Activity: Analyzing Photographs

This activity supports Disciplinary Literacy in Social Studies — Thinking Like a Historian — Through Their Eyes.

Grade level: Elementary.

Duration: One class period.


1)   Select one or more historic photographs from Recollection Wisconsin. As a class or in small groups, encourage students to consider the following questions:

  • What was going on at this time?
  • What was it like to live during this time?
  • What was different then (versus now)? What was the same?
  •  What would it be like to witness this event/time from the perspective of someone living during this time?

2)   Then ask the class to “think like historians” to push analysis of a selected photograph even further. When historians study an image, they look at it in its historical context and try to understand what it meant when it was produced. To do so, they think about the motivations of the people who created it and the reactions of the audiences that might have viewed it. Students might discuss:

  • How was this image made?
  • Who created this photograph? Why did they choose to capture this scene?
  • How might the people in the photograph have felt about having their picture taken?
  • How was this photograph used?
Farm family, Adams County, Wisconsin, 1910-1930. Photograph by Taylor Brothers. Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Farm family, Adams County, Wisconsin, 1910-1930. Photograph by Taylor Brothers. Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.