photo composite

A Photo Composite Helps Tell the Story

In Design Magic by SPARKlersLeave a Comment

The old idiom that a picture is worth a thousand words is only partially true. A picture can also convey a single, powerful word or even a raw, nameless emotion. When that picture is a photo composite—two or more layered images—the effects are multiplied.

The image above includes two layered images—a face and a set of hands. A few things you might notice about the image:

  • Greyscale (black and white) removes any skin tone that might clue you in on race, and the hands are different shades, so it is racially ambiguous.
  • The absence of clothing and hair remove social and cultural cues that might indicate gender or ethnicity, so it is also ethnically and sexually ambiguous.
  • The face has a neutral expression, which means the viewer will interpret the expression through his or her own mental filters. Where one viewer might see a calm, direct gaze, another might see an accusing glare or sadness.
  • The hands are superimposed over the face. Again, the viewers will apply their own filters to process the image. Why do people tend to cover their faces with their hands? Are the hands trying to hide the face from the viewer or the viewer from the face?
  • The solid black background is striking, maybe even a little heavy.

With those thoughts in mind, we’ll now share why our lead graphic designer created this image.

Susan McCarter, PhD, MS, MSW, is an associate professor of in the School of Social Work at UNC Charlotte. Her ongoing research on disproportionality of minority youth in the juvenile justice system has put her in a leadership role with Race Matters for Juvenile Justice (RMJJ), and it was the topic of feature article in UNC Charlotte Magazine. Her data documents the prevalence of structural racism and implicit bias—not just in law enforcement but also in education, housing, and social services—and proves the necessity for intervention. The RMJJ then works to reduce disproportionality and disparate outcomes for children and families of color.

So our photo composite helps tell a story of “Dismantling Racism” (the title of the article) in the following ways:

  • Race (skin tone) is dismantled. Everything is a shade of grey.
  • The social aspects of gender, race, and ethnicity are removed from consideration. Fashion statements, cultural traditions, hair length, hairstyle, and all the other visual cues that go along with bias become moot.
  • Allowing the viewer some measure of control over how they view the topic through their own filters is a statement in itself. Fact: they’re going to have their own opinions and preconceived notions anyway. Acknowledging reality is the only way to begin the discussion.
  • Structural racism is an important and often heavy topic. It stands in stark relief in our current events and communities and deserves a powerful visual statement.

In this particular instance, the editor had no particular requests regarding the imagery. He simply let us loose with the content. We were able to take a relatively factual account of a researcher’s work and design an emotional element into the content. Sometimes a client will have ideas he or she wants to express through the images and graphics and needs our help discovering how to do that. We work well either way; we’re just thrilled to be part of the process. 🙂

If you’d like to use photo composites and photo illustrations to help tell a story in your magazine, catalog, or book, contact us.

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