Visual Essay Guidelines

Goals for the course

We’ve talked ad nauseum about the advantages and limitations of digital archives and storytelling. In this assignment, you’re going to write a history of any topic almost entirely in terms of digital images. You can use the NM history topic you picked much earlier, or do something TOTALLY DIFFERENT. It’s up to you. Pick something you have some interest in learning about, since research is still required—although not nearly as much as before.

Clearly, this is a highly restrictive and artificial limitation, but one that represents research in the real world, as there are always arbitrary limitations (whether geography, time or access, etc). It’s also an extreme test of the power of digital essays to (potentially) create more engaging histories. In your essay, therefore, you should comment on how this kind of restriction affects your ability to tell an interesting and accurate story about your topic.


Your research is not restricted to digital images, as that would be impossible, or so crude as to be useless. Your research will be the same as if you were writing a standard 5-page paper (or whatever). But you need to TELL THE STORY THROUGH IMAGES, with as little text as possible, and highly informative captions and image citations.

Goals beyond the course

AS ALWAYS: Part of the goal of your digital portfolios is to show off ability to engage simultaneously with the potential and limitations of digital research. As always, imagine that you are writing this for a potential employer who is intrigued by the “Digital History” course on your transcript. Show them how you can tell a complex story effectively with digital media. And remember, this is one of many components of your portfolio—one that privileges the visual (you have lots of text elsewhere).

Basic Requirements

  • Needs to be a separate PAGE on your portfolio, NOT a blog post
  • MAX 400 words, not counting captions. This does not mean essays are going to be SHORT, though, since you’ll have a lot of images.
  • Meaningful images—a set number is kind of silly given the variety of topics you’ve picked out, but you should have 10-15. Less than that makes the essay harder, because you won’t have enough for a story.
  • Remember that not all images will be directly related to your topic—some will be representative of historical context.
  • Carefully written captions are key to the success of this exercise. They need to be sharp, concise, and informative. Don’t just label the image, make sure it’s clear what it’s doing in tyour essay. Don’t be ridiculous with the length of your captions (ie don’t write full paragraphs and pretend it’s OK).
  • Your prose should fill in the gaps, but the images (and captions) must be the heart of the story. THIS IS GOING TO BE FRUSTRATING AND THAT’S THE POINT.
  • I can’t give precise formatting or layout requirements because there aren’t any. The exercise is to think about how best to communicate visually. You should be used to the Wix editor by now (remedy this ASAP if not) so that you can make pages look the way you want. ASK IN CLASS IF YOU CAN’T; there is a 0% chance you are the only person with that question.
  • Reflect critically on what you’re doing using course readings. This is not optional—the point of the readings is that you can use them!


At the end of your essay, you should list the full bibliographic entry of your sources and images. Use whatever style you’re most familiar with (Chicago, APA, whatever), but be consistent.

Image Credits

At the end of your image caption, you should have a hyperlink that takes the reader to the digital source of your image, which will look like [source]. Please don’t make the brackets part of the hyperlink. Have the link go to wherever you found the image. A working example might look like:

protestors in front of MVH

Protestors and spectators on Cornell Mall after the arrival of the National Guard on UNM campus. Mesa Vista Hall in background. [source]

As a class exercise, we are operating under the doctrine of fair use, so we don’t need to worry about copyright for our website. Still, we should always be respectful of the fact that every image is a creative work subject to copyright.


  • 0-2: Technically the assignment is done, but doesn’t tell a cohesive story, has very limited images, or clearly rushed writing.
  • 3-5: Displays a respectable level of effort, but generally underwhelming.
  • 6-8: Shows potential, but falls short in scope or execution. Usually this score represents a solid effort but that is missing a critical component or is sloppily done. For instance, you might have way too much text, or not connect the images together very well with your text, or not have enough images to convey a useful history.
  • 9-10: Carefully written; pulls in different readings from the course to analyze your experience (across all relevant readings from the syllabus); shows significant critical engagement with the assignment in that all description is used to make a broader point.