When looking at a photograph, students may give the image a cursory glance. However, when we layer on photograph analysis, we encourage students to go deeper – to study a photograph and to consider what they know about the photograph based on the knowledge they already have. We also teach them to ask questions about the photograph based on what see or information they already know.
The bibliographic information may help to answer some of their questions, but sometimes students will ask questions that can’t be easily answered using just the bibliographic information, including why a picture was taken, why a particular event was important enough to photograph, or the story behind the photograph.
Kristi Finefield of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division has developed a series of videos that can help students learn how to look at a photograph to find details and hints to construct answers. Every Photo Is A Story is a five part series where Finefield talks with historian Sam Watters, author of the book Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935, about strategies for researching photographs. Using images from the Frances Benjamin Johnston collection, Finefield and Watters discuss some methods used to answer questions about a photograph and discover its importance in history.
The first video discusses the importance of looking at the front and back of an image, the importance of writing down assumptions and questions while looking at the image, of asking how the photographer is shaping the scene, and why that is important. Other presentations focus on the value of learning about the photographer; how the photographic technology available may have shaped the image; why the time period when the photograph was taken can provide additional information about the image; and why an image was taken. Each presentation has a link to exercises so that students can apply and practice these skills. Also included are links to other Library of Congress resources that supplement the information found in the videos.
Looking for other images you can use with your students? Our primary source sets provide lots of images with links to the images and an easy to download PDF of the image.
What techniques do you use to help your students uncover the story behind a photograph?
Bibliographic information for the image above: John T. Bledsoe. Little Rock, 1959. Mob marching from capitol to Central High. August 20, 1959.