The Power of Audience and Purpose: Teaching Complex Topics through Primary Source Portraits

This post is by Anastasia Sotiropoulos, the 2021 Stanford in Government Liljenquist Family Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Image of three children wrapped in the American flag

Our Protection. Charles Paxson, 1864

I entered the Library unsure of what cartes de visite were, let alone the big stories these tiny 3.5-by-2.5 inch photo cards can hold. As I explored the medium, especially the cartes de visite in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, I focused my research on Black Americans’ experiences during the Civil War. I was particularly drawn to the carte de visite “Our Protection” — a staged portrait of three children wrapped in sections of the American flag. Something about the children’s expressions and the symbolism of being cradled in patriotism drew me in. But what really struck me — confused me, even — was the description in the item record: “Rosa, Charley, Rebecca. Slave Children from New Orleans.”

That description confused me because I had assumed, based on their appearance, that these children were white. But once I spoke with a Library staff member, who said the children were being portrayed as non-white, I became fascinated by the context of this photo: who staged it and for what purpose. I soon discovered that these formerly enslaved children were part of an entire “philanthropic photography” campaign.”

Along with two other children and three adults, Rosa, Charley, and Rebecca were freed in New Orleans in 1863. The eight went on a tour of both public appearances and visits to photographers’ studios, where they sat for portraits like “Our Protection,” which were sold to raise money for new schools for freed people in Louisiana. For more about this, read “Discoveries through Pictures: African Americans in the Civil War Era.”

Image of a boy and a girl. Girl's arm is linked through boys

Isaac and Rosa, Slave Children from New Orleans. M.H. Kimball, 1863

Present students with “Our Protection” and allow time for them to examine the picture. Ask them them to share what they notice with the whole class or a nearby partner. Select questions from the Library’s Analyzing Photographs and Prints teacher’s guide and use the primary source analysis tool to help students observe details in the portraits. After a thorough study of the image, present the item record and direct students to the summary: “Photograph shows freed slave children Rosina Downs, Charles Taylor, and Rebecca Huger, each wrapped in a portion of the U.S. flag.” Allow time for students to react. Show students the back (verso) of “Our Protection” and again allow time for them to respond.

Deepen discussion by asking:

  • Who might have been the audience for the photos?
  • What was the photographers’ purpose for selling these photos?
  • Considering the photographers’ purpose, what about the photos might persuade the audience to believe in their cause?
  • How might choosing children that look like the audience make the photos more persuasive?

If time allows, repeat the analysis process with the image of Isaac and Rosa. Ask:

  • How might the lives of these children differ from yours?
  • What do you think was trying to be communicated in this photo?

Please take a moment to comment below: How do you help students understand the importance of the audience and purpose of a primary source?

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