How to interpret the meaning of photographs

Antique photos and camera

Interpreting a visual source, like a photograph, is very different to interpreting words on a page, which is the case with written sources. Therefore, you need to develop a different set of skills.

Photographs as sources

Photographs are very useful types of primary sources. They provide a rare glimpse of a particular second in time, which will never again be repeated.


This is especially true for events that occurred before the development of television or digital technologies.

Many people assume that photographs are unbiased, accurate records of historical events. However, that is not always the case.


Photographers took great care to create the exact images they wanted their audiences to see.


Therefore, it is important to analyse photographs in order to identify the message the creator wanted their audience to understand.


If you want to gain a further appreciation of how different photographers can affect what an audience sees in an image, watch the clip below:

How do I identify the photo's message?

When people take a photograph, they make decisions about what to show in, or leave out of, the picture.


Photographers do this by choosing the angle from which they take the shot and from what distance it will be taken, either close up or further away.


Experienced photographers could then also edit their pictures later in order to change how the original image looked.


Therefore, to correctly interpret what the photographer intended their audience to understand from their image, we have to identify some specific information.


1. Identify the Main Subject: What are the most important people, locations or items in the image?

You can work out what the photographer wanted you to focus on by looking at what is in the centre of the photo, or what appears the largest. This is the main subject the creator wanted the audience to see.


2. Identify Minor Subjects: What appears in the background, behind or around the main subject?

Things of minor importance appear to support the main subject. The photographer wanted to also show these things to help you draw certain conclusions about the main subject.


3. Explain the Image Composition: At what distance from the main subject was the photograph taken?

If the photograph is a ‘close up’ of the main subject, the photographer wanted the audience to feel ‘part of the action’ or to be confronted by the image. If it was taken from further away, the photographer wanted the viewer to feel ‘detached’ from the action or to get a ‘bird’s eye view’ of things.

How do I interpret a photograph?

Once you have identified the main subject, the minor subjects and the composition of the photograph, you can begin to understand the photographer's intended message. Follow the next steps:

  1. The main subject is what the photographer wanted the audience to see. (e.g. They wanted them to see dead soldiers on the battlefield)
  2. The composition is how the photographer wanted the audience to feel about the main subject. (e.g. The image of the dead soldiers was taken 'close up' and they dominate the photo, so they wanted the audience to feel confronted by the main subject)
  3. The minor subjects may indicate how the photographer wanted the audience to react to what they see. (e.g. In the background there are other soldiers walking past the dead in an indifferent manner. So, the photographer wanted the audience to feel pity for the dead and motivate them to do something to commemorate their sacrifice.)

What do I do with my interpretation?

Not only does identifying the message of a photograph show that you understand the primary source, it also helps you in your analysis and evaluation of the source. For example, identifying the source's message can help you ascertain:

  • The purpose of the photograph
  • The motive of the photographer
  • The relevance of the source to your argument
  • The accuracy of the information presented in the image


Vladimir Lenin addressing a crowd

Demonstrating interpretation of a photograph in your writing:


The photograph of Lenin addressing a crowd shows him as the largest person in the image. It is clear that the photographer wanted the audience to focus on him. In the background can be seen a large number of people looking on admiringly, which may show that the photographer wanted their audience to also admire Lenin. Finally, the image was taken 'close up' to Lenin, which makes him a dominant figure of the photograph. Therefore, the creator wanted the viewer to feel confronted by who Lenin was and what he was saying during the speech. The dominant message of the photograph is that Lenin was a powerful speaker who drew the admiration of those around him and that his message was worth listening to.