Essay on Using Photographs for Historical Analysis

Published: 2021-07-21
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Carnegie Mellon University
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Analyzing photographs, as well as understanding other visual sources, is an essential skill in history. Historians and students taking history must be able to extract information from the evidence contained in the visual sources. The idea behind the phrase a picture is worth a thousand words is that an image can invoke some thinking that requires hundreds of words to express it. If this is the case, photographs, which represent the direct and untainted expressions of the real world, should be the superior and unrivaled way for expressing the truth. The power that photographs have as tools for expressing the truth comes from their authenticity and mechanical aura.

Photos are often difficult to comprehend because they may portray events in which one is unfamiliar. They may include symbols with obscure meanings. Some photographs may incorporate satire, falsification, or humor that might distort their actual meaning. The scholar must be in a position to tackle these problems when analyzing these sources. As with most analytical undertakings, the best method is to follow a certain framework or process. This essay aims to analyze photograph B (shown below) taken during the early days of the Syrian Protestant College. The article goes further to relate the photograph to the history of the university while trying to portray the relationship that was there between the Arabs and the United States. This article also focusses on the influence of the American missionaries in the Middle East.

PHOTOGRAPH B: SPC Students in a science lab

General Analysis of the Photograph

The photograph is of 16 students inside a science laboratory. The area captured is a laboratory due to the presence of laboratory equipment such as chemical jars. What really catches my attention is that the 16 individuals in that room seem to have different responsibilities (Photograph B).

In consideration of the highest and lowest points of the image, the highest point has to be the top of the windows which lie behind the shelves. The lowest point, on the other hand, is the area around the shoes of the student in the black coat who is standing beside the table.

The people in the picture are posed in a way to show that they are in the middle of an experiment. The students assume different poses since they are performing different tasks. Some are getting the chemicals out of the shelf while others are making some observations.

The photograph comprises mainly of Whites and Arabs. This conclusion is evident from their skin complexion and way of dressing. I can tell the Arabs apart from their hats. Those type of hats is unique to Arabic people (Photograph B). They also have different ways of dressing. White lab coats, aprons, sweaters, and jackets are the noticeable types of clothing.

Daniel L. Bliss, the president of the Syrian Protestant College, is not present in the picture. The reason for this omission is because this is a student picture. Other pictures show Bliss with the scholars, but this specific photograph was showing the first 16 students.

The primary purpose of the photograph was to show the people of Beirut and the surrounding region that there is a new educational center in town. The picture also depicts that people of all backgrounds are invited to join the institution to acquire as well as share information. The audience was mainly the Arab speaking community (Photograph B).

People received this photograph with mixed reactions since some few people felt that the American missionaries were imposing their culture on them. On the contrary, the more liberated Arabs and other natives of Lebanon saw this as an opportunity to acquire education. Today, people view this photograph as a piece of history.

The question I would ask the photographer is what the mood of the students in the room was? To the students, I would ask, how did they deal with their differences since they came from different backgrounds?

Photograph B in relation to the History of SPU

After the 1860 war in Lebanon, American missionaries in Beirut decided to open a learning institution that would appeal to the aspirations of Arabs for change. 23rd January 1862 saw W.M. Thomson propose a meeting with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions that an institution of higher learning that would incorporate medical studies should be set up in Beirut with Daniel Bliss as its Leader. While Dr. Daniel bliss was gathering funds for the new center of education around April 1863 in England and the United States, the State of New York approved a charter for the Syrian College (Makdisi, 52). The new institution, the Syrian Protestant College signaled the continuity of the mission that leads to its inception. It was clear that the college represented a secular American presence in Lebanon. Bliss is on record saying The world is moving fast, meaning that the American missionaries were determined to set a solid foundation in the scientific enlightenment of Arabs. The college opened with a class of 16 students on December 3, 1866, and was later renamed the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1920.

Influence of American Missionaries in the Middle East

After changing the name of SPC to AUB in 1920, the American missionaries had a secret mission to replace the French and British Culture with the American one. This change came with the use of English as the official language at the university as opposed to Arabic which was the language that was the broadly spoken language (Soft Power). American colleges in the Middle East became profound influences for progress. The students were able now to design and use machinery that aided in modernizing the East. Equal status for men and women was an objective since girls started to train in science and business. At the college of medicine, students did not only attend classes and the chapel but also trained to serve other people in need of medical attention. Muslims and other natives of Beirut were now open to receive the Christian message. Embracing English and the western form of education strengthened the relationship between the United States and the Middle East.


Historical research over the years has employed the use of photographs due to the wealth of information contained in them. Visual sources may be used for illustration, as evidence, for analytical processes as well as for comparison and contrast. A somewhat confusing fact is how not many primary sources involve the use of photographs in historical analysis. Many visual clues are available in photographs. These clues under scrutiny tend to explain methods, activities, resources, and the quality of living. Photographs as primary sources of information and their use are not restricted to historians only but may be used by scholars, as well.

Works Cited

Makdisi, Ussama. Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.s.-Arab Relations: 1820-2001. PublicAffairs, 2011.


"Soft Power: The US and the Middle East - Al Jazeera World." YouTube,

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