Visual Essay Assignment

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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 processed (e.g. using Photoshop, Illustrator, MS Image, Irfan View)

Taken together, the images provide a critical commentary of some kind on a defined topic, working as a kind of argument, explanation, discussion. The “thesis” for the topic will be one of the

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).

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 on your WordPress site as series/sequence of images/pictures/graphics that are related to the thesis and your rhetorical choices. It may possibly take the form of a PowerPoint slideshow that runs automatically, a layered gif, a series of memes, or some other form not yet mentioned. The essay will combine 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, organization, 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.


The visual essay will include a 300 – 500 word reflection answering the following questions:

  • How did composing a visual essay differ from writing a traditional essay?
  • Which writing skills did you use when composing the essay?
  • What skills did you need to learn to compose a visual essay?
  • On what skill did you rely when constructing the essay?

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 Modern Language Association’s citation guidelines ‘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.

The annotated bibliography will have 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)