Reading an Image


Reading an Image I

The age demanded an image.

--Ezra Pound


Safe From Harm: Kosovar Albanian Agim Shala, 2, is passed between family members in a refugee camp in Kukes, Albania, in March. As NATO jets began to bomb Serb forces over the conflict in Kosovo, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic unleashed a vicious campaign of "ethnic cleansing," involving massacres in different parts of Kosovo designed to force the territory's ethnic-Albanian majority to leave. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to neighboring Albania and Macedonia before NATO's campaign allowed them to begin returning home in May. Now the tables have been turned, and NATO forces are attempting to stop attacks on Kosovo's handful of remaining Serbs. (1999)

stairs Image

September 11, 2001: This photograph of firefighter Mike Kehoe, from Staten Island, was taken as he rushed up Tower One. John Labriola, who had an office on the 71st floor of the building, snapped the picture as he passed Kehoe. Kehoe escaped with no physical injuries.


In our world of multi- and visual media, we must expand our notion of what a text is and how we must read it. As more texts are used to convey information print once did, we must bring to these visual texts critical literacies that will help us construct meaning from their elements. The following questions are designed to help readers make sense of images they encounter in various contexts.

Ask the Following Questions

  • Why are we looking at this?
  • What are we looking for?
  • How should we look at this?
  • What choices did the artist make and how did they affect its meaning?
  • Is this image in its original state (i.e., no manipulation or "doctoring")?
  • What are the different components in this image?
  • How are they related to each other?
  • What is the main idea or argument the image expresses?
  • In what context or under what conditions was this image originally created? Displayed?
  • Who created it?
  • Was it commissioned? (If so, by whom? And for what purpose?)
  • What was the creator trying to do here? (i.e., narrate, explain, describe, persuade---or some combination?)
  • Can you find any tension or examples of conflict within the image? If so, what are they? What is their source? How are they represented?
  • Do you like this image? (Regardless of your answer: Why?
  • How would you describe the artist's technique?
  • What conventions govern this image? How do they contribute to or detract from its ability to convey its message?
  • What does it consist of?
  • Why are parts arranged the way they are?
  • What is the main idea behind this image?
  • What does this image show (i.e., objectively; see Vietnam Memorial image)
  • What does it mean (subjectively; see Vietnam Memorial image)
  • Is this presented as an interpretation? Factual record? Impression?
  • What is the larger context of which this image is a part?
  • What is it made from?
  • Why did the creator choose the materials, medium, and perspective they did?
  • What is the place to which your attention is most immediately drawn?
  • What is the smallest detail that says the most?
  • How would it change the meaning or viewer's experience if different materials, medium, or perspectives were used?
  • What motivates the creator here?
  • What verbs could be used to describe what the components---colors, lines, light, space, objects, characters---are doing in the image?
  • What adjectives could be used to best describe the precise details of the objects in the image?
  • What nouns most accurately describe the content---colors, lines, light, space, objects, characters---of the image?
  • What adverbs most accurately describe how the components---colors, lines, light, space, objects, characters---of the image?
  • What do we need to know to read the image successfully?
  • How did the original artist expect this image to be read (e.g., as an interpretation, a prediction, a documentary)?
  • Is the creator working within or against a particular genre or school of expression?
  • What are the criteria you are---or should be---using to evaluate this image?
  • What are the image's motifs, themes, plot, and characters?
  • How would you describe the style of this image and why did the artist make the choices they did?
  • Where should you begin as you try to read this? Why there?
  • Is this image authentic (i.e., it has not been touched up or otherwise doctored using other materials or software programs)?
  • If this image was altered, who did it and why?
  • What questions do I need to ask to read this image successfully?
  • What is the best or the prescribed angle from which I should view this image?
  • How has the artist used the following elements to communicate with the viewer: light, line, space, time, color?
  • Does this image achieve---or is it offered as---symbolic or iconic representation (e.g., Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother")?
  • Is there an observable pattern used here? (And if so, what is it and how is it used?)
  • Does the creator use any devices---repetition, symbols, visual puns? (And if so, what are they, and how do they work in the image?)

