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The Power of the Face: A Reassuring Image or an Ethical Encounter

By Richard Slack

Published as 'Face work in annual reports: A study of the management of encounter through annual reports, informed by Levinas and Bauman' by David Campbell, Newcastle University Business School; Ken McPhail, La Trobe Business School; and Richard Slack, Durham University Business School.

People matter; and they matter to businesses. They matter for public image, and if confirmation of this were needed academic studies have documented a shift in the look of companies' annual reports over the past three decades or so, from a reliance of dense pages of text occasionally broken by tables of figures to a more open style with increasing use of photographs.

There is, however, an added dimension to this trend - one which goes beyond mere changes in design perspective or even an attempt by marketers to place the customer more visibly at the heart of business. A team of academics from the universities of Newcastle, La Trobe, Melbourne and Durham have set out not just to undertake a quantitative analysis of the change but importantly also to place it in a philosophical context.

Quantification and philosophy: the study method

The academics began with a quantitative analysis. For this element, they examined the annual reports from 14 companies in the UK's FTSE top 100 for the period 1989 to 2003. Each report was analysed in terms of the number of times a representation of the human face appeared.

The second stage of the analysis involved interpretation of the results in the light of the philosophical concept known as 'the ethic of the Other'. Developed by the twentieth-century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, this idea proposes that an individual's relationship with a person who is not themselves (the Other) is defined by their response to the image of that person, so that seeing a face may trigger an ethical interaction.

Increasing racial representation: what does it mean?

Quantitatively speaking, the results bore out the findings of earlier studies. The researchers found what they described as "a significant rise in human representation, in the form of the human face, in the period studied". There was a particularly sharp increase towards the end of the period; they highlighted the fact that in some reports over three-quarters of photographs had some form of human representation.

The philosophical interpretation brought together the photographic representation and the viewer - the person looking at it. According to the ethic of the Other, a picture of a human engages the moral sense of the viewer. By so doing it allows the photographer (or commissioner of the photograph) to influence the response. In the reporting environment studied, the viewer is arguably held to be reassured by annual report images, rather than challenged. This raises the interesting, if paradoxical, conundrum as to whether economic self-interest can coexist with a moral responsibility for others.