Old photographs can be rich primary sources for historical research and a great help in communicating the results of your research to others. But first you have to learn to:
- Look closely,
- Decipher the clues you find,
- Imagine the circumstances behind the photo, and
- Confirm your theory with more research.
Step 1: Identify
Observe every clue in your photo with this exercise:
- Look at the photo quietly for one full minute (you’ll be surprised how long that is!).
- Cover the photo and list everything you remember seeing.
- Uncover the photo and look again carefully. Correct any mistakes on your list and add anything you missed. Write down any inscriptions or captions that came with the photo.
Step 2: Interpret
Put words to what you are seeing, using only the evidence in the photo:
- What is happening in the photo?
- Who are the people in the photo? What are they doing? How are they dressed?
- Where was the photo taken? What buildings or landscapes are pictured?
- What objects are in the photo? How do they work?
- When was it taken? Year? Season? Time of day?
- Do they seem aware of having their photo taken? How might that affect the story behind the picture?
Step 3: Imagine
Imagine the “context” of the photo—outside its frame and instant of time:
- What do you think happened just before this photo was taken?
- What might be about to happen next?
- What do you imagine is outside the frame of the photo?
- Why do you think this photo was taken? What relationship, if any, does the photographer have to the people, place or event in the photo?
- What could the people in the photograph be thinking?
- How do you suppose they are feeling?
Step 4: Investigate
Verify the photo with other sources.
- What would you like to know that the photo does not tell you?
- How can you find more information to answer your questions about the photo?
- Where can you find information to help test whether your hypothesis about the photo is true?
When you get ready to use your photo in a research project, be sure to document it as you would any other primary source. If you must make a copy (for example, if the original is too fragile to be used for an exhibit or cannot leave an archive), be sure you tell when and where you looked at the photo.
Adapted from material ©1987 by Susan K. Donley. Used here by permission. All other rights reserved.