We read the pictures.

Meet The Staff

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    Michael Shaw
    PublisherRead Bio
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    Cara Finnegan
    Editor-at-Large, Co-Host Reading the PicturesRead Bio
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    Philip Perdue
    EditorRead Bio
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    Katie Irwin
    Academic Outreach and DevelopmentRead Bio
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    Liliana Michelena
    Producer, Chatting the PicturesRead Bio
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    Bethany Berard
    Publications EditorRead Bio

Reading the Pictures is a web-based, non-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. We examine news and media images for meaning, trends, context and fairness, with the aim of imparting that appreciation to media consumers and professionals. We’re concerned with the visual framing of major social issues, and how images function and are affected in an age of unrelenting persuasion, promotion and variable truth.

Reading the Pictures originated in 2001 as a daily political cartoon on a lunch bag called BagNews intended to engage high school kids in the news and civics. In 2003, with the advent of the online blogosphere, Michael Shaw, the publisher and clinical psychologist, renamed the site BagNewsNotes and repurposed it to focus on in-depth analysis of news photography. In confirmation of that mission, we took on our current name in 2015.

Among our accomplishments, we have been recognized as a top 20 photo blog by LIFE, a Webby finalist for “Best Political Blog,” and a Picture of the Year, International multimedia award winner. We contribute regularly to Columbia Journalism Review, and we were the researchers that uncovered misrepresentation in the winning 2013 World Press Photo of the Year award.

Over the years, we have been highly responsive to change in visual media and culture.

We’ve tracked the highs and lows as:

  • The culture became more visual, with at least one notable photo a month turning into one a week and now, sometimes several a day.
  • Important events in our world have become inextricably intertwined with visual mediation and a play to the camera.
  • Visual sophistication has risen and news photographs have become more linguistic and “storyful.”
  • News photography has incorporated elements of art, fashion, and advertising photography, and become more aligned with documentary photography.

Our basic premise is that people (even visual professionals) don’t spend enough time talking about the information and meaning contained in the elements and composition of individual pictures. These days, a picture worth reading —and the ones that typically get the public’s attention — are “narratively rich.” They are full of information and implications that most people don’t take the time to see. We tend to take a forensic approach to news photos. The elements of a picture are examined for clues which help us understand the facts surrounding the photo and how it confirms or contradicts its usage.

We are concerned with photography and power, whoever wields it politically, socially, or economically. We are unapologetic in our focus on the political framing of race, gender, class and other cultural stereotypes, and how those issues are filtered by organizations and institutions with either an ideological, or a particular marketing or financial bent.

We are also interested in photographs as a window and sometimes a magnifying glass on human behavior and personality, based on data such as setting and activity, to the consideration of body language.

Over the years, we have been recognized by educators and experts for our “public scholarship.” But we have always spoken to a wider audience while encouraging conversation between visual media professionals, visual academics, and visual media consumers. And we deliver our content with that scope in mind, from longer, more in-depth think pieces on our website, to the more curatorial role of our Instagram feed, to the micro-analysis moving with the speed of the news cycle on Twitter.

We hope you will enjoy us, learn from us, and communicate with us.

Photo: Meg Handler

Caption: In 2017, Michael Shaw sat down with former White House photographer Pete Souza at the Photoville photo festival in Brooklyn. Before Souza's book was released, they discuss some of the key images Souza took of Obama's tenure.

Dedicated to the visual, political, and media analysis of editorial images.


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


The Reading the Pictures Salon is a discussion forum dedicated to understanding how the visual media frames the key social and political themes and events of our day. Typically held online, 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 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.

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

The Salon is broadcast online with specialized webinar software. Most posts feature highlighted quotes and a video archive of the event. See our Salon overview here, and an archive of all previous Salons can be found here.

Social Media

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.

Best Of

With more than 3,000 posts so far, people often ask about our more representative or important work. You can view our best work by Here is a key sampling of our best work. To see a collection of key work by subject matter, take a look at our Topics feature.

Past Posts

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.

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.

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. 

The Reading the Pictures Salon

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.


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.

Reading The Pictures