Examining Historical Images

There are several challenges that may be faced in the examination and analysis of historical images. Having a firm grasp of some of these factors can evidently help strengthen these skills. This weeks photo analysis activity revealed the following potential issues:

  • Difficult to refrain from making assumptions based on experiences & prior knowledge.
  • Research is required to understand historical factors that contribute to document appearance.
  • Important to factor in subject awareness and the potential for staging.
  • Photographs may be based on preferences, ideas, and representational bias/beliefs.
  • How subjects act/dress may be affected by awareness of being photographed.
  • Accepting documents at face value is risky given that they represent only one snapshot in time.
  • We tend to look for ‘truths’ from a small fragment of a larger whole.
  • “Historians actually decide just what, exactly, they think is worth writing about” (Sandwell, 2003).
  • Possible failure to recognize contextual, social, and cultural factors that may affect representation.
  • Who was in charge of taking/storing/presenting the photo?
  • Any information that may have been added after the fact (ie. dates/locations/titles/descriptors).


As a primarily qualitative researcher, I’ve examined a number of personal or historic images in the course of design research. It can be difficult to remain objective when viewing photographs as we all tend to draw our own meaning from them. Considering the multiple angles and facets above will help with triangulation, or developing a fuller picture of the potential meaning (Gay, Mills & Airasian, 2009).

Gay, L. R., Mills, G. E., & Airasian, P. W. (2009). Educational research: Competencies for analysis and applications (ed.). Columbus, OH: Pearson.

Sandwell, R. (2003). Reading beyond bias: Using historical documents in the secondary classroom. McGill Journal of Education, 38(1), 168-186.

Image source: Thomas & Dianne Jones. (2006). Family Collage. Retrieved here under CC by 2.0 license.

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