Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.

We read the pictures.

Reading the Pictures is a web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) educational and publishing organization dedicated to visual culture, visual literacy and media literacy through the analysis of news, documentary and social media images.

Reading the Pictures analyzes and reports news and media images. In an ever more visual society, we seek to better understand the levels of meaning, the underlying story lines and the various agendas reflected in the more prominent news pictures of the day. We also publish and provide a careful look at original photojournalism and concerned photography.

No other site is as committed and singularly focused on the social, cultural and political “reading” of the individual picture. Given the power of photos to influence and persuade, we feel it is vital for citizens to become better “readers” and consumers of visual news and messaging. With “visual literacy” as our goal, we study the content and context of key images to reveal bias, narrative, stereotypes and personality.

Our main tool, besides the key images in the media sphere, is the incisive analysis of our contributors and our community. Reading the Pictures is not a lecture but an ongoing conversation between citizens, professionals from the photojournalism world, visual scholars and leading instructors and students from liberal arts, communications, photojournalism and journalism.

Reading the Pictures (previously known as BagNews) originated in 2001 from a daily political cartoon on a lunch bag intended to engage high school kids in the news. Michael Shaw, Reading the Pictures publisher and clinical psychologist, adapted the site to focus on in-depth analysis of news photos in 2003. Today, Reading the Pictures’ approach and visual analysis is part of the visual studies and photojournalism curriculum at many universities and colleges.

The site has received important recognition over the years, including:

  • Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Chapnick Grant – 2017
  • Regular Contributor to Columbia Journalism Review – 2015 – present
  •’s Top 20 Photo Blogs – 2011
  • Picture of the Year International Award of Excellence for Issue Reporting in Multimedia — 2010
  • Webby Awards finalist for Best Political Blog (along with Huffington Post and Columbia Journalism Review) — 2006
  • Winner — 2006 Koufax Award — Best Post
  • Winner — First Gilliard Grant of Merit for Excellence in Journalism and News Blogging — Netroots Nation 2008
  • Credentialled blogger — 2008 Democratic National Convention


Reading the Pictures is dedicated to visual, political, and media analysis of editorial images, whether keyed to current headlines or specific cultural themes. Anchored by daily analysis provided by Reading the Pictures founder and publisher Michael Shaw, Notes also offers analysis by a list of regular and guest contributors.


The Reading the Pictures Salon is an online discussion forum dedicated to understanding how the visual media frames the key social and political themes and events of our day. The Salon brings together the eyes and voices of the world’s leading photojournalists, photo editors and visual scholars to analyze select edits of still news and political images in a two-hour online discussion format.

Recent topics include: The visual framing of the US/Mexico border wall, family separation and the caravan; how science is pictured in the media; the 2016 presidential campaign through the eyes of young photojournalists; the visual framing of the migrant crisis; How surveillance is pictured in the media; and the debate over White House photo access.

Previous topics include the framing of the Syrian civil war; the visual rhetoric of abortion and the legislative “War on Women”; the imagery of “The Great Recession”; representation of the Egypt revolution and the Arab Spring; an analysis of the early photo coverage of the Haiti earthquake; and a look at post-Katrina New Orleans through the lens of photographer Mario Tama’s multiple visits there, among others.

The Salon engages the leading figures in photojournalism and visual analysis, focusing on key participating journalists in each story area. Past participants have included: visual academics: Marvin Heiferman (Author and Curator), Rebecca Adelman (University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Media & Communication Studies) Michelle Bogre (The New School/Parsons), Shani Orgad(Media and Communications, London School of Economics) David Campbell (Director of Communications and Engagement, World Press Photo), John Lucaites (Humanities, Indiana University), Robert Hariman (Northwestern University, Communication), Marita Sturken (NYU, Media, Culture & Communication) Fred Ritchin (Dean, International Center of Photography) publishers, Cory Keller (SFMOMA), writers, editors and photo-analysts: Ben de la Cruz (NPR), Mike Davis (former Lead Picture Editor, White House Photo Office 2001-2004), Glenn Ruga (Founder, Social Documentary Network), Patrick Whalen (Photo Editor, Wall Street Journal), Judy Walgren(Editorial Director, ViewFind),  Holly Hughes (Executive Editor, Photo District News), Jamie Wellford (Photo Editor, National Geographic), Alice Gabriner (International Photo Editor, TIME), Pete Brook (Publisher, Prison Photography); and photojournalists: Samantha Appleton (White House) Todd Heisler (NY Times), Barbara Kinney (White House, Clinton Campaign). Stephen Crowley (NY Times), Nina Berman (School of Journalism, Columbia University) Donald Weber (Independent), Landon Nordeman (Independent), John Moore (Getty Images), Chris Hondros (Getty Images), Mario Tama (Getty Images), Michael Williamson (Washington Post), Scott Strazzante (Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle).

