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The Mirror with a Memory

We believe that images can be used to stir the imagination of our students.  As mentioned in class, this also presents challenges.  After reading the selection, discuss what you feel your role is in selecting images for use in the classroom, how you might go about encouraging your students to look more deeply at evidence before drawing conclusions, and when images do or do not represent primary source material.

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  • I would like to add to my earlier reply and address my role in selecting images for use in the classroom.  Since I teach 4th -6th years, I have to be very selective in the images I choose to show my students.  For instance, I'm not looking to traumatize anyone with images of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but I do use images from the Holocaust Museum's Everyday Objects curriculum, designated as appropriate for my grade levels.  Since I'm the one choosing the images, my own bias will be evident in the images I choose to share or not share with my students.

  • The article brought forward really interesting points in Riis' work.  The idea that he used photography in conjunction with his own biases to present images with purpose really show what the real purpose of photography is.  Not to show the absolute truth as it is, rather to deliver a message in the cloak of truth.  It's the same reason that as a kid you're supposed to smile in every picture of family vacations.  Not that you actually were happy at that moment, but when you look at years later it'll sure look like you were.  The teacher's role in selecting images for source material in a classroom is more involved that selecting from reputable source materials and providing multiple perspectives.  I think it really boils down to is the purpose of your teaching.  If your purpose is to present a clear objective view of an event, then you absolutely need to include as many perspectives of the event in question as possible.  However, there are absolutely times in teaching wherein you want to elicit an emotion.  Case in point would be the lesson I presented in class. In that lesson I am purposely present material in a way that I feel will deliver the most impact as a means of getting students really thinking about the content area.  A way to get kids looking deeply at photographic, or art source material that I will use in my classroom is to utilize the photo analysis worksheets available from LoC and NARA.  Another idea that I think will really get kids looking at visual media is to not give them the entire image.  I really liked the strategy demonstrated in class of using a piece of white paper to highlight specific areas for students to focus on. Riding this line of thought it might be interesting to take a few pictures, cut them up into several pieces and distribute the pieces to students at random, having them analyze their section of the photo on their own basing their findings on only what they see.  Then they would have to find the rest of their photo in the room and collaborate to figure out what the "story" of the picture is.  This would not only provide students with the opportunity to practice their photo analysis skills, but reinforce the idea that any given image is only a part of the greater picture, and only tells a piece of the story behind it.  While photos can always be used as primary source materials, the use of art in the same fashion doesn't always work as cleanly.I think that as a social studies teacher one of the most fundamental skills we can teach our students is to determine between primary and secondary sources, and importantly, when these lines blur, especially as we reach farther back into history, for example ancient Greece.  Many of our pieces from Greece that we have are later Roman reproductions, or artistic reinterpretations of original works.  As with selecting images to teach with, your purpose is what determines the correct course of action in using source materials.

  • I keep going back to the Civil War photographers that were staged.  After we learned how the photos were taken did they lose the power of each images. I don't know the answer but it address the portion of the essay that discuss "art" v "truth".  As a classroom teacher I have used images but never art--- photo tell the story it is there for the eye to see.  As the person looking at the image what emotions are evoke? As you study the image what question do you ask; "what do you see", " what is happening", or "why is this photo important" for this period in history. 

    Back to my first question, when a photograph is staged is it still a primary document?  The civil war pictures were taken after a battle, they were taken during the time period just days after the battle.  I would say standing on shaky legs it is a primary source, but tomorrow I could say “no”.  Pictures taken at a Civil war reenactment are not primary source.  However, those reenactment photos could still be used in the class lesson as long as students understand that they are not primary sources--- it is a great lesson for them to use a critical eye asking question when looking a photo's in used as a  historical reference.

    I like what one of my classmates said " ...... I have started using more images and fewer words in my teaching.... Yes, I know that when I speak less and use images, movies, and songs they enjoy the class actively participate in the class experience. Because of this class I plan to use more “art” and fewer words with my student next year---- letting them discuss what they see and it’s reference to history.


  • I found lots of things to think about in this article. I was particularly struck by the Oliver Wendell Holmes definition of a photograph as “an illusion with the appearance of reality that cheats the senses with its seeming truth”.  In so many ways that statement helps to summarize this article.

    I confess that prior to reading this article; I was guilty of looking at photographs as “real”.  I saw them as the accurate depiction of some event or some person.  I taught students to “read” or “mine” photographs by having them focus on what they saw. I had students conjecture what the person felt or what the photograph meant. 

    I never went deeper.  I never even thought about trying to discover what the photographer meant me to feel.  I totally forgot that the photographer might have an agenda and that the photograph might be staged.  I knew of course that Edward Curtis used props when he photographed Native Americans but I just thought that he was capturing and preserving the artifact in a cultural context.  I never thought that someone might use a dead body as a prop or arrange people in order to make a more compelling picture or statement. I thought photographs were both candid and real.

