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Accidental harmful videos

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

David: Welcome to the 10th episode of Nonprofit Video Comms. We talk about video marketing tips to help your nonprofit be seen, get funded and be more helpful.

Before I start the episode I just wanted to say thank you for everyone who has subscribed and listened. So far, I've received some good feedback. Apparently this has been helpful and on point according to someone. I've been really enjoying doing this. We've done ten episodes in a short period of time and I'm hooked. I really enjoy doing this. So thank you again. And here's to many more to come. So let's start this episode.

Many of us in nonprofits do marketing materials and content in specialties that we're not specifically trained in. That could be graphic design, copywriting, photography, video, email campaigns, whatever technology. But in terms of anything visual — photography and video, for example — what if you are accidentally being insulting? What if you're hurting people? What if you're contributing negatively to a very serious topic or a toxic narrative that we are as a society trying to minimize? More importantly, how do you know that you don't know?

Well, that's understandable, because when we're dealing with visuals and visual communication, the rules are not clear. The rules are not set in stone. They are only maybe taught in school, in my opinion, from a teacher who might be aware about this kind of topic. And in my experience in any sort of College or University course that deals with visuals, it seems that this topic of ethical or irresponsible imagery is kind of an art history or an art theory topic.

Allow me to give you a few tips on what to avoid.

Oh, yes. And one more thing. I'm going to start referring to this topic as visual grammar. Now, quickly, what that means is visual grammar refers to the cultural perception of certain visuals or combinations of visuals and symbols. It refers to what we as a group of people tend to agree on as a meaning behind certain symbols and imagery. Examples of that are: in some cultures the color red often means urgency or danger, and that culture seems to agree. And then it's used for stop signs. It's used for exit signs. It's used for … maybe in fiction you might rely on a red font as signifying some kind of danger. But in other cultures, red is considered positive. It's considered good luck. Let's see... in other cultures in film, cuts and the fast editing and fast rhythm is sort of action-packed. It gives you the feeling of urgency and action. But I've read that in Chinese action movies, filmmakers tend to favor a long shot without a lot of cutting and editing, to show sort of the mastery of the human movement. So the action comes from good choreography and good coordination.

So an analogy would be if we speak a language with our mouths or on paper, you could say one sentence one way and the same sentence a different way. And that order of words, that grammar, is what changes the meaning or intention of the same sentence. Same thing happens with visuals.

So here are three examples of things to avoid in your visual grammar.

First one is: angles that might be saying the wrong thing. Very basically, I won't get into too much detail here. You could take a full course on this, but at the most basic level, some angles that say certain things in film or in photography include a ground or a worm's eye view. So looking up at the subject from the ground, that tends to show the person as big or powerful or successful or proud. An angle that points down called the bird's eye view can say that the subject is in the presence of something big or is lower in some way or depending on their facial reaction, they could be sad or shrunken down emotionally or lower in some sort of society or hierarchy. In the documentary world, an eye level angle, so the camera pointing straight at the person's face, it's generally agreed that it's neutral. It's considered standing on the same footing. The reason this is important is that you'll see in a lot of amateur marketing materials angles that don't work with the message. So you might have a campaign that's trying to empower women, but you will have a camera angle looking downward at a woman in the photograph. There might be people in this photograph around her, and it sort of feels or signifies kind of a lower status or something that requires pity. But the job here was supposed to be empowerment. So when in doubt, I would say to anyone who is not a full time or specialist in visual communication, go with neutral. If you're browsing through stock photography, if you're shooting or filming or photographing by yourself, don't gamble with angles. Keep it neutral. That way, you tend to have more flexibility with your messaging.

Second thing to avoid is how we place the main subject or the person inside this photo or this video. So you might have heard of White Saviorism, where the person who's there to do some kind of mission work — volunteers and I don't know, the CEO or President of something — is taking a group photo, and they tend to show up a lot in the photos in the middle as sort of like the main reason for the photo, but you never intended it this way. You were trying to celebrate the people in the photo, but it's that placement, it's that positioning in terms of visual grammar. People are generally looking for a few quick cues of what's happening in the story of the photo, in what carries the most weight. And putting something smack in the middle might be saying a lot that you did not mean to say. You could consider placing the main subject off to the side or maybe in the back row, and I bet that would line up with your intention a little bit more. So when in doubt, I would say ask yourself, “what is the point of my visual? What am I trying to achieve? Who is this about? Who am I trying to lift up and photograph?”

The third thing to avoid in bad visual grammar practices... In terms of an order... This is mostly about video in terms of the order of your clips…. This is a really tough one to master, but let's talk about an example here. There's an experiment a long time ago in film. Sorry, In photography... it's called the Kuleshov effect. And the order that the audience was shown certain photographs changed the meaning to these people — but no meaning was ever presented. They were shown photos randomly in different orders and the audience created meaning in their heads. One example would be showing a photograph of a baby, and the next photograph would be a coffin. Some people went, “oh, that signifies the baby dying.” It seems pretty clear. It seems pretty straightforward. But, no one suggested it. It was just the order of the photographs. If you look at any photograph by itself, without another photograph next to it, you would come up with any other kind of meaning. When you reverse those photos — coffin and then a baby — some people became poetic. They said, “oh, this means a revival.” “This means death and life.” And... I don't know... I don't remember exactly the results, but I do remember that order of images creates meaning in the viewer, and that is a really difficult thing to predict and control. If you've seen the movie Arrival, there's a great use of the Kuleshiv effect in the intro. I won't tell you more about it, but that's just sort of to back up this idea that it's a very real and powerful thing.

So to wrap that up, I've given you three — although there are many more — I've given you three ways to avoid saying the wrong thing visually.

  • The first one was angles that might say the wrong thing when in doubt, go neutral, go eye level.

  • The second thing is placement of the main subject. Maybe try not to overdo it with a particular person in the middle of the photograph. Move them around a bit. Ask yourself what the true intention of your photograph is.

  • The third thing was putting the order of clips or images. Ask yourself how you feel or what you think happens when you put certain video clips in certain orders. You wouldn't want to say the wrong thing.

I'm very proud that we're at the 10th episode. here's to many more. You can meet me on LinkedIn. Look up David Phu, P-H-U. And I invite you to go to my website, . For the nonprofit with a lower budget, we offer training so that you can do it yourself and do it longer term. And of course, we offer full service video production.

Thank you again and see you next time. Bye.


Learn about our services at Nonprofit Video Comms or follow David on LinkedIn.

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