In 1898 America made a dramatic switch from isolationism to an expansionist international agenda. After a short war with Spain, the USA acquired Guam and the Philippines, Congress agreed on the annexation of Hawai‘i and Wake Island, and, shortly after, tripartite negotiations led to the acquisition of American Samoa. The USA had become a colonial power and acquired a Pacific ‘empire’. In 1899 this new status met with the publication of Our Islands and their People as Seen with Camera and Pencil, a two-volume text that included twelve hundred photographs. The pictorialising or visualising of empire in the text was a publishing coup. Although historians have been reluctant to acknowledge the USA as an imperial power, the analysis here links the visual record of new territories in illustrated publications to expanded public awareness and a political debate that potentially took Americans to a new level of understanding of the Pacific Islands. The analysis of American ‘empire’ suggests that territorial expansion was a long-standing characteristic of the nineteenth century that was visualised in photographs for national debate.