The information on this page comes from Reading Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques, by Jim Burke.

Pictures are courtesy of


Reading Images


U.S. soldiers stand guard outside the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels as Iraqi street children sleep next to them in Baghdad (Wednesday, June 11, 2003) Source: Muad Sezer (AP)


An unveiled Afghan girl waits for a bus with burqa clad women in Kabul. Though the vast majority of Afghan women still wear the burqa, many girls go about sans veil (Monday, June 9, 2003)  Source: Arko Datta (Reuters)


Filipino children play and swim in a construction site in a busy street of Manila (Tuesday, June 3, 2003)  Source: Romeo Ranoco (Reuters)


Smoke rises from a passenger train after it collided with a freight train in Chinchilla, central Spain. The accident killed at least one person and injured around 30 of the 87 passengers on board (Tuesday, June 3, 2003)  Source: Ramon Espinosa  (AP)


A female American soldier frisks Afghan women at a village during Operation Deliberate Strike, some 40 miles north of Kandahar. The mission involves hundreds of U.S. troops on a sweep through southern Afghanistan to counter operations by the resurgent Taliban and allied groups (Monday, May 19, 2003)  Source: Kamal Kishore (Reuters)

Rafael Martinez sits on the only piece of furnture left after his daughter's moblie home was destroyed by a tornado. Eleven people were injured and dozens of homes were damanged when a storm swept through the Rio Grande Valley near Mission, Texas (Wednesday, April 30, 2003)  Source: Delicia Lopez (San Antonio Express News/AP)


Ben Sloan of Lima, Ohio and Ashley Lauth of Spencerville, Ohio go vertical on Cedar Point Amusement Park's newest coaster, Top Thrill Dragster. The new thrill ride in Sandusky, Ohio is the tallest, at 420 feet, and fastest, at 120 mph, coaster in the world (Thursday, May 1, 2003) Source: Gene J. Puskar (AP)

Chinese paramedics in Wuhan tend to a man who had collapsed in public. The man exhibited symptoms of SARS (Tuesday, April 29, 2003)  Source: China Photo (Reuters)


A man plays piano while others loot one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces in Baghdad (Saturday, May 3, 2003)  Source: Alexander Zemlianichenko (AP)


The Benitez family celebrates Mother's Day at their house in the Marianao neighborhood in Havana, Cuba. Cuban families celebrate Mother's Day on the second Sunday of May by gathering at home (Sunday May 11, 2003) Source: Christobal Herrera (AP)


A U.S. Naval Academy plebe is pulled through the obstacle course by classmates during the injured-shipmate phase of the Sea Trails exercises at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Sea Trials, a rigorous one-day event which challenges the plebes' physical and mental stamina, completes the first of four years at the academy (Tuesday, May 13, 2003) Source: Jim Watson (AFP)


A lion exhausted by the heat lies in his cage in Calcutta Zoo. India's summer temperatures frequently reach 113 degrees (Wednesday, May 14, 2003)
Source: Deshakalyan Chowdhury (AFP)


A masked couple shares a moment before departure at a train station in Beijing. Nearly half of the world's cases of SARS have occurred in China, where official statistics show that 92 people have died and more than 2,001 have been infected by the disease.  Source:Guing Niu (Reuters)


A young fan wearing a mask for protection from the SARS virus reaches out with a glove as Kansas City Royals right fielder Michael Tucker misses a pop fly by Toronto Blue Jays' Vernon Wells during fourth inning AL action in Toronto  Source: Hans Deryk (Toronto Star/AP)


A woman waves to her husband over a video camera on Monday April 28 in Singapore's Alexandra Hospital. The hospital launched the virtual visit, an alternative to the present no visitor policy for patients, even ones like this one who do not have SARS. The rule was imposed by the Ministry of Health for all public hospitals in a bid to contain the SARS virus.  Source: Wong Maye-e (AP)


Schoolgirls walk by as British soldiers aim at a sniper after British troops came under fire in Basra. The incident came as British troops on foot patrol in the center of the city were forced to take cover after a number of shots were fired near them. It was not clear if the British soldiers were the target. Although pockets of resistance remain, schools reopened Saturday for the first time since the start of the war on March 20 (Saturday, April 19, 2003)  Source: Tim Sloan (AP)

