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DHSS Assignment Guides

Historical Image Analysis

Historical Image Analysis as a DHSS Assignment

Featuring work from Denise Challenger‘s exhibit Playin’ Mas, Play and Mas: A pedagogical journey of children and Caribana, 1970-1974

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978

Engaging in an image analysis for a historian is not an unusual task. You can find image analysis worksheets from several sources, including the National Park Service (American), the National Archives (American), the Canadian War Museum, the North Dakota State Government, the Illinois State Museum, and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (some worksheets are designed for younger learners but can be adapted for your students).

Historian and project member Denise Challenger demonstrated multiple stages of image analysis in her exhibit, Playin’ Mas, Play and Mas: A pedagogical journey of children and Caribana, 1970-1974. In her exhibit, she tracked her initial reflections of the photographs in her digitized archive and engaged in a more structured reflection of selected images.

However, the real “meaning making” potential for photo analysis in DHSS is that your students can engage in photo analysis with a range of historical images that were not created as digital objects. Digital photos are now so ubiquitous to us that we may forget that photos over 20 years old, especially popular photos, were not created digitally and were taken in a finite series with unexpected results (i.e. a roll of 24 photo on film that you had to wait until they were developed to see).

What DHSS can bring to historical image analysis then, is having the images themselves available to us on a laptop, on a phone, on a tablet and cannot only be analyzed but also “remixed” and creatively transformed to tell new stories about the past.



  • The examination of digital images from a historical point of view

Possible tools/technologies:

  • Scalar
  • Omeka
  • Flickr
  • PowerPoint
  • Prezi
  • Instagram

Elements of Process:

  • Identify photographs
  • View the photograph and answer specific questions about its content and context
  • Put ideas together to make a historical argument based on one’s analysis
  • Present the analysis

Size of assignment:

  • Small to Medium


  • Low to Moderate

For her exhibit Playin’ Mas, Play and Mas: A pedagogical journey of children and Caribana, 1970-1974,” Denise did two stages of analysis: initial reflection and then structured reflection. When she moved to structured reflection, Denise asked 10 questions of each photograph:

A young girl in a white costume

  1. Are there people in the photograph?
  2. What are they doing?
  3. What expressions are on their faces? What is their body language?
  4. What objects are in the photograph?
  5. When was the photograph taken?
  6. Where was the photograph taken?
  7. Where is the photographer standing in relation to the subject (above, below, in front of, beside, etc.)?
  8. How would the picture change if he or she was standing in a different place?
  9. Is this photo spontaneous or posed? How can you tell?
  10. What is the general mood of the photograph? How can you tell?

Denise shared the answers to her questions through “pop up,” interactive annotations. The presentation of Denise’s “pop-up” analysis, like Juan Pablo’s public education analysis, was done through Scalar. To replicate their work, one would have to be familiar with Scalar; however, your students can present their analysis of a digital image using a tool other than Scalar, such as WordPress or a photosharing site like Flickr. There are surprisingly not as many photo analysis tools for DHSS as one would think. Thus, to show students’ analyses, you can be creative in the tools your students already know, such as PowerPoint or Prezi, as well as integrate their formal analysis into other assignments, such as developing an exhibit, creating metadata, mapping, or proving/disproving an argument.

However, DHSS can allow your students to think about the digital-ness of a historical, non-digital photograph. It is this historical specificity that should be a highlight of your students’ analyses; asking questioning such as:

  1. What is the meaning behind capturing this image?
  2. Who was the intended audience?
  3. What is familiar about this image?
  4. What is surprising?
  5. What insight does this give us into the past that we would not have without this image?
  6. How does this image demonstrate that “we were there/they were there”?


Historical Photo Analysis suggestions

Images can be chosen from archived sources but also collections of unidentified photos that can be found on Instagram, Flickr, and other photosharing sites. In many ways, asking your students to analyze less-common photographs than the ones used in class may elicit more complicated ways into content analysis.