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Educator’s Guide for Analyzing Historical Photographs

Applying historical thinking to a photograph means a student can: decode its basic elements (Encounter), understand its unique story (Investigate), and interpret how photographs reflect the time in which they were taken (Build). Students need frequent experiences with historic photographs to develop these skills. 

The following framework guides all of the photograph examinations in this curriculum and can be used with any other photographs. Not all questions need to be answered: choose appropriate ones for your photograph and activity. When answering Investigate and Build questions, encourage students to provide evidence for their answers.


Encounter   

Activate prior knowledge about photographs. Engage background and personal knowledge about photographs to activate schema.   

Become familiar with the photograph. Encourage students to describe the photograph in detail. How can they paint a picture with words? Such an activity helps students overcome any hesitancy they may have of working with historical photographs. By providing their first impressions of the photograph, students are encouraged to both look at it closely and later revise their views based on further investigation. Explain that going through the investigation will help them find evidence to support their thinking or prompt them to consider an enhanced or completely different conclusion. 

 

Investigate 

Support close looking at photographs by finding and interpreting the parts of the photograph. Practice locating and thinking about these essential features of photographs. 

  • Title or caption. What information is shared through these? What further questions do they raise? 

  • Date and locate the photograph. If this essential information is not provided in a title or caption, students must use their detective skills to see if they can establish the date and location the photograph was taken. See “Tips for Studying Historical Photographs,” which is the last page of the Analyzing Photographs worksheet, for suggestions on reading internal clues for this information.   

Purpose and Audience. Photographs can be used for all sorts of purposes, such as preserving memories, selling products, or as propaganda. The photograph’s purpose will likely indicate its audience as well. For an additional challenge, discuss how purpose and audience can reflect or create bias.  

Details. Continue using close-looking techniques to discover more details of the photograph, which will help students understand the photograph and the time it represents better. 

 

Build 

Explore life then and now. If someone took the photograph in a different time or today, how would it change? How would it stay the same? These questions help students understand continuity and change over time, as they explore facets of life that seem to be universal (e.g., kids need something to play with) and facets of life that seem to be products of their time (e.g., kids might play with marbles in 1900 but an iPad in 2020). 

Reflect on the photograph’s moment in time. Expand students’ comprehension of how the photograph reflects the time in which it was taken by combining everything learned previously in the activity. What does the photograph teach us about the time in which it was taken? Use focus questions for the unit or new questions developed by students to drive inquiry to connect the photograph specifically to the objectives of the activity. 

Add to the story. Provide students with an opportunity to exercise their imaginations in regards to the photograph, which will help them connect their own lives to the time shown in the image. This activity also allows students to place themselves in history, leading to greater engagement.