Write an five-to-seven-page essay analyzing a single image. Talk about the image in terms not simply of what it shows--as if it were just a window we happened to be looking out of--but as an example of cultural work that the creator of the image is performing.

First, a definition:

Cultural work is the process by which writing or pictures reinforce current structures of feeling, thinking or acting in a society, or enable individuals in a culture to rehearse new patterns of feeling/thinking/acting that history has made necessary.

To explain the cultural work of the image as something deliberately constructed and presented, look at the image in three ways: the context, the information design (Tufte), and the visual design (Bang).


Introduce your image, its context. Work into the opening a thesis—that is, a moment in the introduction when you explicitly say what ultimately you want your reader to take from the essay.


To discuss the cultural work of a picture from the news, from an advertisement, from an album cover, etc. you'll need to discover and discuss the image's context, which might include:

  • who made the image and perhaps when/where,
  • where the image was/is originally presented,
  • what audience the image was intended for
  • the "cultural moment" of the image (what the subject matter signified when it was first presented)
  • an historical sense of how the audience at the time would have interpreted the image.

A Tufte Working Over

Once you've established the cultural context of the image, you're ready to look specifically at how the image itself performs its cultural work within that context. First, discuss the work as Edward Tufte would, using terms and critical concepts from Visual Explanations.

How do we know what we know looking at the image? How does it provide information about who, what, when, where, why, how much, etc. Using Tufte is particularly helpful in talking about the words that are included in or with the image. How does the image convey information relevant to the culture work by including what Tufte calls direct labels, coding (both color and cultural) and self-representing scales? Be sure to quote and cite Tufte when appropriate.

A Bang Out of It

Next, "read" the image with the critical tools that Molly Bang provides in her book Picture This. While you may look at the very same details as you did in the Tufte section, here you'll use Bang to explore how the image performs its cultural work emotionally in terms of visual design. How does the image speak to our emotions, represent power relationships, control our reactions? Be sure to quote and cite Bang when appropriate.


You'll end the essay with a conclusion that brings your analysis to a satisfying conclusion.

A good technique for conclusions to end by giving the reader something extra or new (but still relevant, of course) that hasn't already been presented in the paper.

A Note on Style and Voice

As you introduce your image, your critical sources and other elements required by the assignment, try to speak of them as if they were a natural part of your argument or discussion. Try not to refer to the assignment, or imply that you're analyzing this image or using these sources because you have to (even though you do).

For example, if you say "The image I've chosen to analyze is...," you're suggestion that the choice of an image has somehow been forced upon you. Better to start by talking about why the image is interesting and significant, as if you just couldn't help but write an essay about it.

Citation and Documentation

Be sure to cite sources and page numbers (parenthetically in the text) and document those sources (in a "Works Cited" section at the end) using MLA format. Cite any quotations, paraphrased ideas or unique information you use from those sources. Also include a Works Cited entry for the source of your image.

Sample Images, Contexts, and Resources