the (unintended) message that the wealthier countries are more important than developing countries. 

Let me give you three examples that I've recently come across. Two from outside the sanitation sector and one from inside.

A series of Wikipedia articles on the topic of "research" used this image:
 

My complaint was: three times more men than women are shown. No person of colour is shown (although Asian ethnicity is included which is good). Probably such a group photo with people will never really "work", it's too hard to get the balance right! It has now been replaced with this one, which I think is better (sometimes it's easier to show no people at all):

 

See for example here  how it looks for the Wikipedia article called "Experiment". However, is it a coincidence that a white baby is shown to carry out an experiment, not a non-white child. Hmmm.... It's hard! I don't want to come across as too extreme either.

Second example in next post. 
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  • Elisabeth
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

My second example is again from Wikipedia. We have a project there called Editor Retention (see here ). It is meant to be welcoming new editors to stick around. In its logo it uses this image:



I've written on the talk page and have said: "I really think we ought to change the project logo which currently shows two hands which clearly belong to two white people. Let's be more inclusive to editors with any skin colour. I suggest replacing it with a more schematic image that shows no skin colour at all. Or two different shades of skin colour (but then we have the question of how dark to make the darker skin colour...). Please have a think about it."

Am I really the first person to point this out to the team members? A bit disappointing, isn't it.

We can't keep saying we want more Wikipedia editors from around the whole world and then use images like this which indicate that white people's hands are "the standard" and everything else is different. At least those hands look neither male nor female which is good.

Third example to follow in next post.
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  • Elisabeth
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

Here comes my third example. This one is from the WASH sector. It's the title page of this publication:

Schertenleib, R., Lüthi, C., Panesar, A., Büürma, M., Kapur, D., Narayan, A., Pres, A., Salian, P., Spuhler, D., Tempel, A. (2021). A Sanitation Journey - Principles, Approaches & Tools for Urban Sanitation . Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA), GIZ Sector Programme “Sustainable Sanitation, Eawag-Sandec

The title page looks like this:

 

Segments from the title page are also repeated throughout the publication to introduce the various chapters.

The image looks nice and colourful. Upon closer examination, these are my observations:
  1. It's four men doing physical labour work, versus one women doing some clerical/checking work, and one woman doing unpaid work in the kitchen, versus one man sitting on the couch relaxing. It’s not really helpful if we’re trying to break gender stereotypes… Unless we’re saying, "well this is the reality currently – live with it." Is it our job to just repeat the reality of gender stereotypes or can we contribute to breaking through these stereotypes?
  2. Interesting also that none of the people depicted has very dark skin. It’s either white or light brown, like people from India or Coloureds in South African (the graphic was prepared in South Africa; I believe Coloured is still the accepted term; correct me if I am wrong). I once read an interesting article in the Guardian that apart from general racism, people with very dark skin (so from some African countries) have it much harder in the US and the UK to build successful careers in media than people who have medium brown skin, i.e. mixed people like Trevor Noah for example. I think it’s really interesting. So when depicting a group of people, and trying to be inclusive, one has to be so careful…
What are your thoughts? Am I being too extreme in my views or do you share my concerns? Do you have your own examples of before and after images that show deliberate efforts of doing this better? Any examples of thought processes in your own organisations where you have tried to find just the right images?

Regards,
Elisabeth
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  • SusannahClemence
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Re: Reply: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

I agree with you Elisabeth. As an illustrator myself (volunteer, not professional) I would expect such a lack of balance to be challenged by the publisher, and corrected well before it's printed. As it clearly hasn't been, it is a bit shocking! Apart from the "political" point, it's an inaccurate reflection of real life. Thank you for picking it up, Susannah
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  • FroggiVR
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

