Teaching Students How to Use Images Responsibly

Steven Volk, April 12, 2015


Luis Korda, photographer: “Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos in Havana,” January 8, 1959.


Like most of us, I use a lot (A LOT) of images in my teaching. Many of the images I show are for what I would call “background purposes.” Nothing like a photo of Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos riding into Havana on January 8, 1959 to give students a sense of what the Cuban Revolution felt like at its moment of inception.


West coast of South America prior to War of the Pacific (Createaccount (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Maps provide a visual presentation of data that tells a stronger story than words alone, as when talking about how Bolivia lost its access to the sea in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883)

I use other images in very specific fashion, presented as a form of historical evidence that comes to us in a very mediated form and therefore needs to be questioned and explored. (In the shameless self-promotion category and should you be interested, I’ve just published a chapter on using images in the history classroom in “How to Navigate an ‘Upside-Down’ World: Using Images in the History Classroom,” in Deandra Little, Peter Felten, and Chad Berry, eds, New Directions in Teaching and Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), New Directions in Teaching and Learning 141 (Spring 2015): 53-65)].

Anytime I use images in my publications, I of course either have to obtain the copyright or insure that they reside in the public domain or are otherwise out of copyright. Similarly, as I look for images to use in my various on-line interventions, such as CTIE’s blog, I’m much more conscious (and conscientious) about only using public domain materials, and will search in particular through the Creative Commons image collections.

The question of using images in public presentations, particularly educational or scholarly conferences is an area where the issue isn’t open and shut. “Fair use” based on the teaching exemption (see below)? Probably, but is a conference room in a New York hotel a “classroom”? I’m not going to be sued for an unauthorized image I put up, but I will often try to use images in the public domain when at all possible.

On the other hand, I don’t think as much about copyright issues for images that I use in my teaching, either the slides that I show or in class or put on my syllabi or other handouts. I pull those images off the web, scan them from books, or otherwise appropriate (or expropriate) them from whatever is source is at hand. I mean, they are “fair use” in the classroom, aren’t they? Well yes, they almost certainly are. But what if you post your syllabi or class handouts to the (open) Web and not just on Blackboard? Are the images that you grabbed sill in the “fair use” category?  The Visual Resources Association has the following to say on the subject:

“This Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study describes six uses of copyrighted still images that the Visual Resources Association (vraweb.org) believes fall within the U.S. doctrine of fair use. The six uses are: 1) preservation (storing images for repeated use in a teaching context and transferring images to new formats); 2) use of images for teaching purposes; 3) use of images (both large, high-resolution images and thumbnails) on course websites and in other online study materials; 4) adaptations of images for teaching and classroom work by students; 5) sharing images among educational and cultural institutions to facilitate teaching and study; and 6) reproduction of images in theses and dissertations.”

You can find the VRA’s entire 16-page statement here, or you can consult the College Art Association’s statement on fair use and their (as one would expected) excellent infografic on the topic to really get into the topic, but I don’t recommend sitting down with either if your class is to begin in 5 minutes and you are unsure as to whether to put in that Durer woodcut of the rhino. [Albrecht Durer, The Rhinoceros, 1515, woodcut, 23.5 × 29.8 cm (9.3 × 11.7 in; Wikimedia]


Albrecht Durer, “The Rhinoceros,” 1515, woodcut, 23.5 × 29.8 cm (9.3 × 11.7 in; Wikimedia.

Teaching with Images: Helping Students Use Images Responsibly

This post won’t necessarily help you answer these legal questions, but I do hope to raise another about how we use images in class. Lately I’ve begun to think about the fact that when we are teaching with images, we are not just teaching by using the images, or teaching about the images we use. We are teaching students how to handle images responsibly: how to find them, caption them, cite them as sources, understand their associated metadata. And with that comes the fact that we need to be teaching students how to use images responsibly within a world of copyrights and the use of materials created by others. While my collectivist tendencies whisper that all images belong not just in the public but to the public, I also know that that isn’t the world we inhabit, and that those who produce the images deserve to be recognized and (when the occasion arises) compensated. But, above all in the context of teaching, students need to know the proper protocols for using images.

So, I’ve tried to change my classroom practice to incorporate two things. The first is to include, to the extent possible, the appropriate metadata for the images I’m using: artist/photographer/sculptor; name of work; original date produced; medium used; size of artifact, and location where it can be found. If the work is someone’s property (e.g. a museum, book, etc.), I will also include that. I am fairly sure that the copyrighted images I use fit within the “fair use” standards set out above.


John Leech, “Alarming Effects,” Punch (1853): http://www.john-leech-archive.org.uk

Secondly, I try to take images from public domain sources, and then to indicate to the students that these vast treasure troves are available to them as well, that they can be much more fruitful than a standard Google search, and they will learn a lot by a careful search for specific images if they plan to use them in their papers or presentations.

With these points in mind, here are just a few of the very large number of image archives that now lives on the web. Most of these advertise themselves as repositories of images that are in the public domain, although, as you search through them, you will find that either that’s not always the case or that some of them can be quite unclear as to whether they are free-use images or not.


General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (1838 – 1857). Holotropis microlophus, Dum. et Bibron. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-9f8f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Art Images for College Teaching

Arts Institute of Chicago

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (Yale)

British Library

Cal Photos (Natural History)

Creative Commons Images

Flickr: Creative Commons

George Eastman House – The Photography Collection

Google Art Project

History of Medicine

Internet Archive Book Images

John Leech Sketch Archives from Punch

J. Paul Getty Museum: (Thousands of images of artworks are available for download, without charge, under the Getty’s Open Content Program.)



Basawan, “Akbar,” ca. 1586 – ca. 1589, Painted in opaque watercolour and gold on paper; V&A: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O9403/akbar-painting-basawan/

Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs

Life Magazine photo archive hosted by Google

New Old Stock

Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York Public Library Digital Collections

Old Book Illustrations

U.S. Government Photos and Images

V&A Collections

Visible Earth, NASA





Visual Collections: Images of Art, History, Culture

Wellcome Images

Wikipedia, Public Domain Image Resources

Yale Digital Content

As I say, there are a huge number of sites out there; these are some of my favorite. And you? What do you do to make your students more aware of the responsible use of images?


Image taken from page 359 of ‘Estella. A novel. By Elma’, 1836, British Library

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