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News platforms and symbolic politics of climate change

Written by Lebogang Mokoena |

Images matter. We encounter them everywhere in our daily lives. They inform and communicate messages. They capture our attention through different portrayals and visual elements – and they shape our perceptions, understanding, and attitudes about the world. In news content production, journalists use photos as supplementary aid to document and to report events. Especially in very complex and abstract issues, such as climate change reporting, the role of images then is to show that “this event really happened, and this photo is proof of it”. [1] However, journalists not only use images as proof of events that took place, but also to make visible often unseen aspects of the climate change impact. 

Yet, images are not neutral. They carry ideological messages.

Climate change images show a racial bias located within colonial hierarchies that depict the west or global north as change actors and the global south as victims with no agency. 

For instance, when you type the words “climate change images” in a search engine, images such as factory smoke chimneys conveying air pollution, contracts of drought and greenery, wildfire, the burning globe, melting glaciers and windmills will show up. Polar bears hanging on pieces of melting ice caps are also very popular climate change iconic images.  These images tend to rely on a similar set of images that barely include human beings. When people are shown, it is often Black, Indigenous and People Colour (BIPoC) – depicted wadding in flood water and represented as victims and helpless. Shaped by imperialist white supremacy capitalist patriarchy [2], these visuals tend to portray some human beings more vulnerable and in need than others.

Depending on where people are located, their actual and constructed vulnerability is portrayed differently. I’d argue that these portrayals are embedded in colonial capitalist patriarchal ways of knowing, being, and thinking that intersects with different forms of identities or oppressions such as race, age, gender, and nationality.

From 11 to 13 April 2022 heavy rain caused floods and landslides in South Africa’s south-eastern coastal Kwazulu-Natal province. This killed over 400 people, affecting people mostly leaving in rural and informal settlements. Over 40 000 people were displaced, and 12 000 houses destroyed. [3] Different media locally and internationally reported on this extreme weather event.

I studied a corpus of images documenting these floods looking at South Africa’s Sunday Times and Mail and Guardian publications, and Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW). 

An aerial shot image in the Mail and Guardian, for example, shows a group of Black men depicted standing around a damaged house. Although they are on a site of damage where this house’s roof has cracked open, they line up around the house’s walls. Through its opening, they are looking at what is happening inside. Their heads are tilting towards the direction they are looking at. A similar ariel image on DW, shows a group of Black women are standing on a high surface next to a house. They are captured from a distance – appearing very small and their faces are not seen. These women are gazing at this house. From where they stand, the soil and stones have eroded to the lower part where there is a road. There are two cars that have collided together, and one has capsized. There are people on this road. Some of them are seen on other right standing next to bin. Others are on the left side on the road with objects like brooms. They may be cleaning this road, but it is not clear what they are doing because they are seen from a far distance. Using distanced angles is a way of erasure BIPoC where they are not meant to be unseen or not visible. People in these images are depicted standing and gazing into sites of damage. 

There are also images where people are represented going on with day-to-day devotions such as people walking on traffic road where on the side of it underground pipes are exposed. On these roads, there are also cars being driven. In another incident, a road is cracked open, still men stand casually, showing no concern. In the same image, people are walking and finding their way into daily commitments. Linked to the white gaze and its exoticism, fantasies, fetishes about BIPoCs lives, this normalises damage of public and private spaces, suggesting that even in extreme weather events, people are moving on their lives. It depicts a state of damage where fragile infrastructure is regarded as normal. This normalcy is symbolic through capturing living spaces of people using wide views. That is, showing houses made of corrugated iron or low-quality materials, denoting poverty, limited basic resources or not being economically privileged. 

In this coverage a distant frame emerges where subjects here are unidentifiable because of distanced angles used. It is their socio-economic context that is in the focal point, rather than their experiences, who they are, and their personal stories. They are rendered passively in comparison to white people who often are portrayed as actively. 

This binary is a colonial construct. It is shaped by coloniality that renders BIPoC absent - paralysing and stripping them their agency and climate subjectivities. 

According to Jeremy Williams (2020) “representation is about faces, bodies, people – knowing that I belong because there are others like me here. It is also about ideas and perspectives, the stories that are told about why the environment matters and what climate change is all about”. Representation is about who can see themselves in these narratives. It is about how climate change discourses are accessed, embodied, and represented remain important. How agencies and actors are visualised on news platforms enters symbolic politics of climate change.[4]

Lebogang Mokoena (they/ them) is a South African freelance journalist and researcher. Lebogang was recently hosted at the University of Potsdam’s Institute for Arts and Media as a German Chancellor Fellow in the 2022-2023 cohort. They study how the news media in South Africa and Germany frame the representation of people in climate change news images, focusing on recently flooding events in both countries. 


[1] Hall, S. (1973, p. 177). The Determinations of New Photographs. In Writings on Media: History of the Present, edited by Charlotte Brunsdon.

[2] bell, h. (1981). Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. South End Press: Boston.  

[3] Reliefweb. (2022). South Africa: Floods and Landslides. April. Available here:

[4]   Lester, L and Cottle, S. (2009). Visualising climate change: television news and ecological citizenship.