In this portal of Photos With Impact, you’ll find 10 lessons that ask students to look critically at historic news photos, including the iconic images of the Twin Towers during 9/11 and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. With each description of the photos, you’ll find a PDF with several questions that direct students to analyze the photos’ rhetorical devices, embedded values and overall purposes. In addition, students are asked to consider compositional details and the influence of their personal experiences.

Lesson # 1

The First Photographs of War

Mathew Brady (1822-1896) is often referred to as the father of photojournalism. During the Civil War, he and his many assistants followed Union and Confederate armies onto the battlefield and into camps, photographing not only the many facets of military life but battle scenes as well.

Embed from Getty Images

A wounded Zouave (Union Army) being offered a drink from a water bottle by a companion after the Battle of Chancellorsville. The American Zouaves patterned their uniforms on those of the French North African troops of the same name. Photo by Mathew Brady.

PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson # 2

“Youngest parader in New York City suffragist parade”

This historic photo is an American Press Association image from May 4, 1912. A bit of background: The late 19th century witnessed widespread activism and civil disobedience as women sought greater participation in the public sphere. On June 4, 1919, the U.S. Senate approved the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. By August 26, 1920, enough states had ratified the amendment that it became law.

From the Library of Congress: Teaching With Primary Sources

Youngest suffragist

PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson # 3

The Great Depression Through the Eyes of Dorothea Lange

“Migrant Mother,” an iconic image by photojournalist Dorothea Lange, helped put a face to the Great Depression. Taken in 1936 in Nipomo, California, at a farmworkers camp, it shows a mother with three of her seven children. Study the photo for its visual rhetoric, especially pathos, and for its precise composition.

Embed from Getty Images


PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson # 4

The Enduring Image of World War II

In an image that has stood the test of time, Joe Rosenthal captured U.S. Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. Are you familiar with the image from the World Trade Center disaster that uses a similar composition and evokes similar feelings of patriotism?

“What I see behind the photo is what it took to get up to those heights — the kind of devotion to their country that those young men had, and the sacrifices they made … I take some gratification in being a little part of what the U.S. stands for.”

— Joe Rosenthal

Embed from Getty Images


PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson # 5

The Kennedy Funeral: A Son’s Moment in Time

In November 1963, when John F. Kennedy Jr. spontaneously saluted during the funeral procession for his father, JFK, photographers captured the moment in a way that deeply resonated with a country in mourning for its president.

Embed from Getty Images


PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson # 6

MLK and the March on Washington

In an image that has become emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 in Washington D.C. It is one of the most remarkable crowd shots of all time, with impeccable composition and emotional impact.

Embed from Getty Images


PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson # 7 

The Moon Landing 

In July 1969, Americans were awestruck not only by the achievement of landing a space capsule on the moon, but also by the still images and audio that traveled back to Earth. In this NASA photo by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong, astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. salutes the U.S. flag after stepping on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.

Embed from Getty Images


PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson # 8

The Release of Nelson Mandela

The moment of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 brought a tidal wave of change to South Africa. The African National Congress leader had spent decades in a South African prison for raising his voice against apartheid, a longtime South African practice of institutionalized segregation. The raised fists of Mandela and his wife Winnie created an image that has been remembered through time.


PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson # 9

The World Trade Center and the Terrorist Attacks of 9/11

Despite the shock and horror of the events that unfolded on September 11, 2001, photojournalists and others managed to capture images with remarkable storytelling power. This image of the World Trade Center has become synonymous with the attack. Another image that endures (although it is more disturbing in nature because of the way it personalizes death) is “Falling Man” by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew.

Embed from Getty Images


PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Lesson #10

Stranded after Hurricane Katrina

The hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005 took an unprecedented toll on residents in lower-income neighborhoods with little means to get to safety and to find decent emergency shelter. People poured into the city’s Superdome, finding crowded, sometimes inhumane conditions. That year, the government’s ability to provide disaster relief came into question, and Katrina is still discussed today, partly thanks to photographers’ many impactful images.

Embed from Getty Images


PWI media lit q’s for historic photos

Supplementary material:

American and international history is rich with iconic images taken by news photographers. Here are a few more examples of visual rhetoric through photojournalism (famous photos that are graphic or violent in nature are not included). Clicking on the photo will give you caption information. (Images obtained for educational purposes through Getty Images)

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Famous photojournalists make excellent subjects for a biographical report. Students can research the lives of (in alphabetical order): Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Mathew Brady, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstadt, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Neil Leifer, Annie Liebovitz, Danny Lyon, James Nachtwey, Gordon Parks, Joe Rosenthal, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, and more.



(Adapted from the Core Concepts, Center for Media Literacy)

Part 1

Analyzing how the message was constructed

  1. What kind of medium is it? (Photography, but with a digital or film camera?)
  2. What are the various elements that make up the whole (what exactly is depicted)?
  3. How similar or different is it to other depictions of the same subject (in other photographs)?
  4. Which technologies were used in its creation?
  5. How would it be different in a different medium?
  6. What choices were made that might have been made differently?
  7. What are the various jobs of the people who created this message?

Part 2

Analyzing the creative language of the message.

  1. What do you notice about the way the message is constructed (see “Elements of Composition in Photography”)?
  2. Where is the camera? What is the viewpoint?
  3. How is the story told? What are people doing?
  4. Are there any visual symbols or metaphors?
  5. What’s the emotional appeal? Persuasive devices?
  6. What makes it seem “real”?

Part 3

Understanding how different viewers bring different experiences

  1. Have you ever experienced anything like this?
  2. How close does it come to what you have experienced in real life?
  3. What did you learn from this example of media? What did you learn about yourself from experiencing the medium and its message?
  4. What did you learn from other people’s responses – and their experience?
  5. How many other interpretations could there be? How could we hear about them?
  6. How can you explain the different responses?
  7. Are other viewpoints just as valid as mine?

Part 4

Analyzing embedded values and points of view

  1. How is the human experience characterized? What kinds of behaviors/consequences are depicted?
  2. What type of person is the reader/watcher/listener invited to identify with?
  3. What questions come to mind as you watch/read/listen?
  4. What ideas or values are being “sold” in this message?
  5. What political or economic ideas are communicated in the message?
  6. What judgments or statements are made about how we treat other people?
  7. What is the overall worldview?
  8. Are any ideas or perspectives left out? How would you find what’s missing?

Part 5

Analyzing the purpose of creating the message

  1. Who’s in control of the creation and transmission of this message?
  2. Who are they sending it to? Do you know why?
  3. Who is served or who profits by this message?
  4. What economic decisions may have influenced the construction or transmission of this message?

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