Scicomm lessons from a film documentary

The focus of this week’s blog is a film documentary with a strong environmental message. While it is not strictly a film that communicates science, lessons on how to communicate a message effectively can still be drawn from it.

The film I am discussing is Salt of the Earth, a documentary about the photographer Sebastião Salgado and his travels across the world documenting its people, its remote places, and the impact of war. It was both harrowing and mesmerizing. If you haven’t yet seen it, but plan to, I warn you now that this blog contains spoilers.

Directed by Sebastião’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the film allows us to journey with Sebastião into the depths of human misery and our own destruction of ourselves and our planet. After witnessing the devastating famine in Ethiopia and the plight of migrants fleeing genocide in Rwanda, Sebastião’s soul had broken. His wife Lélia, whose support had enabled him to fulfil his career as a photographer, suggested they return home to his family’s farm in Brazil.

Once a healthy farm with thriving wildlife, the land became barren and empty when Sebastião’s father sold the wood from the surrounding forest to pay for his children’s education. Dry and infertile, the land was a wasteland but with perseverance, Sebastião and Lélia set out to replant the forest.

The first time they tried to replant, 60% of the trees died. The second time they replanted, 40% of the trees died. But, they kept replanting and now the forest and its wildlife has returned. The farm is no longer private property and has been made into a national park for everyone to enjoy. The techniques used to grow seedlings and replant forests are shared with others who are replanting other forests. With their efforts, Sebastião and his family proved that we can repair the damage we do to nature.

So, what can we learn from this documentary that will help us to communicate science better?

First, the film had a compelling narrators. Sebastião and his son have the kind of voices you could listen to all day. They are full of passion and conviction and you believe what they say. Put your passion for your science into your voice next time you give a presentation.

Second, the film had a clear story and structure. Each section of the film was leading towards its climax when the narrators delivered the message that we can do something to fix the mess we make. Remember what your message is and make sure you deliver it – you may not need all the tiny details to explain how you got there but structure your narrative in a way that leads people to a natural conclusion.

Third, the film gave us stunning imagery. Sebastião’s photos say more than words can ever express. If you really want to get your science across, make sure you have the right images, and show them at the right time.

Find out more about more about about the replanting of the forest here:


Show the impacts of research with pictures and storytelling

This week, I am writing about using interactive websites to share research results, in particular, a webpage created by Blue Ventures, a marine-focused conservation organization working in Belize, Madagascar and Malaysia. Blue Ventures recently published a paper that demonstrates the benefits fishing communities in Madagascar can gain from temporarily closing their octopus fishing sites, and Blue Ventures chose to use visual storytelling to highlight the results.

Viewed best on a desktop but still stunning on a tablet or phone, the interactive website opens with a gif that leads the viewer from under the water to above the surface. As you scroll down the page, you are presented with stunning, carefully chosen images that tell the story of the villagers’ lives and what octopus fishing means to them.

Clear, simple infographics emphasize key facts and findings such as the average increase in village income from octopus farming after a closure. The infographics demonstrate the impacts of managing marine resources with temporary bans on fishing and highlights the benefits local people have gained. In essence, the research has shown that marine management can pay.

The webpage is simple yet effective and ends with the option to view more photos and read the full story of what marine management means to people like Velvetine, an old lady for whom octopus gleaning is the only way to earn money. You can also download an infographic with all the findings and if you want to know the full methodology and analysis, there is a link to the open source, freely available paper.

Blue Venture’s interactive website is an excellent example of how to communicate science in an engaging way and I hope others will adopt this method of disseminating research to a wider audience.

View the webpage here:

Octopus cyanea pictured in the Maldives
Octopus cyanea pictured in the Maldives. Photo by Ahmed Abdul Rahman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons