The Power of a Picture

Sydney DeMets (left) and Camryn Kluetmeier (right) Photo: Riley Steinbrenner

by Riley Steinbrenner

This summer, the CFL was lucky enough to have Riley Steinbrenner, a talented photographer and communicator, as Trout Lake Station’s summer science communication intern. The following is an excerpt from her final blog post about her experience in the Northwoods.

Goodbyes are hard, especially when it comes to saying them to people you’ve lived with and developed friendships with over the summer. (Seriously, where did the time go?!) And so, I’d like to start off my final post as Trout Lake Station’s science communication intern by thanking all the wonderful staff and student researchers who made my time at Trout Lake so enjoyable. It’s hard to believe I got to call this my job.

Through my summer spent trying to tell the wider world what it is we do here, I learned that understanding the language of science is not much different than understanding Chinese, German, French or English. It requires translation through metaphor, visuals and humanization.

Sixty-five percent of us are visual learners. I don’t remember anyone in my third grade class who objected to our science teacher popping a Bill Nye the Science Guy video into the VCR and pleaded with her to read “Chapter Eight: Plate Tectonics” instead. Why? Because visuals—whether moving or still—transport us to the content of that image and increase our engagement with and enjoyment of it.

In today’s routine of news perusing (often on a 5.5-inch smartphone screen) a person takes no more than seven seconds to decide if they want to click on that headline about conducting long-term ecological research (LTER) on Trout Lake. Unless someone is already interested in the LTER network, what would make them want to click on something that is not immediately relatable?

(Front to back) Martin Perales, Alyssa “Liddy” Ginther and Matt Chotlos use Fyke net to sample for fish species on a Northwoods lake

But, when that headline gets paired with a picture of an undergraduate student reaching over to one side of a wind-tossed boat with a graduated cylinder in her hand and the kind of look on her face that anyone who’s had a stressful week at work is all-too familiar with, that article becomes more appealing. It’s something we can all relate to—that feeling of dreading the situation but having to push through and get the job done. And since most of us are empathetic humans, you more often than not click on that headline.

The power of photos doesn’t stop there. While they work wonders reeling readers in, they also have a special power to augment key points in the written text because seeing is experiencing. For example, if a reader misses the written explanation of what gastric lavage is, a picture can help them understand that it means making a fish puke in a petri dish! Or, when I’m writing about going into the field with a team of researchers, a picture can bring the reader with me. For example, the realities of night fieldwork become clearer – the complete and utter darkness of a moonless night in northern Wisconsin, the headlamp needed to measure fish and take notes, the long sleeves and mosquito netting needed to preserve your sanity.

Overall, writing and photographing these posts have made me realize that photos truly help place the readers into the text, transporting them to the scene of the action, which increases their attention as well as their engagement and, ultimately, their comprehension. That “as if you were there feeling” a photo can capture can have the same (if not stronger) impact as writing. There is no writer’s voice to alter the viewer’s experience, making the experience more relevant and meaningful to the viewer. It’s an aspect of science communication that is crucially important – making things matter.

You can find more of Riley’s words and pictures on our blog.