Reading a Photograph (or, Being a History Detective)


Reading a Photograph (or, Being a History Detective)


What can an old photograph tell us about history? Plenty! Photographs hold a wealth of information about what life was like in the past. In this lesson, students must act like sleuths and uncover the clues!

Photographs can be “read” just like any other historical document. There is the factual information (who? what? where?) and what is readily visible. Then there are the decisions behind why the photo appears the way it does, and the broader context of its creation. Analyzing a photograph requires students to observe closely, pose questions and make hypotheses, and then synthesize their observations and reflections in the context of what they already know about history.

The lesson packet above includes activities, examples, and worksheet.


Maine Contemporary Archives Collaborative




Speaking & Listening
Visual Literacy

Grade Levels

Elementary School
Middle School


English Language Arts--Reading: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas--Standard 11
English Language Arts--Speaking & Listening: Comprehension and Collaboration--Standard 1
English Language Arts--Speaking & Listening: Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas--Standard 3
Social Studies--History--Standard 1 (F1, D1)


Practice analyzing and interpreting a historical photograph
Compare and contrast historical and contemporary primary sources
Create a primary source record of daily life in the present


Document: an item that contains evidence or information
Primary source: material that contains firsthand information about people, places, events, and time periods


Access to the internet or a printout of questions and examples
Materials to create a primary source; this can be done digitally (cell phone or camera) or offline (pen & paper, art supplies)


Students can work collaboratively with a friend or family member.
Activities can be tech-heavy, tech-free, or mixed.
Analog submissions can be photographed or scanned and submitted by teacher or parent.


The J. Paul Getty Museum: Exploring Photographs Curriculum
Maine Historical Society: Maine Memory Network

Lesson Plan Text

Step 1: Reading a Historical Photograph

Review the definitions with your students.

Lead your students through a discussion of the historical photograph News Office Storefront, Portland, ca. 1918 without showing them the title or description.

Here are some questions to consider (also available as the Reading a Photograph Worksheet):


  • What do you notice first when looking at the photo?
  • Describe the setting and any people, objects, and activities you see.
  • Is there any textual information present in the photo? Draw student’s attention to the posters displayed in the window.
  • Is there any evidence about the photo as a physical object? Notice the fingerprints and writing that are visible on the image.


  • What choices did the photographer make? Consider composition, focus, and perspective.
  • What do these choices reveal about the photo’s purpose or photographers point of view? 
  • When might the photo have been created? What evidence can you use as clues? Clothing, information in posters, cobbled sidewalk, black-and-white format, etc.
  • What story does the photo tell?


  • Why do you think this photo was created? What makes you think so?
  • What can we learn about life in the past from studying this photo?
  • Who is missing in this photo? Encourage students to think about what experiences are included or left out of the historical record.
  • What questions does it leave you with? What do students want to know more about?
  • What other primary sources could you find to help answer those questions?

Step 2: Comparing Past and Present

Show students the full description of the photograph. Ask if this new information changes their understanding.

What is pictured in the historical photo that is similar to today? What is different?

Have students compare and contrast the historical photograph with a contemporary example: Inaugural Hug, from Isolating Together: Portland Public Library

What does the contemporary photo reveal about how we get the news today, and what has changed since 1918?

Step 3: Creating a Primary Source

Ask your students to take a picture of something in their daily life that shows how they or their parents get news and understand what is happening in the world. Alternatively, students can illustrate this with words or images.

Invite students to share the primary sources they have created with the class, and to submit them to a Maine Contemporary Archives project to share with their community. Also, by doing so, they will be preserved for future researchers to discover! (Use this list to find a participating library near you.) Each project has its own Terms and Conditions for contributions; get in touch if you have any questions!


Maine Contemporary Archives Collaborative, “Reading a Photograph (or, Being a History Detective),” Maine Contemporary Archives, accessed February 22, 2024,

Output Formats