Aperture of Empathy

Does looking into the eyes of an animal make us more likely to act to save its endangered habitat?
Story by John Thompson, Animal Portraits by Tim Flach



Associate Professor of Sociology Cameron Whitley believes in the old proverb that a picture is worth 1,000 words -- and that a really good picture is worth far more.

But can a photo also help save an endangered habitat?

Through a new $529,741 grant through the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Early CAREER Program, Whitley is working with a national network of zoos and aquariums – and a famous wildlife photographer -- to find out.

“In a nutshell, we are going to research how images can be better used in zoos and aquariums to provoke empathy and activate a desire by the viewer to change their behaviors to help animals and protect their habitats,” Whitley says.

Joining Whitley on the project will be renowned British conservation photographer Tim Flach, whose work has appeared in National Geographic magazine as well as his own books featuring animal portraiture. More specifically, Whitley will work with Flach to identify imagery that may enhance an animal’s human qualities and then assess how this influences viewers’ emotional response, a technique known as strategic or critical anthropomorphic animal imagery.

Cameron Whitley
Associate Professor of Sociology Cameron Whitley

“Zoos and aquariums often spend so much of their time and money on habitat, animal care, and marketing … but less time and thought typically goes into understanding the impact of the words and images that are used in the contextual information at each exhibit,” Whitley says. “And that is where this research comes in. How can those touch points with visitors more directly impact the species being viewed, and make visitors not only care more, but actually act on that empathy? That’s what we want to find out.”

The link between animal portraiture and people’s empathy and willingness to act for animals is the latest example of Whitley’s research at the intersection of animal studies, environmental change, empathy and altruism. In addition to his research in environmental sociology and sociological animal studies, Whitley also explores the intersection of science and technology with queer/trans studies.

Whitley’s connection to Flach came from his work with renowned animal studies scholar, Linda Kalof, professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University, where Whitley earned his doctorate. He met Flach while working as a research assistant on a project studying the depictions of animals in National Geographic over time.  

a saiga antelope looks at the camera, with gently undulating horns poking upwards.
Saiga antelope portrait by Tim Flach

“He was interested in how he could use social science research to create more emotionally engaged animal images,” Whitley says. “About five years ago, I was sent to give a talk for a National Geographic-affiliated event in his studio and we made plans for future research.”

Flach says he was excited to see the impact of the project on people who visit zoos and aquariums -- people who can make a massive difference in conservation efforts.

“As an animal photographer, I firmly believe that connecting people to nature is crucial for our future,” he says. “I am excited about the partnership between WWU and ACE, which offers a unique opportunity to examine the kind of images that activate empathy and which have been proven to result in pro-environmental outcomes. I am confident that this partnership has the potential to make a huge contribution to conservation efforts.”

Crowned Sifaka Lemur
Crowned Sifaka Lemur portrait by Tim Flach

‘How will viewers react to an animal portrait versus a beautiful image of that animal in the wild?’

The ACE Network, Advancing Conservation Through Empathy for Wildlife Network, is a key partner in the project. Headquartered at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, the network will provide research sites to test animal imagery and associated text in zoos and aquariums across the country. The ACE Network is also eagerly awaiting Whitley’s data and conclusions.

“As an oasis of nature, the zoo can uniquely provide a living-world context and application for this research,” says Alejandro Grajal, president and CEO of Woodland Park. “We’ll be exploring the unique role that different techniques in animal imagery (e.g., wildlife photography or animal portraiture photography) can play in encouraging positive experiences and empathetic connections with animals, and the role different approaches in animal imagery can have in supporting or motivating conservation actions.”

Animal portraiture is less common in zoos and aquariums than traditional wildlife photography, Grajal says. “So this will help the field understand what, if anything, is valuable in this more novel visual approach in relation to our mission of getting people to connect to wildlife and prioritize conservation," he says.

yellow eye tree frog
Yellow Eye Tree Frog by Tim Flach

Look at that Face

The first phase of Whitley’s research will involve paying upwards of 17,400 people to complete online experiments and assessing their emotional responses to different types of animal imagery. Next, Whitley will take the information gleaned from the online experiments and work with ACE Network zoos and aquariums to do in-person experiments where patrons will see different types of animal imagery and text in exhibits and then take surveys to capture their emotional response. Some images will be simply the image alone, others will have explanatory text and captions as you would expect in an exhibit. Data about donations will also be collected.

‘And what about animals that don’t have ‘faces’ per se, like corals or sea stars?’

“This should yield some pretty fascinating data,” Whitley says. “How will viewers react to an animal portrait versus a beautiful image of that animal in the wild? And what about animals that don’t have ‘faces’ per se, like corals or sea stars?

“In the past, most of this work has focused on charismatic megafauna like bears and lions. We want to move past this into assessing imagery for less charismatic animals. This is what we are hoping to dig into,” Whitley says.

The next phase of research will include more online and in-person experiments to see if target messaging about desired behaviors can activate people’s empathy and engage them in conservation activities. Researchers will also follow up with a subset of participants to see if they are engaging in the desired conservation behaviors at one and three months after viewing the exhibit.   

an axolotl salamander floats against a black background, its sweet, freckled face staring at the viewer and its six pink furry tentacles displayed around its head.
Axolotl salamander by Tim Flach

Finally, the last phase of Whitley’s work will explore ways to make conservation efforts more inclusive.

“Conservation organizations, including zoos and aquariums have not had the greatest track record for inclusivity” Whitley says. The last phase will assess who feels included or excluded from conservation communities and what can be done to enhance inclusion specifically through the use of imagery.

“Whether it is people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or those who are disabled, we want to get a better grasp on how they feel about these organizations and what we can do using our research to increase inclusion,” says Whitley, who previously worked as an ADEI, (accessibility, diversity, equity and inclusion) specialist. “We want our work to be about both underrepresented animals and underrepresented humans.”

WWU sociology students will be crucial contributors to all phases of the effort, says Whitley; work in his lab at Western has already swung to full involvement in the project and undergrads are already engaged. The second and third years of the grant include stipends to pay graduate students for assistance, and plans are in place for Flach to do photography workshops on campus in the near future as well.

Whitley says zoos and aquariums already do so much to assist in education and building connections between the public and the animals in their care, but this research can be the kind of multiplier they need to be even more impactful.

“If this work and this grant can be used to make the public more aware of how they can help in conservation efforts, address biodiversity loss, or to fight climate change, all the effort by myself and my students will be time well spent,” Whitley says.

Panda portrait by Tim Flach

Animal portraits by Tim Flach