Looking at Photographs

Grade Levels: 6 through 12


Sunshine State Standards: View all Sunshine State Standards



You might want to precede this activity with a broad discussion of photography and how it has helped to chronicle history since the invention of the camera. Have students bring in family photos from the past and from today and discuss some of the questions posed here in looking at those photos. Show some famous photographs from important events: Civil War, WWI , Vietnam. Some students might want to delve further into the science or art of photography, or research some famous photographers.

Photographs are primary source materials; they provide evidence of historical events. Learning to view photographs with a critical eye is an important skill. Looking for details that provide information about the people, places and objects in the photograph helps to anchor that document in time. Encourage students to ask questions about the photographs they are viewing.

  1. How could we date this photograph if we did not know when it was taken? Look for clues in the clothing and hair styles, furniture, automobiles, buildings, street fixtures, and other objects in the photograph. The characteristics of the photograph itself (sepia tones, black and white, color, etc.) may also help date a photograph.
  2. Where was the photograph taken? Was the setting of the photograph inside, in a studio or home, or another kind of building? Was the photo taken outside on the street, in a park, or in the countryside? Are there any clues given by written language, vegetation, or topographical features?
  3. Who are the people in the photograph? Look at clothing and hair styles, setting, body language, and objects to help determine social, economic, or political status, country of origin, and so on. Are there any emotions detectable in the people? Do you think the people in the photograph are related?
  4. What does the photograph tell you about the photographer? Does the angle of the photograph give you any information?
  5. What time of day was the photograph taken? Evidence may include a timepiece or shadow length. Does that give you more information about the subject?
  6. What time of year was the photograph taken? What clues other than vegetation and type of clothing worn might provide some evidence?
  7. Compare several photographs, if you can, taken by the same photographer. What similarities do you notice?
  8. Compare two photographs taken of similar events. What are the similarities and differences? What might be the significance of these similarities and differences?
  9. What, if anything, is unusual about the photograph? What is commonplace?
  10. Photographs tell stories. Write a caption for the photograph or research the event and write a newspaper article about it.


A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
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