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An Introduction to Visual Literacy: How to Research an Image

A general introduction to reading and researching photographs and other visual resources

Getting Started with Research

Reading an image critically is an essential first step to researching a photograph effectively. Many photographs have incomplete or missing identifications or captions and require additional research to determine their basic subject matter, creators, or dates. When analyzing a photograph, it is also important to question your assumptions and find additional evidence to support your conclusions. To learn more about a photograph, it is possible to employ the same general research strategies applied to any historical record, as demonstrated in the steps below.  

Step 1: What Do You See?

The first thing to do when researching an image is to look at the image -- really look at it! It's easy to forget that photographs are not mere illustrations, but rather primary sources that offer a great amount of insight into the past. As such, photographs also may have a perspective or set of biases attached to them so it's important to not just take a photograph at face value.  Rather, consider the potential perspective or biases of the photograph's creator, why the photo might have been created, and why it was included in a collection. 

Building off the steps for reading an image, consider how candid or posed a photograph is, who's captured in it, where it was taken, and why it may have been taken. 

If there is a caption or a title for the photograph, pay attention to that as well. A caption or title may indicate when and where a photograph was taken and the nature of its subject. If possible, examine both the front and back of  a photograph and look for similar photographs that may have more identification.

Make sure to take notes, especially if you are looking at a collection of photographs. As you go through a collection, make note of what you've noticed about the collection so far, which images struck you the most and why, or any other information you don't want to forget. You may be looking at a lot of photographs, so it's a good idea to keep yourself organized and keep track of what sparks your interest or generates questions. Taking good note also helps ensure you can easily find particular photographs again if needed.

Step 3: Make a List of Terms

After observing the image as thoroughly as possible and posing some questions, the next step is to make a list of terms to focus your research. Terms might include the name(s) of people depicted in a photograph or referenced in a collection, locations, and significant events from the time period during which a photograph was taken. For example, a collection that spans the years 1930-1950 might include photographs that relate to the Great Depression or World War II. While these topics are wide-ranging, knowledge of key battles or events may help contextualize a photograph and shed light on when and why a photograph was taken.

Looking at the photos in the slideshow above, you might notice that "Gordon Research Conference" appears in all of the captions. Hence, "Gordon Research Conference" is a good initial search term if we want to learn more about these photos. In addition, each photograph includes a key identifying the people who appear in the photo. Searching a few of these names may help us understand who these people were and why they are posed for these photographs. 

Gordon Research Conference Photographs

Photo 1

Gordon Research Conference on Dielectric Phenomena (1968)

Photo 2


Photo 3

Gordon Research Conference on Fiber Science (1999)

Photo 4

Name chart for Fiber Science group photograph (1999)

Step 4: Find and Look Through Sources

Once you have your key terms, you can easily navigate search engines, databases, libraries, archives, and other resources for related sources to contextualize and provide more information about the photograph(s) you have viewed. These sources should be credible, such as websites that end in .org, .edu, or .gov, just to name a few.

Once you find a credible source, read through it thoroughly and take notes, just as you would when reading a chapter of a textbook, an article, or section of a book for a class. This way you can easily refer back to your notes when it's time to synthesize your research and make conclusions about the photograph(s). 

While reading these resources, make sure to consider who wrote them: was it the same person who took the photograph? Was it someone who witnessed the event or knew the person they are writing about? Consider the purpose of the source, just as you've considered the purpose of the photograph. Depending on their purpose and perspective, the person(s) who created the source you are analyzing may be contributing to the same narrative as the photograph or offering a different point of view. Conducting research also may allow you to see a photo in a different light and challenge your initial assumptions about the photograph's subject and purpose. Ultimately, sources may contradict one another and, in those cases you will need to look at other sources to weed out the similarities and differences and the facts from the bias.

The more sources you examine, the better your understanding of the photograph and the event or person to which it relate. Always try to find sources from multiple perspectives. If you're examining a photograph of the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, that was taken by a Union photographer, you may want to look at his personal account of the events, if one exists, as well as the accounts of soldiers from both sides and anyone else who might have been present when the photographer took the picture.


Step 2: Pose Questions

When looking at a collection of photographs, it's important to ask yourself questions about what you see. Record these questions as they come to you. Some questions may be answered as you view other photographs in a collection, others will require additional research to answer. Some questions may not be answered at all, even after doing research. It's going to frustrate you, and don't worry, it frustrates historians and archivists as well. But that's the nature of historical research: you won't always be able to find all of the answers.

Looking at the photographs in the slideshow to the left, you might ask: Who are the people in these photographs? What are they doing? Where are they and why are they gathered there? 

All of these questions are potential avenues for research. When you begin your research, review these questions, determine which questions you'd like to answer, and consider what resources (books, websites, other photographs, etc.) might provide useful information. 

Step 5: Synthesize

After completing your research, it's time to synthesize your findings. This means forming one coherent narrative that combines both your observations about the photograph(s) and the information gathered from your research. Synthesis is a common part of historical research, whether you're dealing with primary and secondary source documents, written sources, or visual evidence like photographs. 

Synthesis is also where historians' work may differ greatly, as one historian may be more convinced by a certain piece of evidence than another or decide to focus on one facet of a collection or piece of a story. Think about the hundreds of books on Abraham Lincoln or George Washington: each historian has chosen a specific focus and drawn their own conclusions based on different pieces of evidence. Don't be afraid to come to your own conclusions instead of relying on someone else's interpretation of a set of photographs or documents.