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Tutorials - Thinking About Photographs as Historical Evidence


  • The intimacy of photography often suggests a closer connection to “reality” than do other types of historical sources.
  • We need to approach photographs with same level of scrutiny as we do other source types in order to insure that the historical significance of the image is fully realized.
  • There is NO one-to-one relationship between a photograph and “reality.”
  • Photographs are constructed; a photographer makes a lot of choices when creating and producing the photographic image. As a result, photographs are an interpretation of the world. Photographs reflect and connect to many historical/cultural beliefs, ideas and agendas. Always keep this in mind.
  • Photographs embody a point of view, as do all primary sources.
  • Certain aspects/elements of a photograph may be more pertinent to one research question or teaching objective than another; all photographs can be used to explore/teach more than one topic depending on what you focus on and what questions you ask.
  • Photographs invite multiple interpretations.
  • Photographs can offer us access to minute details of a place and time. Both intended and unintended details can be valuable to the historian.
  • Not all research questions can be answered by an exploration of internal evidence alone. Attention to internal evidence (visual evidence) can offer a great deal of information to an historian but always consider the internal evidence in light of external evidence whenever possible.
  • There is a “grammar” to photography and these “grammatical” elements make meaning.
  • Whenever possible, consider the purpose of the photograph’s creation/dissemination.
  • Accompanying text (of any sort) should be taken into account when analyzing the image and its historical meaning/ value.
  • Always keep in mind the DATE of creation and/or dissemination when analyzing a photograph; photographs (like any source) both reflect and shape/add to a cultural./historical moment.
  • When guiding student analysis always make explicit the link between the photograph’s message/ meaning (about a particular issues or point in time)  and evidence of that message/meaning.

      ALWAYS KEEP IN MIND:

  • What does each specific choice or element in the photograph suggest about the topic at hand? What does it add to our understanding of the source AND How does it do so? (How does the specific help give the whole a particular meaning?
  • What value does this photograph have as a teaching tool? How does it help create or support historical knowledge and understanding?
  • Which details/elements of this photograph are most valuable as teaching tools? Which would you focus students’ attention on and why? What would you hope they gained from such a focus?

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