Thank you, Elisabeth, for this well-documented opening to what I hope will be an engaging and productive conversation; it is one that I have been increasingly addressing in my immediate professional circles.  This issue encompasses the use of images, as well as idioms, example-scenarios, and more.
The reinforcing of limiting stereotypes through image use is evidence of unconscious bias that many of us, including myself, are actively learning to examine.  In the humanitarian fields, it seems even more common, as our work inevitably involves collaborations and engagement between well-resourced communities and formerly colonized/exploited communities.  
For those who are engaged in this journey, especially as it relates to depictions and assumptions about communities in the global South, I strongly recommend this TED talk ("The danger of a single story") by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - a student shared it with me many years ago, and it was one of the sparks that led me to active self-examination of the visuals and example scenarios I use in my teaching about global development: 
www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adich...le_story?language=en
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  • secretariat
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  • SuSanA secretariat currently allocates 2 full time person equivalents of time from members of GIZ Sustainable Sanitation Team: Arne Panesar, Cecilia Rodrigues, Shobana Srinivasan, Mintje Büürma, Finn Staack and intern Salua Moussawel.
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

Dear Elisabeth,
Dear all,
 
Thank you for bringing about this topic, much aligned to the discussion on decolonizing the WASH Sector.
 
Your post deserves an appropriate response and we are working on one. This will require a bit more time.
 
In the meanwhile, we would like to apologize to persons that might had felt offended by the illustrations in the above-mentioned publication.
 
We will get back to you with a more elaborated reply soon.
 
Kind regards,
Finn
(on behalf of the SuSanA Secretariat)
 

P.S: That is a good example of allyship, applying non-discriminatory lenses in your capacities as Wikipedia editor and Forum Moderator. 
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  • shobana
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

Dear all,
 
 At the Sector Programme Sustainable Sanitation @ GIZ we had a Diversity Workshop in 10/2020.  One of the results of the workshop was to look at how we use pictures and graphics in detail in our program and in our role as the host of the SuSanA Secretariat. Hence, Elisabeth’s post above is a welcome reminder to have a follow up on this topic.
 
To apply basic concepts of diversity and inclusion on the SuSanA platform and the publications available on our library from various partners and members, we propose to have a structured discussion in the form of a Thematic Discussion (TD) on the topic in the Forum.  The Secretariat is able to provide some financial support to host and moderate such a TD ( See here: Thematic discussion Series Compilation (2018) ). But we would need to make sure that the idea is welcome and create a group of SuSanA members to kick start the TD.
 
Such a discussion shall help us and the sanitation sector:
  • to understand the topic better under several dimensions and experiences in the sanitation sector
  • to provide information and awareness on how to have more inclusive images representing diversity and acknowledge the influence and power of graphics / pictures in future
  • to understand better, how to use images to advocate for the future we want
 
Several people from the SuSanA Secretariat are also directly linked to the SuSanA Sanitation Journey Publication mentioned as a third example above. Therefore, we also want to mention here that all the authors of this publication have taken note of the concerns expressed and agreed to use the TD as a way forward on how to address bias in our visual and written works and to make a reasonable decision with regard to the cover page based on the TDS outcome.
 
We suggest the following process for the TD in the coming months:  
We invite all members and partners in helping identify a lead organization or individuals who could facilitate/join/lead the discussion. Kindly contact shobana.srinivasan@giz.de  from the Secretariat with your ideas and suggestion. If you have heard of similar discussions, kindly share it with us directly or on the Forum.
 
We look forward to a successful TD.
 
Best regards,
SuSana Secretariat
Shobana Srinivasan
Advisor
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH

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  • Elisabeth
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

Dear all,

Thank you all for your inputs. A thematic discussion would be interesting but it might take a while to get that off the ground and to find suitable facilitators.
So I would say let's not be stalled while waiting for that, but rather continue the flow of conversation and joint learning. In parallel, I'd still like to hear about people's feelings and opinions on this topic.

Thank you to Susannah and Froggy for reacting to my posts! Froggy, I enjoyed the TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the danger of a single story. Life is so complex but humans like to stereotype, generalise and put people into boxes.

