Publication Date

February 1, 2006

Most history textbooks and many academic histories use images to illustrate the history that they tell. However, when we assign these books in our classes, we rarely spend time exploring the images in them, focusing our attention instead on the written content. We do so because of the way that images are presented in many historical texts and also because of the way that historians are trained to view images—as illustrations of written history rather than sources of history themselves.

In the last few years, partly in response to what has been described by some as the "visual turn," more historians have been paying attention to visual images in both their research and teaching. Although historical texts use still images and these images were the only mode of visual communication prior to the 20th century, most books and articles about using media in the classroom focus on moving images. John O'Connor's AHA publication Teaching History with Film and Television (1987) and most of the articles published inPerspectives, for example, concentrate on moving images such as historical documentaries and narrative films. The following observations are designed to encourage more extensive use of still images in the classroom, to help students see the significant ways in which images have represented, and have themselves been part of, historical change. Since these comments consider images as historical sources, they refer to primary rather than secondary visual sources.

The Accessibility of the Image

Using images to teach history and discussing this process with other teachers, I've noticed that visual media often seem more accessible to our students than the written record. Students themselves mention that images make the past seem more accessible, giving concrete shape to a world that sometimes seems intangible. The learners who arrive in our classrooms today are not only immersed in technology, but also in visual ways of learning.1 They appreciate the immediacy of the image, which often conveys information more quickly than a primary document written in unfamiliar, or even a foreign, language. This immediacy also works well in discussion sections, where the shared experience of viewing a picture can provide a focus for lively group discussion. Our students are often sophisticated readers of visual media and, with guidance and support, they enjoy the process of viewing and analyzing historical representations.

MagyarHowever, visual images are also inaccessible for the same reasons that they are accessible. The apparent legibility of the image hides its historical construction, the ways in which the image was made, distributed, and read at the time it was produced and since. In my own field of U.S. immigration, for example, Augustus Sherman’s photographs of diverse immigrants are displayed in the halls of the Ellis Island immigration museum and illustrate numerous popular histories of immigration, often suggesting that America has always been a haven for immigrants (Figure 1).

However, on researching the images, we discover that Sherman worked for the Immigration Bureau and that his photographs were used in government reports calling for more immigration restrictions.2 To strengthen our reading of images, we need to become better informed about the history and theory of images. One of our goals in teaching students to use images, therefore, should be to help them to appreciate the complexity of historical sources.

Teaching Images as History

How can we use images to encourage students to learn more about the complexity of visual culture and historical evidence?

First, and often in contrast to many students' experiences of visual media from video games to Internet research, we should encourage our students to slow down. In class, I typically only introduce one or two (and occasionally a few more) images. The images that I use most often are illustrations from influential periodicals, including drawings, photographs, and maps. "Look carefully at the image," I tell my students. "The more you look, the more you will see." As they explore the image, their ideas often change. Commenting on papers that they wrote about political cartoons, students in my classes have noted that they enjoyed analyzing these primary sources in detail, "looking below the surface" or "looking deeper into the image."

Although film and video are exceptionally important visual resources for teaching history, some teachers have commented to me about the compellingly different qualities of still images. In a Teaching American History seminar, some mid-Michigan high school teachers raised the issue that students often experience visual media in ways that are strongly mediated for them. Whether used as a primary or a secondary source, feature films frame the history they depict through the carefully edited interplay of visual images, dialogue, and music; historical documentaries scan across images and focus attention on particular details. While still images also use complex visual conventions about which students should learn, these teachers suggested that such images require students to do more of their own work focusing on details, scanning the background for useful information, and comparing images to one another.

To strengthen their skills in analyzing visual media, students should be introduced to ideas about the composition of the image, its historical context, and theoretical issues related to representation. Many questions about the form of the image have been explored most thoroughly in the history of art. Introductions to art history such as Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art (2005) can be useful to faculty interested in learning more about analyzing images. In my courses, some of the questions we consider about the composition of the image include: How is lightness, darkness and color used in the image? How is the image structured? What is represented at the highest point in the image and the lowest? How are the figures posed and represented? A close reading of the image might also address issues of symbolism and authorial intention. Are there symbols or figures which represent specific ideas in the image? Why might some figures be standing upright and others posed in different ways? What is not represented in the image, and what do these absences signify? Why did the image’s creator make these choices? In his class on the Chinese cultural revolution, for example, my colleague Ethan Segal discusses propaganda posters and asks his students: “What elements in the composition of the posters convey the message of the party?” and “How do the posters reflect changes in those messages over time?” In the process of interpreting the artistic style and political messages of these images, students also gain a better feeling for the power and passion of the movement’s supporters.

In terms of historical context, students should be encouraged not only to pay close attention to an image's production and circulation, but also to the responses of the image's audience. In most cases, this information cannot be learned from the image itself, but only from the caption, the instructor, or an assigned text. Initially, students might focus on the caption, thinking about the ways in which it influences their responses to the image. In a first-year writing seminar, for instance, another colleague Stephen Rohs asks students to write their own captions for a series of photographs from Alexander Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the American Civil War (1866, reprinted 2001). Comparing their own captions with Gardner’s original descriptions not only helps students to understand how written texts contribute to visual understanding, but also highlights the ways in which earlier understandings of the Civil War differ from current conceptions.

