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Just “performance nonsense”?: How recipients process news photos of activists’ symbolic actions about climate change politics

   | 06 lug 2021


In this article, I investigate how recipients make sense of images that show symbolic actions by environmental activists during two recent United Nations Climate Change Conferences. Environmental advocacy groups are successful in creating visibility for their symbolic actions via news visuals, but little empirical evidence exists about how ordinary media recipients engage with this type of imagery. Can they understand the intended meaning of complex visual rhetoric used by environmental activists? I use think-aloud protocols to uncover the cognitive strategies which are used in processing these stylised visual claims. Results show that news photos rarely manage to communicate the intended meaning of symbolic actions. By systematically analysing various stages of visual frame processing, this study offers insights into specific configurations of the image-viewer relationship that cause high levels of ambiguity and prevent staged visual claims from being understood as intended. Yet I also find empirical evidence for a visual framing approach that works well and describe this recipe for effective communication via symbolic action photography.