Taking action: Activism and expression in our visual landscape

COVID-19 hasn’t dampened the dedication of many to making the world a better place. Adobe Stock explores trends in visual representations of activism around the world.

Group of poeople in masks with thier arm raised.

Image source: Adobe Stock / Jacob Lund.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic halted or slowed many aspects of our lives over the past year and a half, there is one thing it has not dampened: the tireless dedication of many to making the world a better place. Across the world, many of us have been showing up for racial justice, ecological reform, in support of essential workers, and to bolster nonprofit fundraisers and campaigns — often in new and creative ways. Online and off (and with safety measures in place), we have rallied around the causes we believe in, proving that there truly is no power like the power of the people.

The Adobe Stock team has been following the cultural shift towards a more deeply engaged youth and consumer population — and the ways this shift manifests in our visual and media landscape — for some time. In 2019, we identified a strong visual trend we dubbed Brand Stand: an increasingly outspoken expression of social consciousness emerging in brand campaigns. This trend continues to evolve — we have identified the latest iteration as Compassionate Collective. It is a similar cultural thread heightened by a complex stew of passionate emotions, accelerated by social media’s ability to both amplify global conversations and democratize collective action.

Much more than passing fad, the deepening of political and social engagement is permeating our media landscape, with brand campaigns frequently centering a heightened sense of values as a way of connecting with consumers. In the world of stock imagery, we are seeing a similar shift in the demand for current, socially conscious content that engages with modern activism.

Youth to the front, online and onscreen

Often, it is young people (especially youth of color) who are leading the pack, with overwhelming success. Chelsea Miller (age 24) and Nialah Edari (age 26), started their social justice initiative, Freedom March NYC, in May of 2020 — in just months, they propelled Freedom March NYC into a full-fledged organization with $50,000 behind it.

“The work isn’t done,” Edari told Rolling Stone’s Ryan Bort and Kimberly Aleah in December of 2020. “We were out there because Black people were being killed by police. From the looks of it, that’s still happening, so we’ll still be outside.”

Many young people have also moved their centers of activism inside, making use of online spaces with just as big of an impact.

“Youth have carved out a digital space for themselves to freely engage in activism all summer,” wrote Rainier Harris, a reporter for PBS’s Student Voices, late last year. “As early as this spring, after the wave of Black Lives Matter protests began, many young activists began using platforms like Instagram to share safety tips about protesting and document instances of police brutality at the protest sites.”

The voices of youth movements have made their way into the ad space, giving companies a way to communicate a commitment to positive change. At Adobe, we launched our Diverse Voices campaign in August of 2020 as an expression of our long-standing commitment to elevate underrepresented creators.

Other great examples come to mind, too. For their 2020 campaign, “Be the Future”, clothing retailer Gap produced an advertisement that featured dedicated young climate activists, and followed up with “Generation Good” and an ad spot that included activists (and artists) of all ages, in 2021. “Gap was founded with the mission to do more than sell clothes,” Mary Alderete, global head of Gap marketing, told David Moin of WWD earlier this year. “Generation Good reflects this ideal that we can all be our true selves and move things forward by being a force for good. It takes a collective to change the world and that’s exactly what Generation Good is up to.”

The whole world is watching — online

Even just a few years ago, fully realized, fully online platforms for activism were still getting their legs. In the hopefully-soon-to-be-post-COVID-19 era, they are thriving — and holding steady for larger and larger audiences. On Earth Day 2020, climate advocacy group Fridays for Future hosted what the organization called a “digital strike” livestream, which was attended by 230,000 participants worldwide. “With 87,000 on the strikers’ map, over 230,000 livestream viewers, 40,000 tweets and 15,000 demo signs, we made it clear,” read a statement on the strike event website. “We are to be reckoned with and we want the course to be set for a just, ecological society!”

One of the most successful and far-reaching forms of online activism, especially over this past year, has been monetary donations — a boon for organizations not only in terms of finances but also for data tracking purposes. The numbers are already in. According to research by the charity-focused firm Blackbaud Institute, “online giving in 2020 grew 20.7 percent year over year for the 4,964 nonprofit organizations in the analysis,” and that “taking a more longitudinal three-year view of fundraising from the same organizations revealed a 32.4 percent increase in online giving.”

Moments of joy and hope

Activism is also about celebration: of unity, progress, and hope.

“The joy in protest is in the details,” activist and photographer OJ Slaughter told culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt of the Boston Globe in December of 2020 (Osterheldt is currently featured in ABC Networks’ Soul of a Nation). “The sound of moving feet, watching people hug each other at first with hesitancy and then unbridled appreciation, the smell of hand sanitizer, the cadence of a chanting crowd. Joy is there if you pay attention. Joy resides in watching your community cope and thrive. I feel joy every time I’m at a protest and I see folks taking care of each other. That’s what we are there for.”

That element of celebration is key — consider this ad by Deutsche Telekom (in English) that was released last summer, a love letter to the power of so-called “screen-obsessed kids,” narrated by singer Billie Eilish.

“But you know what?” Eilish says, as dreamy visuals of young people engaged in online activism flow in time to her track “When The Party’s Over. “When it comes to what we really care about, the difference we can make means even more now.”

Artists: What does your activism look like?

More and more, global brands seek to express the energy and determination of today’s youth activists in their campaigns, either to identify with consumers or express their support. However, there is a danger of mischaracterizing social movements, and a well-intentioned brand campaign may be meant to express solidarity but end up unintentionally trivializing an important movement.

Walking this line is incredibly tough. Stock artists and brand designers have the power to contribute to significant and necessary changes in our media landscape, by insisting that the imagery we share reflects our world — accurately, inclusively, and with respect for the activists and leaders on the ground.

With the Adobe Stock Advocates program, we hope to inspire artists to create the authentic, inclusive content that’s most in demand now. We have released eight intersectional creative briefs to help inspire new and diverse visuals. To further scale our commitment to inclusion in stock, we have launched a $500,000 creative commission program called the Artist Development Fund, focused specifically on supporting artists who identify with — and depict — underrepresented communities in their visuals. Applications are open.

Artists, check out our full Circles of Activism creative brief. Then, share your best new photography, illustrations, vectors, or videos exploring how you and your communities are making your voices heard and supporting the causes you believe in.