For high school teachers who need a helping hand in photojournalism instruction, this page is for you. I have curated several lesson plans from veteran teachers, various online sources, scholastic journalism books, yearbook companies, and my own archives as a publications adviser. The lessons can be done as a class, or assigned as independent study when your publications and video production students are not on assignment. The list will keep growing! Check back often! — DR
The Work of Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange is synonymous with photojournalism excellence. Her Depression-era photos helped change society’s perceptions of poverty and adversity. Analyze a few of her landmark photos. Build background: This lesson is geared toward U.S. history classes but works in journalism classes as well, allowing students to consider rhetorical devices in imagery.
The assignment: Students analyze one of Dorothea Lange’s photographs and make connections to its historical context by creating a one-page written and visual response.
From: The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which holds one of the largest archives of Lange’s work.
Storytelling Through Photos
Storytelling photos play an important role in high school yearbooks and other publications. How can you bring more visual rhetoric and impact to your campus photos? Build background: View the Jostens PowerPoint “Storytelling through Photos.”
The assignment: Carry your camera for the entire school day and take only photojournalistic shots — those that tell a story. Try to record a day at school from beginning to end. Submit your 10 best images with a paragraph explaining the story you were trying to tell. Handout and rubric provided.
From: Yearbook Love, a Jostens curriculum initiative
Many of the most iconic images in the history of photojournalism have come from a genre called street photography. Give it a try! Build background: Learn how your First Amendment right to free expression allows you to take photographs in public places: read the handout The Photographer’s Bill of Rights.
The assignment: Ten photos in which you get outside your comfort zone to find storytelling images in public places. Handout provided.
Questions to promote critical thinking and visual literacy: Project each student’s photos onto a whiteboard and critique them.
- How successfully have your images captured a scene or provided storytelling aspects?
- Did you feel awkward taking the photos? Why or why not?
- Since you probably took the picture in a hurry, how could you improve it technically if you had a chance to take it again?
From: Rebecca Strolic, Notre Dame Prep, Scottsdale, Arizona
Capturing the Protest Movement
The protest movement is alive and well. So are the photos that are documenting it. Build background: Have your students read this piece from The Guardian, which explains the circumstances behind a widely seen 2016 photo of Iesha L Evans. In it, she stands peacefully in front of Louisiana state troopers in the wake of police shootings of young black men. The photo is by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters.
Questions to promote critical thinking and visual literacy: Form discussion groups or have students write their responses.
- What have you learned about Evans that helps you understand her actions?
- Which qualities of good photocomposition can you find in this photo?
- What emotions do you feel when viewing it? What might others feel?
- The Guardian article notes that the photo recalls other protest movement photos over the last several decades. Can you find an example? Compare and contrast it to this photo.
- Are there other news photos from the current crisis in African-American relationships with law enforcement that come to mind?
From: Deborah Ross, CJE
Five Keys to Good Photos
Composing a photo means thinking about at least five things at once. Meet “EDFAT.” Build background: Explain to students that the best photos for any kind of publication always follow principles of photocomposition. The “EDFAT” formula is one tool that’s easy for your yearbook and newspaper staffs to remember as they shoot campus photos.
E = Entire. Think about the entire scene before you and which specific elements will best tell the story.
D = Details. Which small elements particularly catch your eye? The book someone is holding? A facial expression? A classroom wall? Is it a storytelling element that should be in the picture?
F = Frame. Could something in the scene serve as a frame or border for your various elements without being too distracting? Possibilities include a door frame, a circle of students, or a leading line.
A = Angle. Anyone can shoot a scene head-on. Have you thought about a bird’s-eye or worm’s-eye view? How about a side angle?
T = Timing. Patience is everything for a photographer. Plan to spend time with an event or person until you capture that decisive moment.
Activity: Have students roam campus with cameras to compose photos that illustrate each aspect of EDFAT. In groups, they can create slideshows to share with the class.
From: Deborah Ross, CJE, with thanks to the late Professor Frank Hoy at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
A Rubric for Yearbook Photos
Instead of having students judge the worth of their photos as simply “good” or “bad,” “for yearbook” or “not for yearbook,” have them evaluate the images more critically from both storytelling and technical standpoints.