A gaucho falls from his horse during a rodeo at the yearly "Rural Fair" in Montevideo, Uruguay. Every year during Holy Week hundreds of Uruguayan gauchos show their skills and compete for the title of best rider of the rodeo (Monday, April 14, 2003) Source: Marcelo Hernandez (AP)

Three-month-old polar bear Victoria and her mother Fanny are seen during Victoria's first public appearance in Hagenbeck's Tierpark zoo in Hamburg, northern Germany. Victoria is the first polar bear born in the past eight years in Hamburg's zoo (Wednesday, April 16, 2003).  Source:Fabian Bimmer (AP)


Freestyle Moto X rider Pete McCann separates from his bike as he performs a stunt during rehearsal for the Royal Easter Show in Sydney. More than one million people are expected to attend the show (Wednesday, April 9, 2003). Source: Greg Wood (AP)


A girl sleeps as other school children at the Yaojiayuan school take part in a cleaning campaign to prevent the spread of SARS in Beijing. Authorities are focusing on hygiene in public areas in an effort to prevent the spread of SARS, which has killed about 100 worldwide (Wednesday, April 9, 2003).  Source: Ng Han Guan (AP)


Armond McCray, 5, (L) of Wichita, Kansas, and Josiah Seaton, 6, (R) of Bonner Springs, Kansas, compete at the USA Kansas Kids State Folk-Style Championship Wrestling Tournament in Topeka. Josiah beat Armond, 10-3, in overtime (Saturday, March 29, 2003).  Source: Anthony S. Bush (AP)


A man and child walk on a road near the entrance of the besieged city of Basra as oil fires burn in the distance in Iraq. Party loyalists have taken up positions in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, making it a target of the U.S.-led war on Iraq (Saturday, March 29, 2003). Source: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)


A Splendorous Cannes Depite World of Worries
Movie stars from around the world flock annually to the southern seaside French town of Cannes to strut in front of the cameras and promote their latest films. This year was no different despite the threat of SARS outbreaks and a nationwide transportation strike the day before the opening on May 14.
Source: Lionel Cironeau (AP)


Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post) The Protiva family of Peace Valley, Missouri homeschools their children to help them develop conservative Christian beliefs.


Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post) The Protiva family of Peace Valley, Missouri .  Kristina isn't old enough to ride horses yet, but she dreams of the day.


Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post) Lowell Davis wrestles with his sheep on his farm near Red Oak, Missouri


Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post)  During a shift change, a miner rides through noxious carbon dioxide fumes on his way to the entrance to the mine and fresh air.


Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post)  Larry Visnosky and his pet bear (500 pounds) Coco go for a swim in the Little Buffalo River near Jasper,Arkansas.

Source: Peter Essick (Washington Post) A man and a boy transport bananas from a Del Monte plantation in Costa Rica

Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post) Pete and Jim Bansen corral the cattle they plan to take to the Humbolt County Fair in California. One cow won't budge, as she's reluctant to leave the Bansen's Ferndale farm

Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post)

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Young girls, decked out in stars and sunflowers, prepare to parade before their families at the Brazoria County Fair in Angleton, Texas.



Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post)  

Proud Parent

John Swenson poses with his lamb, before taking it to the Curry County Fair in Oregon.

Six-year-old John isn't a member of 4-H or Future Farmers of America yet, but he will join other Curry County youngsters who display their proudest efforts at the fair.

Source: Randy Olson (Washington Post)

Butter Bust

Each year, Minnesota’s regional dairy princess has her likeness carved in an 85-pound block of butter.

Anna Vander Kooi, sits patiently while her butter bust is being carved.

Anna has won countless Nobles County Fair ribbons in bread, clothing and dairy food categories.

Source: Slyvia Plachy (Washington Post)  The Edge of Innocence
There are boy-girl friendships among the third-graders as they are not yet captive to what the teachers call "the cooties thing."


Source: Bill Kostroun (AP)  June 9: New Jersey Devils' Mike Rupp, right, and Colins White, left, celebrate with teammates after a goal against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks during the second period of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.


