How to Write an Essay for a Single Photograph

Analyzing a photograph lets you examine its visual elements to determine its message.
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Photography as an art form captures powerful truths that emanate from the portrayal of their subjects. Just as an author carefully selects words when composing an essay, a photographer uses elements like focus, lighting, contrast and background to depict an intended subject. Determining the photographer's intended message and analyzing how it is supported by visual elements can help you write an effective essay about a photograph.

1 Observation

Duke University's Thompson Writing Program suggests starting the writing process by observing the photograph. You can take notes about prominent objects in the foreground, the details of the setting, the shades of color represented and the emotions evoked by the photo. For example, if you were writing your essay about Thomas Franklin's photograph of firefighters raising the American flag at the World Trade Center site of the attacks of September 11, 2001, you might note the expressions on the men's faces, the prominence of the flag and how its colors contrast with the dirt and rubble. You might also try free writing about the image, writing down whatever details come to mind without censoring yourself.

2 Thesis

Just like any other essay, you can use the details you've generated during brainstorming activities to develop a clear, specific sentence about what the photographer might have been trying to convey. For example, the details of the 9/11 picture might indicate the resilience of the American people in the face of tragedy. Therefore, your thesis might read, "Thomas Franklin frames the American flag and firefighters within the contrasting backdrop of the World Trade Center rubble to demonstrate America's ability to overcome even the most heartbreaking of tragedies."

3 Introduction and Context

A good way to introduce the photograph is by describing its context. Giving background information adds meaning to the image by allowing readers to know the story behind it. You might consider what events surrounded the picture's creation, such as any personal connections the photographer had with his subject and how people originally reacted to it. For the 9/11 image, you might discuss how the photograph, which originally appeared in the New Jersey paper The Record, became a symbol of hope and endurance in the weeks following the events.

4 Visual Evidence

An essay about a photograph uses specific references to specific aspects of the image to support the thesis. This includes whether the photograph confronts the subject directly or uses unusual camera angles, what subjects are the focus of the image and how the photographer uses light and shadow. You also might consider composition, the way the photographer arranges and frames the subjects. In the 9/11 photo, the central focus on the flag, the use of shadow and light, and the direct camera angle that frames the flag with the firefighters all emphasize the survival of America.

5 Conclusion

In any essay, a strong conclusion will both review its main points and leave readers with a poignant final thought to consider. In an essay about a photograph, you might write about how the image remains relevant today or reveals something about our world. This will further emphasis that the image's power lies in the continuation of the ideas behind it. For example, even though years have passed since 9/11, Franklin's photograph still carries special significance. Although America suffered greatly from the attacks, it has demonstrated its resilience through the process of recovery.

Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.