Reading the Pictures Salon is produced by Sandra Roa, an independent multimedia producer. Live discussions are moderated by visual expert and University of Illinois professor Cara Finnegan and Nathan Stormer of University of Maine.

The Salon is broadcast via Google Hangout with specialized webinar software. Most posts features highlighted quotes and a video archive of the event.

An archive of all previous Salons can be found here.

Social Media

Increasingly, our commentary has migrated to the web, especially in response to the 24-hour news cycle. You can typically find 20 or more posts a week on our Twitter feed. We also curate and analyze powerful news and documentary images on our Instagram feed. Most of the content from both can also be found on our Facebook page.

Best of…

What with more than 6,100 posts so far, people often ask about our more representative or important work. Here is a key sampling:


Reading the Pictures: Best Posts of 2016

How Science is Pictured in the Media and Public Culture: A Joint Reading the Pictures/Seeing Science (UMBC) Salon – A joint Reading the Pictures/Seeing Science/UMBC Salon, interested in science as a social agenda and how science images are being portrayed in visual culture.

Past Posts:

David Frum Accuses NYT and Reuters of Staging Gaza Hospital Photos (GRAPHIC) A detailed photo analysis during hostilities between Israel and Hamas disproves charges by The Atlantic columnist, David Frum, that leading news publications staged photos in a Gaza hospital.

When Reality Isn’t Dramatic Enough: Misrepresentation in a World Press and Picture of the Year Winning Photo Widely covered in the photo press (NYT Lens Blog, Photo District News, NPPA, etc.), this post identified the misrepresentation of a photo by the Magnum Agency’s Paolo Pellegrin after it was awarded honors in 2013 by the two top news photo prizes, World Press Photo and (Missouri Journalism’s) Picture of the Year award.

My Lai, Sexual Assault and the Black Blouse Girl: Forty-Five Years Later, One of America’s Most Iconic Photos Hides Truth in Plain Sight  What are we to make of this erasure, one that indicates sexual violence in the light of day? And why is it that most Americans readily recognize the “Napalm Girl” but not the “Black Blouse Girl?

Mike Kamber: Military Censorship of the Iraq War This audio slideshow, produced for Reading the Pictures by Sandra Roa, won a Picture of the Year International (POYi) Award of Excellence in the Multimedia Issues Reporting category in 2011. In this one video, Kamber (for the first time) showed and discussed many of the key Iraq war images the government prevented the NY Times from publishing. The piece has been viewed widely and has been included in many exhibition on the history of the war.

Obama: Channeling Rosa Parks Besides calling out the White House for staging photos (way, way before this) and calling out the media for collusion , we’re the only ones who documented the staging of this widely published photo at the Rosa Parks museum in the middle of a fundraiser. 

Campaign ’12: The Stretch Run September 12, 2012 The Reading the Pictures/Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism live Salon was sensational for the clash between Alice Gabriner (former Deputy Director of Photography at the Obama White House and Chief Picture Editor at TIME magazine) and Stephen Crowley (Staff Photographer, New York Times) over how the Obama administration has been self-publishing visuals and limiting the photo media’s access. It was even more interesting because both, as distinguished as they are, rarely speak publicly.

Visual Language Is Language: The Importance of Reading the Pictures in Visual Culture (YouTube).  In this lecture presented September 2016 at the School of Visual Arts in New York, publisher Michael Shaw describes how Reading the Pictures analyses news and media images for meaning, trends, context and fairness. Of special interest to artists, visual journalists and other visual communicators, he also illustrates how fluency with pictures is central to engagement in today’s information, media and social media sphere.