Source: Bill O'leary (Washington Post) USS Truman Returns Home
Poignant goodbyes and homecomings are part of life at the world's largest naval station in Norfolk, Va., but on May 23 the return of the thousands of sailors and Marines aboard USS Harry S. Truman was remarkable even for this port.


The ghostly remains of the R.M.S. Titanic, more than two miles (3 kilometers) deep in the North Atlantic, lay unseen for 73 years until oceanographer Robert Ballard thrilled the world in 1985 by finding the famous luxury liner, sunk by an iceberg. The sediment-encrusted bow emerges in high-intensity lights trained on it by submersibles.  Source:Emory Kristof (National Geographic)


Source: Joel Sartore (National Geographic)  Snarling Nick may look meaner than a junkyard dog, but he’s just a rancher’s pet wary of outsiders - as are North America’s western cattlemen as they battle to hold on to the lands that sustain them.


“The ultimate nightmare hidden in the back of the human mind,” says photographer David Doubilet, “is to be eaten alive.” In Gansbaai, South Africa, a 14-foot (4 meters) great white shark gives Doubilet a seal’s-eye view of “the most notorious mouth in nature



AP/DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE        TIME Magazine, 1-28-02

When is a war prisoner not a POW? When the U.S. brings Afghan detainees to Guantanamo Bay.

01 Image

A resident of Goma watches lava flowing at the local airport. Following the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, about 450,000 people are reported to have fled Goma, which lies at the foot of the mountain. Large parts of the town are now buried under lava. (Friday, January 18, 2002)


05 Image
An unidentified man marches behind a banner during a demonstration on the streets of San Salvador, El Salvador. Protesters demanded aid and housing from the government for the thousands affected by the devastating earthquakes that hit the country last year. The banner has the protestors' demands written on it. (Monday, January 14, 2002)




10 Image

U.S. Marines walk on top of their Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs) while on patrol near the American military compound at Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan. The Marines recovered mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery rounds discovered in various caches near the base. (Wednesday, January 16, 2002)   

08 Image
Andy Manis/ AP
          Green Bay Packers' cornerback Mike McKenzie celebrates with fans as he jumps in the stands after intercepting a pass for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers won 24-13. (Sunday, December 30, 2001)


afghan Image

An Afghan refugee, Akhta Mohammed, holds his daughter, Basbabi, as his other daughter, Nasimo, looks on, outside Kandahar. Mohammed's family has been living in a tent near the city for the past month in the hope that additional aid for refugees will be delivered. The U.S. Army plans to soon occupy Kandahar Airport to help coordinate shipments of relief supplies. (Wednesday, January 9, 2002)


Andre Lambertson/Saba for Time magazine

In September, Sanders, recently released from prison  dresses for an interview for a custodial position at a YMCA. From the TIME magazine story, "Outside the Gates."  (January 13, 2002)


mopup ImageJeff Bernard/AP

Firefighters battle the Quartz Fire near Ruch, Ore., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2001. The Quartz fire, one of many burning in Oregon, has scorched more than 5,100 acres although officials believe they can get it under control soon.


Apolo Anton Ohno
Apolo Anton Ohno received six stitches in his left thigh after crashing Saturday. (Winter Olympics 2002)


prince Image


A picture of the late Princess Margaret is displayed in a shop window opposite Windsor Castle. (Friday, February 15, 2002)


The Canadian pair gave a flawless performance

Canada's figure skating pair of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier perform their routine at the Salt Lake Ice Centre
(Winter Olympics 2002)



Olympic champions Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat shared the same Olympic dream but 10 years ago they were worlds apart.

Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat of France win gold medal at 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah

flood Image
Alexandra Brun   AFP

A woman cries as she watches her home on the outskirts of Lima, Peru become covered in flood waters. Strong rains in the mountain ranges are causing flooding in several areas of the country, resulting in property damage and disruption of transportation. (Tuesday, February 5, 2002)



  by Photodisc  6-16-02


Peter Jordan/AP
Workers in London's financial district celebrate the World Cup soccer victory against Argentina.  6-16-02

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