Examining and interpreting visual sources is a critical skill in history. Every historian and history student must be able to extract evidence and information from visual sources.
A difficult process
The process of extracting information from visual sources is not always easy. Visual sources from the past are often difficult to understand. They may depict or represent people or events you are unfamiliar with. They may use symbols whose meanings are obscure or have changed over time. Some visual sources may use humour, caricature or satire in a way that confuses or clouds their meaning.
The history student must wrestle with these problems and others when analysing visual sources. You will find working with visual sources difficult at first – but your skills will develop with time and practice.
As with other analytical tasks, the best approach for working with images is to follow a process or framework. There are several useful frameworks for analysing evidence, or you may prefer to develop your own. The framework we suggest uses the acronym COMA, for Content, Origin, Motive and Analysis.
As the word suggests, content is what is contained in the source. The first step is to take a close look and see what you can identify and pick out from the source, without too much thought or analysis at first.
What is happening? Does the source represent a particular event or moment in time? Who is portrayed in the source? Do figures in the source represent specific people, such as political leaders – or do they symbolise a particular group or class? What are they doing? How are they dressed? What are they wearing, carrying or using?
What is suggested by their body language? What about facial expression? Are they represented in a positive, negative or neutral fashion? Does the source contain any visual symbols? Where are they placed? What might they represent?
An essential part of understanding a source is knowing where it came from and who created it. Try to find out the artist, engraver or cartoonist responsible for creating your source. If possible, find out when and where it was created too. Is there any ancillary information, such as a caption, date or publisher?
If any of this information is not provided, examine the content for clues. Does the source use language, symbols or clothing from a particular region or area? Does it represent a specific event that can be dated? Is there a particular style that can be linked to a specific time or place?
Think also about the context in which your source was created. What was going on at the time? Was your source created in response to an event, a law or policy, an idea or particular condition?
Next, think about why the image was created. All visual sources are created for a purpose, usually to inform or entertain, or to get people thinking or feeling a particular way.
What is the purpose of your image? Was it created to celebrate, to commemorate, to persuade, to ridicule or mock, to satirise, to incite anger or outrage, or to evoke some other emotional response? Does it show particular leaders, groups or ideas in a positive, negative or critical light?
What events, conditions or grievances might have inspired the creation of your image? How are these things portrayed? What does your source have to say about the context in which it was created?
This is usually the most difficult part of interpreting a visual source. You should think critically about the source, the claims it makes and the methods it uses.
The first step is to consider its factual and historical accuracy. Does the source present a fair depiction of people, events or conditions? Or does it mislead by presenting false or exaggerated information? Does it offer an overly optimistic or negative view of particular people or events? Does it use style and tone – such as satire, caricature and mockery – in a way that is fair to its subjects?
Do you think the source represents the views of a majority of people – or the views and attitudes of a smaller group? Does it mislead or propagandise by omitting certain information? Does it glorify a particular leader while ignoring their faults or failures?