How To Make An Effective Photo Essay Assignment

Lesson Plans

Back to lesson plans archiveFebruary 15, 2013

A picture is worth a thousand words – Lesson Plan

By Shannon Sullivan, Arlington, Va.



Estimated Time

Two class periods of 45 minutes, including one evening of homework

Grade Level

Grades 7-12


Students will analyze documentary photographs and discuss their context in the history of the United States. Students will evaluate the impact of the media on society Students will create journal entries and/or art inspired by subjects of famous documentary photographs.


While the expression “A picture is worth 1,000 words” is meant to convey that an image means more than “talk,” images can also compel us to volunteer, donate money, vote a certain way, or join a group. Discussion is just the beginning. Some attribute the expression, “Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours,” or “A good sketch is better than a long speech” to emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Photographs can be even more convincing, especially if they are not altered by digital editing software.


Photographs can tell use about times and places where we have not been or remind us of details we may not have noticed in a given moment. A photographer, like any artist, can bring his or her own point of view into their work by choosing the setting, repositioning their subject, and even choosing the lighting conditions in which they shoot the picture. All of these choices influence how we see what the photographer wants us to see.

Sometimes, the subject is unaware of the impact that the photo being taken can have on others. Often, this is because the experience they are having while being photographed requires all of their attention, such as feeding hungry children, or even walking to school safely. The implications of what the image could become, 10, 50, or 100 years from now are hard to fathom.


Step 1
Explain to students that there are some photographs that pull in the viewer and are so compelling, they can evoke an emotion of motivate someone to act.

Share with students images linked below, and share the summaries of each image (included).  Stress the simplicity of each image, and then, why an image can have historical significance.  There are 4 examples below. Each link contains the image that can be projected on a screen in class, or viewed on a computer monitor.


Migrant Mother (1936)

In 1936 Dorothea Lange photographed a mother of seven who was a migrant worker.  She was following the pea harvest but the ground was frozen, leaving nothing to pick.  The mother was housing her family in a lean-to, having just sold the family tent and the tires off the family car.  While she was 32 when the image was taken, she appears to be a much older woman.  These images were used to document the work of the Resettlement Administration, later called the Farm Security Administration.

This image, called “Migrant Mother”, was immediately published in a San Francisco paper and the federal government sent 20,000 pounds of food to the camp where she was photographed. It is said that it inspired John Steinbeck to write “Grapes of Wrath”. Lange later said she was drawn to the site after completing her work, and mailing her film back to Washington, DC. She only shot five images, and did not approach anyone but Florence Owens Thompson at the camp.

Teacher note: Students may better understand the context of Dorothea Lange’s work by seeing other images she has taken throughout her career.  Here is a Dorothea Lange slideshow from the Museum of Modern Art.


Dorothy Counts (1957)

In 1957, fifteen-year-old Dorothy Geraldine Counts and three other students became the first African American students to attend the previously all white Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. They were greeted by angry white mobs that screamed obscenities and racial slurs at the African American students. Counts’s picture appeared in many newspapers, as did others of black students attempting to attend white schools for the first time. Counts’s family feared for her safety and withdrew her from Harding and sent her to a completely integrated high school in Pennsylvania, after four days of her enduring the taunting. The image, by Douglas Martin for the Associated Press, was the photo of the year in 1957.

Later that year, language was added to the decision Brown Vs. Board Of Education that read that communities were to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.”


Robert Kennedy is Assassinated (1968)

On June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy learned that he had been nominated as the democratic candidate for President, just months after the death of his brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been captured on film.  It was an assassin’s bullet that hit Robert Kennedy just after midnight in the Ambassador Hotel, as he exited the ballroom through the kitchen.

While there are theories about whether or not there was one assassin or two, it cannot be disputed that Kennedy was photographed in the arms of a 17-year old bus boy named Juan Romero, a Mexican immigrant who later confessed that he traded tasks with his co-workers to meet his role model that evening.  He’d been the subject of much discrimination at work, and was inspired by Kennedy’s plans for The United States.

