How to Use Analyses of Historical Photos in Your Social Studies Units
  • Michelle McDonald

How to Use Analyses of Historical Photos in Your Social Studies Units


Providing students with a high quality social studies education is a non-negotiable. You may have just a textbook, or may be without curriculum in general. If you are looking for ways to go beyond lecturing or reading from a textbook, you're in luck! Here's a great way to include primary sources in your unit of study.


What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of a topic or event from the past. Primary sources can include documents, journal entries, newspapers, or photographs, to name a few. Today, I'm going to focus on how you can use historical photos to help your students better understand a time frame or event in history.


Photo Analysis Lesson Steps

For younger kiddos, you will want to do this analysis activity whole group and walk your students through the steps, but older students can do this independently or with partners.


If you look through the pages of your textbook, you might find a few historical photos throughout the chapter. If you use powerpoint presentations, you might have a few photos for your students to view, but in either case, do we really take the time to look deeply and closely at historical photos, or do we just glance and move on? In this lesson, your students will analyze one historical photo and make an interpretation.


Step 1: Find a historical photo for your students to analyze

You might be thinking, where do I even start? Here are a few places to find historical photos online:

1. Check your state historical museum or historical society

2. Search the Library of Congress

3. Search the National Archives

4. Smithsonian Magazine just released 2.8 million images to the public domain


Now, if you are studying a period in history before photos, no worries. You can have your students analyze a work of art or a political cartoon, or other image from the past.


Your students will start by analyzing just ONE historical photo. The goal is to take time to really ponder and consider the image that they are viewing. Too often we just quickly look at an image and move on. The objective is to view this photo as a historian and then make an interpretation.


Analyzing historical photos can be used in multiple ways.

1. Project the image on the screen for your whole class to view

2. Print the image or several different images and send students out to small groups and then rotate through as stations

3. Print small versions of the image and use as independent work


Step 2: Your students will look deeply and closely at the image

Have your students observe textures, colors, objects, the foreground, the background, any writing or words within the image. At this point, your students are JUST looking at the photo deeply. They are NOT making an interpretation yet. Give them 1 or 2 minutes of complete silence to do so. Yes, I mean it when I say, 1 or 2 minutes. It will feel like an eternity the first time you do this, but there is no need to rush.


Step 3: Provide time for questions

It is important to remember that each student brings their own knowledge and experience to the table when they look at an image. You will want to give your students an opportunity to ask questions. What do they need to know in order to make an interpretation about the photo? This is a good time to have students work with a partner. If you are doing this with lower elementary, you can brainstorm together, and provide any additional context that you feel might be needed.


Step 4: Students will make an interpretation

I always remind students that when they make an interpretation, they are coming to a conclusion about the photo. There may be more than one correct interpretation, but they may also come to the wrong conclusion if they are not careful. They are acting as historians and must be careful in their interpretation.


Step 5: Give evidence to back interpretation

Students need to validate why they came to their conclusion. What led them to make the interpretation that they did? Do they have background knowledge? Or personal experience? Maybe they notice something in particular in the image that leads them to a conclusion. Either way, they need to be specific and validate their interpretation.


Step 6: Provide ample time to share

Remember, that students bring their own background knowledge and experience to the table. Don't miss this part of the lesson. Sharing is such a great way to learn, broaden horizons, and also opens the door to discussion.


If you would like to access a FREE copy of my photo analysis step by step template worksheet that can be used with any historical image, click here.


If you would like to take advantage of photo analysis activities that are ready to use in your classroom today, I have a few prepared. Just print and you're ready to go!

Women's Suffrage Photo Analysis

Juneteenth: Reading Passage & Photo Analysis

Bonus Army: Photo Analysis

The Holocaust: Jewish Ghettos Photo Analysis

Japanese Internment: Photo Analysis

Eruption of Mount St. Helens: Photo Analysis

September 11th: Reading Passage & Photo Analysis






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