Regarding my Wikipedia work, I'd like to give you an update: The other editors were very willing to change the logo with the two white hands but it took us a lot of brainstorming to come up with something better (see talk page here )* ! We tried different hand skin colours and eventually realised, it just doesn't work because someone will always feel left out! Also which hand should be reaching out to whom? Is one uplifting the other? Even the handshake symbol for me was not ideal as I wondered whether it applies more to men in many cultures than to women. Not all women around the world do handshakes - now with Covid even less so! So we discussed and then discarded the following icons:

We started with this:
 

Then tried these different skin colours:
 

Then thought about a plain handshake:


In the end we settled on this one, because it's meant to show diversity (without actually skin colours) as well as support and Wikilove (the hearts):
 

I don't know if it's ideal but it's as far as we got. My learning is that perhaps it's sometimes better to have abstract colours rather than any skin colours at all.

Who else has examples to share of images that were used in the WASH sector (or beyond) and then later on changed once someone pointed out a flaw? Images that were subconsciously conveying old-fashioned messages? Images which - once we were sensitised - could no longer be used? Like this one:

Elisabeth

P.S. Shobana: were there any training slides from the GIZ diversity workshop that could be shared here? Perhaps lists of do's and dont's? Eye openers? Discussion starters? Good and bad examples to learn from? 

* If the link is no longer leading to the right place then have a look in the talk page's archive by searching for "Please rethink the project logo with the two white hands".
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

Elisabeth, I so appreciate the way you documented the decisionmaking process around the Wiki logo.  From considering the range of human skin tones, to the implied direction of aid between two hands, to gender and cultural implications of a handshake.  You covered many concerns. 
I'm going to save a copy of this thread for reference in my classes.  Your last post will serve well as a quick intro to guided class discussions about the thought process of learning decolonization.   Thank you for your constructive communication style!
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  • paresh
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

Thank you Elisabeth for initiating this much needed conversation. I am also glad that the secretariat has taken the observations in the right spirit and proposed measures to continue to sensitise itself and members of the forum.  I completely agree that we should continue the conversation even as a thematic discussion is being planned. 

I just want to point out that 'privilege is everywhere'. While we are discussing the privileges of Global North over the Global South, lets not forget that they exist within the Global South as well. In India for example, caste plays are major role, and a privileged few from the upper castes steer the discourse around every aspect of our life. Unfortunately, that is also true for international cooperation, development, and sanitation sectors. I am not aware of such privileges in other countries and hope other members would add and educate me and others. 

The other point I want to highlight is what you hint at in your opening post - 'once you are sensitised and see privileges, you can't unsee them'. I was sensitised about privileges only recently thanks to discussions with colleagues and readings on the issue of manual scavenging. And that has changed the way I see almost everything happening around (unfortunately, there is a lot happening around) and analyse instances from the past.

In this sense, I think the thematic discussion proposed by the secretariat is a good idea. My suggestion however is to have multiple experts from different contexts instead of one. And I really hope atleast a few, if not all are from or have origins in the Global South. It may take some effort to identify such experts, but I think it is totally worth it.

Regards
paresh
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

A topic that is very dear to my heart. Though, most of the stereotypes reinforced are planned, this sub-topic touches on only one small piece of the overall programming we live in.

The stereotype that is propagated related to looks and fashion. Over a decade (a decade ago) i made many trips to the villages, e.g. in Rajasthan, and was in the presence of a major shift, but not in WASH, which i did not observe. Only later, i realized the changes. My last image is of a meeting, where it seemed that all the women were coming to the meeting via the beauty parlor. All their eye-brows were done, facial and arm hair was done away with.

Across India, beauty parlors have spread before roads and sanitation, on the heels of TV. Images program our thinking of beauty, of status.

Actually, Men are from Venus, Women are from Mars is one stereotype on clothing that is reinforced intentionally. So, if we ourselves have fallen for these stereotypes (one can take images at international WASH conferences), its not a surprise that we pass on, what we have subtlety learned.
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Re: The subtle power of images - reinforcing stereotypes without even planning to...

The other point I want to highlight is what you hint at in your opening post - 'once you are sensitised and see privileges, you can't unsee them'.

I think we start to love our privileges and rationalize them. That is why privileges are handed out carefully crafted as rewards and coveted. Which is also how compliance is achieved by those who have abundant resources to hand out privileges and access.

So people in power can say/do many things unquestioningly. Which connects this post to another post on colonization.

For this post, one stereotype that an attached bathroom with a flushing toilet is superior, is one that also needs to be challenged.
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