The politician was bleeding from the head as Romero supported him and offered prayers of comfort to his idol, who died 26 hours later.  Bill Eppridge, a photojournalist who was assigned to cover the campaign captured the image.  In 2004, Eppridge said, “It went through my mind not to take the picture, but this was history.”

Hubert Humphrey replaced Robert Kennedy as the democratic nominee for President, who was unable to defeat Richard Nixon.  After Robert Kennedy’s assassination the United States Secret Service provided protection to presidential candidates.


The Afghan Girl (1985, 2002)

In 2002, the face of another woman caught the attention of the world.  Sharbat Gula, thought to be 29, was found in the mountains of Pakistan, some 17 years after an image of her piercing green eyes turned the attention of world to the plight of refugees.  Known since June 1985 as simply, “The Afghan Girl,” orphaned at six due to a Soviet bombing, her grandmother lead her on foot to various camps in Pakistan.  She had never been photographed since that visit, and was surprised that millions had seen her photo.

By examining patterns in her irises, the part of the eye that are a brilliant green, an ophthalmologist in Pakistan and a forensic examiner for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the girl in the image was Sharbat Gula.  Her request to help girls, like her own, to receive a proper education resulted in the founding of a $1,000,000 project now called the Afghan Children’s Fund.

Step 2
Class discussion. Ask students to examine each of the photographs described in this lesson.  What components of the image stand out?  Is there a sign of weakness or strength?  Does the image appear posed?  Think about why the image was taken from the angle the photographer chose. Does it bring the viewer closer the subject?  Are there details in the image that tell more of the story? Which elements bring up new questions?

Step 3
Be a journalist. Ask each student to select one photograph and write a headline for the newspaper story about the incident documented in the image.  Follow the headline with a two-paragraph story summarizing a) what transpired as the photograph was being taken and b) what actions transpired after the event, such as a donation, or a political action.  Think about what impact that action had on the individual in the photograph, and/or on the community in which they live.

Step 4
(Can be completed as homework)

Complete the worksheet attached, which includes more detailed questions about the image selected.  Students can use the image for which they wrote a headline, or, at teacher’s discretion, choose another image.  Students should demonstrate an understanding of the way documentary photographs have on history, in their responses.  For a greater challenge, have students complete one worksheet for each example.

Step 5
Journal idea. What right does the public have to see a photo of you? For each of the examples cited, at least one subject of the image did not experience a direct or immediate improvement in their lives after being photographed.  Should the photographers tell subjects how their photographs would or could be used?  Could a photographer predict this, in a moment, or would the moment be lost?  If you are in a public place, should you have the right to refuse to be photographed?  Do photographers have the right to ask subjects to stand a certain way in a documentary-style image, if it is for a “greater good”? Who decides?

In a journal or during a class discussion, consider how much of a choice these people had over being a part of history.  Ask the student to take on the role of one of the following:

  • Florence Owens Thompson (“The Migrant Mother”)
  • Dorothy Counts (“The student being harassed by a mob”)
  • Sharbat Gula (“The Afghan Girl”)
  • Jose Romero  (“The Mexican busboy at the Ambassador Hotel”)

Once they have selected their persona, have them write about their experience that day, before they knew they would be a part of history that was captured on film, such as getting ready for work or school.  Ask the students to speculate how they encountered the photographer, and whether or not they spoke before the shudder clicked.  Have the student include what they hope will happen, for themselves, their families, or others if the photograph is seen by others.  Remind students to try to write about the concerns of their “subject,” who could be a mother or a scared young adult, as if they were “in their shoes.”

Once students have completed this assignment, share the text from this article, which includes the perspective of the bus boy as an adult.

You can also share with the students the following videos, which address the central issues addressed in each of the photographs. Allow approximately 5 minutes per video. If students connected with one image, they may choose to view the video that correlates with their image.

Extension Activities

A photo essay is when it takes more than one image to tell a story. Often a photojournalist will revisit a site several times to document changes, or use different subjects, including buildings, animals, and bodies of water, to tell a whole story. While one image can become the “icon” for a movement, or even a decade, it is interesting to hear what photographers today think about why they shoot the images they do.

