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Using Historical Photographs in Teaching

Photos Bring History to Life


Three Officers of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery

Three officers of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, Fort Brady, Virginia. 1864. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Period photographs, along with other primary source documents, are engaging yet deceptive historical tools that should become an important part of any educational experience if available. Two important points, however, need to be considered when using these historical documents.

  1. Dates must be established. If the date of a photograph is not known it can be difficult if not impossible to understand exactly what has occurred. Look at this Civil War picture of the Atlanta City Hall with an encampment on the grounds. A natural assumption might be that this was a Confederate camp placed there to protect the city. However, if you know that the picture was taken in 1864 and that General Sherman took Atlanta in September of that year, you would have reason to question whether this was an accurate assumption. In this instance, more information would be necessary because the exact date of the photograph has not been established.
  2. Pictures and documents can 'lie'. They can be staged. If old, they can depict something very difficult to interpret. A perfect example of this is the first daguerreotype ever taken of a person. Louis Daguerre took a picture of a Paris boulevard during the middle of the day in 1839 which shows a man with his foot up on a curb. However, the rest of the street is eerily deserted. One might assume that this gentleman was alone on what would normally be a busy street. However, this assumption would be false. In actuality, the street was teeming with people, but the exposure process was so slow that only stationary objects were captured. Therefore, it is important to not blindly accept photographs at face value. One must examine and question as a part of life and the educational process.

Historical Photographs: A Critical Evaluation

Both of these issues are dealt with when one takes a 'critical' look before making a judgment of a photograph or document. The question becomes, "How do we teach students to take that 'critical' look?" The answer is that we need to help them look SLOWLY at the photo in front of them. Before anything else, have students describe what they see. Try to get them to tell you what they think is being depicted. As they are describing and explaining out loud, get them to form questions concerning problem points that might show inaccuracies if applicable and also have them formulate possible cause/effect relationships.

To give you an example of this technique, look at this picture of Civil War weapons. Students would begin by stating that they see cannonballs in the foreground and a brick structure in the back. You can then focus their attention on the cannonballs and ask them what is wrong with their 'formation'. It appears to be a mess. Would a military normally allow this to occur? No. Then ask what the students can hypothesize as the cause of this disorder. Heavy fighting has occurred. Any other evidence of this? The brick structure in the back appears to be burnout out. Then if you want, you can focus on the canister shot in the center and explain its deadly force. Ask the students if they think the defending or the attacking army took this picture. Why? Tell them about Richmond and its long history of withstanding the Union attacks before its final fall. Finally, tell them that this picture was taken in 1865. In this example, the students have basically been detectives figuring out what the picture meant instead of having the teacher throw it up on the overhead for them and explaining the entire thing. The basic idea for this technique came from History Alive, an awesome program that every Social Studies teacher should train with and use. You can find more information at their website.

Ways to Integrate Historical Photos into the Classroom

Historical photos are not only good for reinforcing critical thinking skills, but they can also be used as a jumping off point for other assignments. Here are some great examples:
  • Document-based essay writing. Students can be asked to write an essay about the burning of Atlanta by General Sherman using photos like those of Civil War cities along with other documents. The pictures can be cited critically with dates, etc. as evidence to prove their theses.
  • Letter writing. Students can pretend to be a person in the photograph, outside the range of the photo, or the photographer him or herself. They can write a letter to a friend, a wife, a commanding officer, or even make a diary entry about the event.
  • Poetry or songs could be written to describe the event.
  • Modern art representations could be made using any manner of media.
  • Personal reaction journals could be kept where students record their thoughts about the photos.
  • Fictional accounts could be written using the pictures as the basis for their stories.
  • Cause and effect diagrams could be created where students extrapolate what came before and after the photo.

Many more ideas will present themselves to you over time. Dealing with the real thing, the primary source, can be so powerful and provide true connections. You can always extend the lesson by asking students to investigate whether their families had anyone involved in the events depicted. If so, they could present a written or oral report for extra credit if you so choose. Finally, use historical photos if for no other reason than to give students a piece of the past that they might not know was even captured on film.

See over 200 Civil War photographs you can use in class ranging from major figures like Robert E. Lee to battlefields like Gettysburg.

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