    After reading the article, I know that the more that I can learn about the process of photography at the time (the technology) and the skills of the photographer and the more that I can learn about the background and agenda of the photographer, the better I will be able to decode the photograph. After reading the article I know that photographs must be read like any text.  I need to keep in mind the point of view of the “artist”.

    I found the article extremely helpful.  I am doing some work on Norman Rockwell. Admittedly he was not known as a photographer but he took many photographs prior to painting a picture.  He arranged and rearranged his subjects so that he could get the image in a pleasing configuration. He also was careful to pose his figures for accuracy.  I just ordered 3 books about him because I wanted to learn more about his life and his political orientation. I am particularly interested in learning more about his work on the painting about Ruby Bridges. I also learned that several movie makers (Spielberg and Lucas) have used his artwork –the framing of pictures and the incidents in their movies.  I am going to love learning more about him and looking at his photographs (and art) through the new lens of this article.


  • The reading is was a wonderful description of how any primary source is not an unfiltered “truth,” but rather an unfiltered perspective from the time period. I think that sharing with students the example of how framing a picture excludes some information and highlights the subject matter that the photographer is most interested in capturing is useful for discussing other primary source material as well. Viewing photographs, videos, or other images makes us feel like we are eye witnesses to history. However, we must remind our students that a real eye witness experiences a myriad of additional information and context that is not available to historians.

    Humans are such visual animals, we are deeply affected by visual experiences and so I think it is important to give students tools to process those experiences. One way to do that is to prompt them to look for details in a meaningful context. For example, in the Riis photograph of the tenements in New York, I might ask students to pretend that they are a government representative sent out to investigate the living conditions. Each student would then make a list of the conditions under categories such as health risk, public safety, etc.

    One of the most important things that I can teach a student is how to ask critical questions about the framing of any primary document on their own. Greg did this in class with the Civil War photos when he asked us to consider what might be amiss with the battlefield pictures. I might have my students look at the Riis photograph of the boys robbing the man who had passed out in the street and ask, “Why do you think the boys don’t care if Riis takes a picture?” Next I would explore the idea of documenting a crime and your relationship to the consequences of that crime. In recent years it has become more and more common for students to record fights on their phones and post them online. I would explore with students if and how what Riis did is different from filming a fight. When do you need to put down the camera and intervene? I have found that relating historical material to the lives of my students is by far the best way to keep them engaged.

  • It’s been intriguing learning the background story for the art and photography presented in class.  It’s like a puzzle to put together or a mystery to be solved.  That means I have to be prepared to put time into researching the images and their creators that I want to share with my students.  The article explains the importance of doing this to add to our understanding of the perspective of the image creator and how that can bias what is presented.  I’ve provided the historical background of images before, but rarely thought about researching the bias of the creator, except maybe with the Boston Massacre print where I explained it was done by Paul Revere as propaganda for support of the colonist’s cause.  By doing examples with students first, they can learn to do their own research for “the rest of the story.”

    Another activity I’ve learned to do is to present just a portion of an image and have students respond to what they see, feel, or think is going on in the image.  Then, progressively, the view is enlarged with further interpretation, until finally the whole image is present, resulting in a completely different interpretation.  This can be powerful and a tool that can teach students to view images more critically.

    How many of us are guilty of staging the “candid” shot?  Wait, I have to move that stack of mail and the pile of laundry to be folded before I take the photo of my little one so the relatives don’t see I’m not the best housekeeper when I share the picture!  The staged Bohemian family portrait reminds me of my class.  One of the jobs in our class is the class historian.  Not only does this person report events of this day in history, but also they are responsible for taking a picture of something going on in the classroom as part of the class history.  Often the students face the camera or ham it up, staging the photo differently than just their focused work, which was the original aim of the photo.  They tend to do that less when I’m taking photos.  So, I wonder after reading this article, how who the photographer is not only shows the photographer’s bias, but that the bias of the subjects shows depending on the photographer. 

    We’re in the middle of such a change in photography and perspective.  People are photographers documenting their own lives through social media in a very egocentric way.  Go to a concert and people are all holding up their phones more focused on documenting versus living the moment.  Students record each other fighting and post it for others to view.  My husband and I were discussing the photo of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation and his response was that the difference today is that there wouldn’t be one photographer, but that everyone in the background would be holding up a phone camera to document it.  Makes you wonder where it goes from here.

  • As an elementary school teacher, I feel that my role in selecting images for my classroom is to ensure that I'm using valid sources that will make them think and will evoke a reaction in them. One thing I like to do is show them images that appear to be good primary sources, but really aren't. After a group discussion, I'll debunk the image and emphasize the importance of researching images for validity. At the fifth grade level, they're starting to do their own research and have to find their own sources. So, In addition to using images in my lessons, I work really hard to teach them how to find their own for their own research.