Photographers like Mario Tama of Getty Images use their art to tell the story of places like Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan, but he took on the task of telling the story of New Orleans through images because the city was part of his own connection to the United States.  He focuses not only on the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, but on the individuals and families who are coming back to their home-city, and one family who never left.

Tama’s photo essay is focused on traditions, joy, and the resilience of the citizens who live in the Gulf Coast Region. You can view that here. As a class, or for homework (if students have access to the site at home) ask students to listen to the photographer’s story and listen to his voice as he describes the connections of the people of New Orleans to their city, and what concerns he has for New Orleans in the future.  Does he choose to be a part of the events he shoots, or is he “a fly on the wall” trying to go unnoticed?  What is happening with the proceeds from the sales of the book? Ask students to compare the style of photography Tama uses with the style in the portraits that were discussed in the lesson?  How does he use color, lighting, and camera angle to engage the viewer? Think about how advances in photography, such as digital imagery and color, influence the kinds of images we see today.  Are they more impactful? Less dramatic?

Ask students to bring in a photograph from their collection, or from research, that might influence someone to donate to a school, or help community (or an individual) in a certain way.  The image should have at least one person or an animal in it, and have a sense of time or place that tells more of the story.  Have the students be prepared to discuss why they chose their image, and the way in which it might motivate the audience to act, and to write a caption for the photograph that includes a call to action.

Some examples of photographer that telling the story of their own work can be found online at PBS NewsHour Extra:

  • Tags:

    Arts & CulturePhotographyPoliticsScience

  • Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

    Grades 6–12

    Key Ideas and Details
    1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
    2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

    Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
    7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

    Text Types and Purposes
    2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

    Production and Distribution of Writing
    4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

    Research to Build and Present Knowledge
    7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
    8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

    Comprehension and Collaboration
    1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

    Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
    4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

    Visual-Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

    Grade 6

    Artistic Perception
    1.2–Discuss works of art as to theme, genre, style, idea, and differences in media.
    Creative Expression
    2.5–Select specific media and processes to express moods, feelings, themes, or ideas.
    Aesthetic Valuing
    4.1–Construct and describe plausible interpretations of what they perceive in works of art.

    Grade 7
    Creative Expression
    2.6–Create original artwork using film, photography, computer graphics, or video.
    2.7–Create a series of artworks that expresses a personal statement demonstrating skill in applying the elements of art and the principles of design.

    Grade 8
    Artistic Perception
    1.2–Analyze and justify how their artistic choices contribute to the expressive quality of their artwork.
    Creative Expression
    2.3–Create original artwork, using film, photography, computer graphics, or video.
    Historical and Cultural Context
    3.1–Examine and describe or report on the role of artwork created to make a social comment or protest social conditions.

    Grades 9-12
    Artistic Perception
    1.5–Analyze the materials used by a given artist and describe how their use influences the meaning of the work.
    Creative Expression
    2.6–Create a two- or three-dimensional artwork that addresses a social issue.
    Historical and Cultural Context
    3.3–Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the diverse issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected artworks.
    Aesthetic Valuing
    4.5–Employ the conventions of art criticism in writing and speaking about artworks.

    National Standards for Visual Arts

    Grades 5-8

    1. Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
    Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas.
    3. Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols, and Ideas
    Students use subjects, themes, and symbols that demonstrate knowledge of contexts, values, and aesthetics that communicate intended meaning in artworks.

    Grades 9-12
    1. Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
    Students apply media, techniques, and processes with sufficient skill, confidence, and sensitivity that their intentions are carried out in their artworks.
    4. Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures
    Students analyze relationships of works of art to one another in terms of history, aesthetics, and culture, justifying conclusions made in the analysis and using such conclusions to inform their own art making.
    5. Reflecting upon and Assessing the Characteristics and Merits of Their Work and the Work of Others
    Students describe meanings of artworks by analyzing how specific works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural contexts.

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