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Drawing of a wide-eyed man with the words "We Trust" written below the image
We Trust. Currier and Ives, 1881

Can You Believe Your Eyes?

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

How do we decide what images are real and what images aren’t?

Before reading the captions or looking at the item records, take a moment to observe the two images shown below. Based on available data, can you tell which one is “real” and which is “fake”? What observations can you make to support your claims? What else might you do to learn more?

Men in field looking up at round object floating above
Alexander Graham Bell (right) and his assistants observing the progress of one of his tetrahedral kites. 1908


Image of what appears to be a crater on the moon
Normal Lunar Crater. J Nasmyth, 1874


Try this activity with your students and observe their thinking. How do they reason through the challenge you have given them?

After students form their initial hypotheses, share the item records from these Alexander Graham Bell and James Nasmyth photographs and invite them to amend their claims if they wish. Time permitting, you can also provide students with related secondary source material, such as this blog post describing Bell’s experiments or this one discussing Nasmyth’s photography. Students can use keywords from the item records as a launching point for their research queries. After students have had a chance to amend their claims, share more about each photograph.

The 1908 image showing a group of men watching a circular object in the air shows an authentic scene. While it looks like someone has photoshopped a UFO into the photograph, the scene actually depicts one of Alexander Graham Bell’s many experiments flying a tetrahedral kite. Bell invented this kite with the intention of building a flying machine that could carry a man and a motor.

The crater image, by contrast, was taken in the 1870s and does not show an actual lunar crater. Instead, as explained in this blog post, this is a photograph of a plaster model based on the observations of James Nasmyth, who was an amateur astronomer. Note that this information is not apparent in the item record and students might wonder how a photograph of the moon’s surface might have been taken in 1874. In other words, while the information in the item record it correct, it is not comprehensive.

Lead a class discussion on what it means to think critically about images. For example, what is the value of investigating additional primary and secondary sources to seek corroboration of one’s original impressions? And are the terms “real” and “fake” sufficiently nuanced to discuss the quality of an image? After all, Nasmyth did photograph a “real” crater model that was “based on observations;” it just wasn’t the actual crater photograph that some may have thought at first. During the discussion, students may even wish to come up with new terms to express the relative veracity of images.

The Library offers a number of strategies to help students evaluate tricky photographs. Check out this blog round up post highlighting a number of primary sources that cannot be taken at face value. The “Every Photo is a Story Video Series” from the Library’s Prints and Photographs division also offers helpful strategies for evaluating images.

Let us know how these strategies work with your students!

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Comments (2)

  1. This is a wonderful activity. Critical thinking skills are vitally important to a child’s education as a life-long learner!

  2. This was a wonderful exercise. It required a great deal of observation and finding the fine details around the print, judging what we know of history and time stamps. Lovely article.

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