    In "The Mirror with a Memory" we learned about one photographers vision and how he used that vision to produce works of art that are commonly used as primary resources. It's great to hear how those photos came to be and his reasons for taking them. This kind of information is excellent to share with students because it doesn't just bring to life the people in the images, but also the person behind the camera. I like to bring it home with students and ask them about the different pictures that they take, and their reasons for those photos. One take home activity I like to have them do, is go through their family photos and talk with their parents about how they felt about taking those photos.

    I like to think that all photos can be used as primary resources as long as there is information given about the photographer and the circumstances surrounding the photos. Even when a photo is a recreation of an event, they can still be considered a primary source because they're capturing the moment.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed The Mirror with a Memory because it invited me into the world of Jacob Riis and the 19th century slums of New York with anecdotes (a photographer’s flash setting the “Dirty Spoon” on fire, which then extinguished itself because the filth on the walls was non-flammable) taught me terms I hadn’t heard before (Street Arabs, detective cameras), and provided an absorbing history of early photography.  The sheer hassle of preparing glass plates and hauling miniature dark rooms across town or across battle fields was staggering to a person who relegated her 35 mm Minolta to the closet because digital is so convenient - and faster than waiting for processing at Costco. (I do miss the magic of working in a darkroom, however).

    The longer I teach, the fewer words I say and the more pictures (photos, paintings, mosaics, etc.) I show.  One of the responders mentioned giving students “think time” to explore a visual, and I agree.  Our world has become so focused on the late-breaking, the “immediate,” that anything we can do to encourage patience – the desire to go deep and mine the layers of significance below the obvious – or to question the obvious – is valuable. 

    I liked how the article mentioned “ceremonial” photos and paintings to commemorate milestones in people’s lives.  I have a handful of sepia prints from my own ancestors in the 1800s.  I grew up in the 50s when the Brownie camera was convenient and inexpensive, but the concept of ceremonial use of that camera still held sway.  We have just 2 family albums that cover mostly Christmases and birthday parties from birth to graduation.  And a few vacation shots of skinny kids at the beach.  My young niece has thousands of images of herself in her Picasa account – just from the last few years!

    Finally, I enjoyed reading about photographers imposing their subjectivity on an objective medium.  Really, dudes – moving corpses for civil war sniper shots? Dorothea Lange erasing the bean picker’s thumb?  Bwaaa.  As much as I want to know the truth and the “rest of the story” behind a favorite image, it often kills the photo for me after that.  I see the ruse instead of the art, and I regret I went that far.  Perhaps using art well is an art?

  • As an art teacher I use images to inspire thoughts, feelings, motivate, and to make connections. I also use images to teach about artists, styles, time periods, cultures, and techniques. I have to be extremely mindful of the images I choose and how they relate to subject matter and the age group. I want to stir their imaginations without rocking the boat.

    I use Terry Barrett's art appreciation technique to encourage students to look at artwork, and determine their own meaning. I ask the following questions: What do you see? What does it mean? and How do you know?
    Each student can come up with their own meaning by saying what it means by relating to what they connect it with. As we have heard, the truth is in the eye of the beholder.

  •      I feel that my role in the selection of images is to present as balanced a plate of images as possible for my students.  However, since my students are relatively young, there is a responsibility to limit images to those that are age-appropriate.  I have to balance the standards and content with the age and sensitivities of my students and their parents.  As a result, I usually select images with the goal of providing my students with a visual that can serve as a shelf or hook for future topic development in later grades. 

          Additionally, I feel the teacher at the elementary level also serves to model examination of images.  Students need modeling and guidance as they develop their critical observation skills (in all content areas).  I usually begin using NARA and LOC worksheets to provide students with guidance as they learn to explore images.  As the year progresses, I move to prompts that will assist students to connect the piece in question with the overarching theme or concept.  I also like to return to an image from earlier in the year and have students re-examine the image.  This gives my students the chance to self-assess how far their skills have developed. 

         The discussion of primary vs. secondary sources is always a great one to have with students.  We know images are primary sources when they are created at the time of the event; however, is the image still a primary source when it is staged or when it is edited?  These are questions that will require more research by the student.  For example, the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi was the second raising, but it is an event in its own right.  This would be a great Socratic seminar topic for 6th grade.  The reason why I like this one is because students will need to look at intent.  They will also need to discuss the role of the photographer.  Is the photographer serving as an historian or as an artist?  I can see arguments going both ways.  I also think photographs are interesting because one can argue some are not primary sources.  For example, a photo of a re-enactment is a primary source of the re-enactment itself, but not a primary source of the actual event. 

         I use Riis and Hine photos during my immigration unit each year.  I agree that the photographers came to the images with preconceptions and with purpose.  They wanted to show the difficulty and wanted to evoke emotion to drive action.  However, this purpose does not invalidate the source.  Just as a painter has a message, these two photographers had a message.  This message or purpose actually serves to provide more opportunity for the student to examine more deeply.  In addition to “What do you see?” students can begin to ask, “What was the purpose of this image?" or, “Who was the audience of this image?”  These questions will allow my students better access to views and perceptions held at the time, as well as visual evidence of the times.  It really is just another door to inquiry.

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