During the course of the semester, as students become more familiar with image-makers, places of publication, and types of images, they may be able to contribute more historical context to their readings of images. In my course on immigration, for example, students discuss the maps and photographs of Chinatown reproduced in Nayan Shah'sContagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown (2001). In a later writing assignment about an illustration comparing Chinese and American dwellings, some students used Shah to show how the angles and lighting of the Chinese image echoed popular photographs, suggesting that the picture used the visual rhetoric of photography (Figure 2).

KepplerTurning from formal and historical considerations to theoretical issues about visual representation, it is clear that images are no more direct transcripts of history than many other primary sources. When used as evidence rather than illustration, images have typically been examined for one of two conflicting but related purposes: they are invoked either as accurate documentary evidence or as distortions of history. Some images, namely photographs, seem to make particularly strong claims of objective representation—what Roland Barthes called “the reality effect”—while other pictures, such as drawings and paintings, are often viewed with suspicion. Liz Wells’sPhotography: A Critical Introduction (2000) offers a useful introduction to this issue, exploring the ways in which photographs are constructed to create the reality effect. However, while students should be made aware of the ways that images could be unreliable sources, they should also be encouraged to move beyond this approach. The reading of images as either accurate or inaccurate reinforces the practice of reading the (invented) image against (actual) experience, authenticating or questioning visual representations exclusively by reference to historical events rather than also seeing the ways in which images themselves can shape experience. Students are typically receptive to viewing images as part of history, as competing truths about historical actors and events. Visual media can be used very effectively to trace the development of ideas about industrialization, how war has been experienced and censored, and the ways that racial stereotypes have changed over time.3

One additional consideration is the question of using images in courses with particularly difficult content, such as war, violence, and racial stereotyping. Visual representations were often central to these histories: the spectacle of lynching was intentionally deployed in photographic postcards, and the visual documentation of concentration camps framed postwar understandings of the Holocaust. In these cases, the first consideration is whether or not to show these images. Sometimes this decision may be based on issues specific to the course: Do the students seem ready to engage seriously in viewing such images? And does the course allow sufficient time to do this? At other times, ethical considerations may be primary and can be effectively discussed with students: What role, for example, did the depicted subjects have in their representation? And were the images reproduced to exploit or expose their suffering? My colleague Kenneth Waltzer, who teaches a course on the history of the Holocaust, believes that students need to see the visual evidence of the Holocaust, not only the more familiar post-liberation photographs, but also the Nazi's own images of their killing installations and their victims. "I cannot not use images,” he notes, suggesting the ethical obligation to seriously consider this visual record. However, he prepares students carefully and uses images sparingly, warning them about the nature of the photographs and balancing images with survivors’ voices and testimonies.

Images are already present in our students' lives, both in and out of the classroom. By paying more attention to the images in our history texts, using new resources to introduce additional significant images, and bringing a critical eye to these media, we can build on our students' interests, strengthen their engagement in history, and help them to become more critically aware both about the world of the past and the world in which they live today.

— is assistant professor of history at the James Madison College of Michigan State University. She is currently engaged in a research project on the role of images in teaching history, supported by a Michigan State Lilly Endowment Teaching Fellowship, and is completing a book about the role of photography in the development of U.S. immigration policy.


1. Diana Oblinger, “Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials: Understanding the New Students,” Educause Review (July/August 2003), 37–47.

2. U.S Immigration Bureau, Annual Report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration (Washington, GPO: 1904 and 1907). This collection is available through two archival web sites: The Statue of Liberty Monument web site, and the New York Public Library Digital Gallery

3. See, for example: T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); John R. Stilgoe,Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983); Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception translated by Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989); George H. Roeder, The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); and, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).


Some general texts that may be particularly helpful to historians thinking about how to use images in their classrooms include: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1973), Peter Burke’sEyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (2001), Gillian Rose’s Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (2001), and Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright’s Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (2001).

In addition to these secondary readings, archival resources (including extensive visual resources) are constantly being made available online. These electronic resources are particularly rich in U.S. history, including the Library of Congress' American Memory Collection and the Online Archive of California. The Digital History web site provides a useful portal to many American digital collections, including a broad range of images through its “historical reference room.” Like traditional archives, some online versions can be difficult to locate and navigate. However, they allow students and faculty the opportunity to find visual media specific to their interests, often alongside other important primary sources. For example, the illustrations in the commercial online archive of Harper’s Illustrated Weeklyare presented in their original format in the periodical, allowing students to link the images with the articles that they illustrate. Such web sites also include virtual exhibitions that can be helpful to place primary sources in context, as well as useful teaching resources.

The increasing availability of technology within the classroom is also an aid to using visual images, but it is not a requirement. While digital projectors and in-class web access offer convenient ways of presenting visual media, simpler technologies such as overhead projectors and photocopies of images can be equally effective. In many of my courses, we use one class session to view original archival images in the Michigan State University Museum’s collection. Although not all schools and colleges have such resources, many campuses contain a wealth of underused visual resources in museums, special collections, or even publications in the library’s general collections.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.