Story Activity


An old photograph provides a basis for discussion about life in the past, and demonstrates the value of photos as primary resources.


Students will:

  • understand that photographs represent primary source material
  • recognize that photos record details about the past and can be used for interpretive and comparative purposes


  • social studies, photographic arts
  • observation, deduction, inference, comparison, interviewing

Age Level

Grades 4 – 8


  • copies of the student worksheet
  • old photos brought from home
  • paper and pencil

Time Required

Allow one hour to prepare for this activity and 1-2 class periods to complete it.


Photographs are a form of artistic expression and human record that modern people understand very well.  They are used to capture peoples’ lifestyles, special or historic events, candid activities, familial and social relations, artistic feelings and even criminal deeds.  Photographs of peoples who do not, or did not keep written records sometimes provide a primary source of information about those cultures.  A century ago, when having one’s picture taken was a rare experience, people often posed with serious and formal expressions—creating the impression that people were a little dour.

For modern researchers who use photographs to glean details about the past, the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” could not be more accurate.  Despite their seeming objectivity, historic photos must be studied carefully and critically.  While many scenes and events have been recorded because a photographer was “in the right place at the right time,” more often photographs are, or have been, taken with purpose, forethought, and composition in mind.  It is the photographer, through his or her positioning of the camera’s eye, who defines a picture’s content and determines what will be included or omitted in a scene.  Thus, when a photo is used as a primary source, it should be augmented by other information.  Knowing who took the photo; who requested it; and the identity of the subject(s) can shed additional light on the content and meaning of the image.  Documents, artifacts, oral histories, and personal papers or records also can help to place a photograph into a larger pattern of events or behaviors and give it greater validity.

Historical archaeologists use old photographs in many ways.  For example, by determining the earlier appearance of an area, including the landscape and structures, an archaeologist can anticipate and better interpret features found during an excavation.  Photographic images also help to identify fragments of recovered objects that may appear intact in a photo.

Photographs are a particularly vivid teaching device for students because they provide views of the past for people whose own history may be very short.  They can provide a source of inquiry and explanation; and, of course, they serve a lasting purpose by stimulating the visual and mental senses.

The photo accompanying this lesson was taken in the late 1870s to 1880s in front of the main house at Riverside, the Farnsley-Moremen Landing.  It shows Alanson and Rachel Moremen (seated in buggy), other family members, their preacher (who was visiting that day), and African-American servants or tenants.  After analyzing the photo, students will discuss how the family’s lifestyle compares to scenes in their own family and to the observations of elders whom students have interviewed.  They also will discuss how an old photograph might be useful to an archaeologist.


  1. Several days before the activity, assign students two tasks to complete.
    1. Ask them to talk to an elder relative or neighbor who has lived in the same area for many years and can describe some changes that he or she has witnessed over time.  As a group, the class might develop two or three questions to ask the subjects.  Students should make notes during or immediately after the conversation, and bring the notes to class for an activity.
    2. Ask students to find an old family photo to bring to class on the day of the activity.  The image can illustrate people, a place, or an event, but the scene should be as “unmodern” as possible.  Students should know details about their picture.
  2. Decide how students will be divided into two-person teams.  Make one copy of the student worksheet (pages  4-5) for each team.
  3. The day before the activity, remind students to bring their photos and interview notes to class.  Instruct them not to show their pictures to classmates.


  1. Open the activity with a brief discussion about photographs as primary sources of historical information.  Talk about photos as visual records of change over time, and how this might be useful to archaeologists and historians.  Invite students to share some of their interviewees’ comments about social or technological changes that they have witnessed.
  2. Divide students into teams and give each group three sheets of plain paper and a copy of the student worksheet, which will guide their analysis of the photograph.  Review worksheet instructions and tell students how long they will have to complete the task.  Their joint conclusions about the worksheet photo should be recorded on one piece of plain paper.
  3. When the teams have finished analyzing the photograph, lead a discussion about their observations and conclusions.  If necessary, draw their attention to such details, as the tool one man is holding, their dress and appearance, the buggy, and the age of the people.  Encourage students to make comparisons between the apparent lifestyle of the family in the photo, their own family, and the comments received from their interviewees.
  4. Ask students to exchange the personal photos brought from home with their partner and to use the worksheet and remaining sheets of paper to analyze the new image.  (They work independently on this task).
  5. When this is done, tell them to verify their conclusions through a second “source”—their partner—whom they interview for additional information.  If some worksheet questions still cannot be answered, the students should decide what other sources (parents, books, archives) might provide the missing details.
  6. Close the activity by inviting several volunteers to discuss their analyses, noting the information gleaned from the photo and their partner, and other possible sources of data.  Ask students as a group to discuss whether the content and meaning of the photos were easier to determine because an additional “source” (their partner) was available to provide details.

This lesson was adapted from The Archaeology and Public Education Newsletter Vol. 6 No. 1 1995-1996.  Lesson developed by K.C. Smith, Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee.

Student Worksheet


The way that people live and the equipment that they use changes constantly over time.  We can learn about people and activities of the past from old photographs.  However, when we study these images, we need to remember that the photographer probably had a specific idea in mind when she or he took the picture.  We have to ask ourselves these questions:

  • What does this photograph tell me?
  • Why did the photographer take this picture?
  • Is it a fair and accurate portrait of the past?

Examine the photograph above and answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper.

First Impressions

  1. What is your first impression about this photograph?  What seems to be happening in the picture?
  2. How would you describe the people (their age, clothing, expressions, relationship, economic status)?
  3. Make a list of the objects in the photograph.  Make another list of the kinds of technology that the people have or do not have (by today’s standards).
  4. When do you think the picture was taken (year, time of day)?  Where was it taken?  How can you tell?

Drawing Conclusions

  1. Why do you think the photo was taken?  Did the photographer have a message to share?
  2. What does the picture tell you about the past?
  3. What objects in the picture would survive over time?
  4. What questions do you have about the photograph?
  5. How could you get more information about the photograph and the time period in which it was taken?
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