Society places a lot of value on how people look. Psychologists call it the “beauty premium.” Studies have shown that attractive people earn more money than average-looking people and that average-looking people earn more than plain-looking people. Some postulate that their success is influenced by the self-confidence that comes with attractiveness.
However, we have the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype. By reflex, we attribute all sorts of positive qualities to good looking people; we think that they are more intelligent, sensitive, interesting, competent, and kind.
And it starts early. Teachers perceive attractive children as more intellectual, more engaged in school and more likely to succeed academically. This is because teachers have more positive interactions with attractive children.
WHY? I get the fact that the brain responds to beauty. I don’t get the other attributions.
As a fundraiser, I can tell you that we raise more money with the picture of a pretty child in difficult circumstances than a plain child. That breaks my heart. Any child in distress should upset us.
Representing the people we serve with dignity is important. Our photographers look for what is unique and lovable about the people we interview, and we try to make a sense of connection between the subject and the viewer.
But there are often unintended consequences of taking and using images of people in difficult circumstances. There is a famous photograph by Dorothea Lange of a migrant mother who became a symbol of the suffering during the Depression. It told a powerful story. But it was also a source of some resentment for her and her family – it reduced them to nameless icons, and for her daughter, that photo of her mother saddens her. “That’s not how I like to remember her.” It is also true that the more images of violence we see, the more immune to them we become.
The burden to tell the truth in our storytelling is our responsibility, but the burden to think about why and how you react to a photograph is yours. And it isn’t just a photo or a video. It is how you react to people in general.
There are a lot of conversations today about bias. Because our brains process so much information and we make so many decisions (some significant, many insignificant) we take shortcuts in our mind to facilitate decision making. These shortcuts, or biases, are often based on our history, background, what we have been exposed to in the past, etc.
I believe in the inherent goodness of people, that the vast majority of people, when faced with simple ethical choices, choose good over bad. But we do come to the table with biases and we do not always work on overcoming them.
My advice today is simple: try not to make snap-judgments. Stop and think about what you are seeing and hearing.
Work to reverse negative stereotypes in your mind. Poor people are not lazy. Older people do know how to use technology. Girls are good at math and science. Men are nurturing. Darker skinned people are not different than lighter skinned people.
I think it is wonderful that we are all so different, but we have to make connections. As a fundraiser, one way to do that is to cultivate empathy and make people – all people – relatable.
When we do it right, storytelling with pictures allows us to imagine a more compassionate future for all children, plain or pretty.