The visual essay

What is it?

A visual essay is a sequence of photographs or other images which are either:

  • original, taken and/or created by yourself, or
  • found, and significantly processed (e.g. using Photoshop, Illustrator)

Taken together, the images provide a critical commentary of some kind on a defined topic, working as a kind of argument, explanation, discussion. The topic will have been either given to you (e.g. as an essay question) or developed by you in consultation with your tutor.

Usually the ‘reading’ of the images in a visual essay is directed by such elements as:

  • the sequence of images and how they relate to each other, the juxtaposition of one to the next and how it stands in a series
  • the layout of the page in which the image(s) is placed, and the layout of following and preceding pages
  • captions, including brief analyses, quotations, key words, provocative questions or statements;
  • text integrated within the image or as part of the image (e.g. playing with typographic elements, the visual aspects of text);
  • • a short text at the beginning (prologue, scene setting) and/or end (epilogue, codicil, reflection).

Sounds easy…?

The visual essay is not a soft option. To produce a good visual essay is as demanding as writing a good academic text, and in some ways may be considerably harder to do. Never opt to do a visual essay because you think it will be easier than a ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ essay: this will inevitably lead to poor work. Apart from anything else, the traditional essay – love it or loathe it – is ‘the devil you know’. A visual essay is always something of a risk – but also an exciting possibility, rich with potential. Think carefully about how you will approach it and what you want it to say, do, achieve.

What form should it take?

The visual essay will usually take the form of a bound sequence but might be a series of unbound cards (perhaps ‘shuffled’, with a fixed start- and end-point) if that works better with the ideas being expressed. It may possibly take the form of a PowerPoint slideshow that runs automatically, combining image and text in a meaningful, essay-style sequence.

Remember, visual design and communication are key to the success (or otherwise) of a visual essay: they work as the equivalents of correct layout, accurate spelling, clear sentence construction, and so on, in a traditional academic essay.

How many images should I include? And how many words?

A visual essay needs to be equivalent in study effort, time, and so on, to a piece of traditional academic writing at the same level. This means that there is no ‘cutting corners’ on research/enquiry, organisation, thinking, drafting, ‘writing up’ and managing references and citation.

  • Typically, to be equivalent to a 1500 word written essay, a visual essay should comprise 10-12 images, with around 500-700 words of text.
  • To be equivalent to a 2000 word written essay, it should include 12-15 images, with around 600-800 words of text.
  • To be equivalent to a 4000 word written essay, think in terms of 15-20 images, with 1200-1500 words of text.

Does a visual essay need to be referenced? Does it need a bibliography?

The visual essay must include – or be accompanied by – an annotated bibliography which uses the Harvard or Author-Date system; ‘annotation’ means ‘added notes of comment, evaluation or explanation’.

A visual essay – depending on overall design and how you are using the textual elements – might not formally cite sources, so the annotated bibliography is an absolutely vital part of the academic apparatus. (If you feel that in-text citations are not appropriate to your visual essay, you must get this agreed by your tutor in advance.)

The annotated bibliography has, for each directly relevant source, an entry in the Harvard/Author-Date format, followed by two short commentaries:

  • How and why this text was useful to you in carrying out the assignment, what it contributed to your understanding and knowledge,
  • How you used it, where in the work it belongs or is used (indicate this in some way)

Some examples and further guidance

Colomba, E. (2016) ‘Reclaiming History: A Visual Essay’. Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. 38. 196-201. (accessed 5 December 2019)

Gómez Cruz, E. (2019) ‘Black Screens: A Visual Essay on Mobile Screens in the City’. Visual Communication. 19:1. 1-14. (accessed 5 December 2019) – A lovely example, and recent, but rather wordy for a visual essay!

Roxburgh, M. (2010) ‘Design and the aesthetics of research’. Visual Communication. 9:4. 425-39. (accessed 5 December 2019)

Traverso, A. & Azúa, E. (2013) ‘Paine Memorial: a visual essay’. Social Identities. 19:3-04. 403-9. (accessed 5 December 2019)

Van Leeuwen, T. (2007) ‘Sound and Vision’. Visual Communication. 6:2. 136-45. (accessed 5 December 2019)

Yagou, A. (2011) ‘Walls of Lisbon: A Visual Essay’. Visual Communication. 10:3. 187-92. (accessed 5 December 2019)

Suggested further reading

Not about Visual Essays as such, but about visual (and physical) thinking:

Brody, N. & Wozencroft, J. (1993) The graphic language of Neville Brody. London: Thames & Hudson.

David Carson Design (the influential graphic designer’s official website)  (accessed 5 December 2019)

Carson, D. & Blackwell, L. (1995) The end of print: the graphic design of David Carson. London: Laurence King.

McLuhan, M. & Carson, D. (2003) The Book of Probes. Santa Rosa, CA: Gingko Press.

Tufte, E. (1990) Envisioning Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

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