From: Deborah Ross, CJE
Iconic Photos from The New York Times
With its excellent archive of historic photos, the NYT Learning Network has put together a series of lessons on visual rhetoric, using a “Critical Lenses” handout. Students then create their own photo essays for exhibition in a classroom show. Build background: The venerable New York Times has long featured the best of photojournalism from around the world. Here, the focus is on “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, the shot of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, the photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin, and other memorable images through time.
From: The New York Times Learning Network
Pro Tips from National Geographic
After viewing this short video (under two minutes) from a top photographer for National Geographic, students might be inspired to try new photocomposition techniques as they roam around campus.
The Influence of Photographs on Society
In this 12-part series from the Teaching Tolerance website, part of the Southern Poverty Law Center, students learn to read photographs from denotative and connotative meanings. In so doing, they see how images can show other perspectives, reveal injustices, and promote activism.
A Trip Through History and Its Iconic Images
In 2016, TIME Magazine asked an international team of curators to select the 100 most influential photographs of all time. The result is the TIME 100 Project, which gives you online access to many of the world’s most enduring images, not only in history, but also in pop culture and sports. Consider having students form groups to select their favorite photos and then present a slideshow to the class a whole, answering questions about visual rhetoric along the way. Also, click on the Videos tab to select short documentaries examining the creation of many of the photos. I would advise previewing the videos, as some of them contain disturbing images from history.
A Three-Day Introduction to Photography and Cutlines
Among the many lesson plans for journalism teachers on SchoolJournalism.org you can find a section on photography instruction. It offers three days of lessons as compiled by the American Society of News Editors. After the lesson descriptions, look down the list of more than 50 links to photojournalism-related articles, most of them instructional in nature.
You Can Be the Next Henri!
In this inspiring article from the EyeEm blog, the writers point out 10 ways to emulate the father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Among the suggestions: Know your strengths as a photographer, find beauty everywhere, break the rules and, of course, discover the decisive moment. Have your students read the article and see how current images from today’s photographers imitate Cartier-Bresson’s style and philosophy. Then send them out to try similar images on their own. Puddles after rainstorms are a good place to start.
From: Deborah Ross, CJE
Sports Photos for Studying Composition
Sports photos are a staple of high school newspaper and yearbook staffs, and there are numerous ways to study great sports photography as a way to inspire students. TIME magazine is one place to start, and this slideshow of the 15 top winners of the Sports Singles category of the annual World Press Photo contest contains excellent examples. Included is the iconic photo of broadly smiling Jamaican runner Usain Bolt winning a semifinal at the 2016 Olympics. Students should list examples of: stop action, patterns, leading lines, emotional reactions, depth of field, center of visual interest and rule of thirds.
From: Deborah Ross, CJE
“Sharpening Your Photographic Mind”
In this insightful article by professional photographer Will Neder, readers are asked to type themselves as either gear-oriented technical perfectionists or storytellers seeking personal development and views into society. Neder writes, the second type is “driven not by a search for technical perfection and visual novelty, but by a passion for discovery, insight, and exploration.” Prompt a discussion in your classroom after students read the article.
From: Deborah Ross, CJE
Photographs that capture the range of human emotions are an important way to connect with audiences and to give images impact. Emotions typically fall into one of these eight categories: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, joy, sadness and surprise. Not all emotions are registered through facial expressions; some are expressed through body language. Have students photographically capture these eight emotions. Rather than enlisting friends to pose, students should try to capture the emotions genuinely. Suggested locations include: school assemblies, sports events, the dinner table, an airport or train station, an urban festival.
Adapted from: “Capturing Emotions,” 150 Projects to Strengthen Your Photography Skills, by John Easterby, Barron’s Educational Series, 2010.
Photojournalism Techniques from Video Production
Veteran film / video production and sound engineering teacher Tamma Murphy, whose students have won awards in national student filmmaking competitions, has curated a number of links on her school-affiliated website that offer a variety of lesson plans. Many of the lessons apply to photojournalism students seeking tips on composition, lighting, stop-action, and other areas.
From: Tamma Murphy, Paradise Valley High School, Phoenix, AZ