To truly understand images and other visual media, it is important to interpret and analyze meaning using a number of strategies. Think about the information you get just by looking at the image -- the subject, the physical details, the context, and more. It is also important to consider the cultural, historical, and social contexts of an image. When and why was the image created and who was the intended audience? You can learn a lot about an image by considering the creator's physical, technical, and design choices. Think about whether the image is the original or a reproduction, and you should always inspect an image for signs of manipulation and editing. Finally, you can always turn to classmates and scholarly experts to seek out their opinions through participating in classroom discussions and by reading reference materials and journal articles.
For further information about visual literacy, see the ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.
Who or what is pictured?
When was the image created?
What is the overall tone? What feelings, moods, or thoughts does this work bring about?
What is the point of view, purpose, and central message that is being communicated?
What design characteristics can you identify? (e.g., colors, shapes, contrast)
Is there any text with the image? Is it accurate and appropriate for the image?
Are there any manipulative or persuasive strategies being used to influence the viewer?
Is there any editing or photoshopping?
Can you independently verify any text accompany the image?
Where was the image found? Is this the original source of the image? Can you find the original source?
Photograph of Suffrage Parade. (1913). [Photograph]. National Archives. catalog.archives.gov/id/593561
Consider the physical, technical, and design choices of an image. What choices did the image's creator make in constructing that image? How does the image construct meaning and influence interpretation?
Polifoto (2018). Tree Canopy. [photo]. Pixabay. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/trees-tree-canopy-forest-branches-5605176/
Escher, M. C. (Maurits Cornelis). (1938). Day and Night. [woodcut]. ArtStor. Retrieved from https://library.artstor.org/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822003776919
How did the image's creator compose, frame, and stage the image?
What was included and what was left out?
What techniques, technologies, and images were used to produce the image?
Is the image original or is it a reproduction?
Has the image been edited, altered, or manipulated in any way?
Techniques for altering and manipulating images are becoming more widespread and sophisticated. How can you tell if an image or video has been altered? For tips and more information, take a look at these resources.
Examining visual sources from Special Collections requires the user to ask questions of the document so that students can understand where the images can be placed in the historical narrative. The questions below allow the instructor to drop the students into the historical framework of how an image was created, who it was created for, and why was it created:
Using these questions allow for the archivist to employ the following guidelines for primary source literacy from SAA-ACRL/RBMS Joint Task Force on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy.
These standards tie into the visual literacy standards from the ACRL framework and let students understand how historical documents can be interpreted differently by what materials are shown and what stories are missed from the narrative.