Materials | Photographs printed in advance (see list below), blank sheets of paper, computers with Internet access and projectors, cameras Overview | In a world where digital cameras and amateur photos are as ubiquitous as the cell phones that carry them, has photojournalism lost impact? Or has the proliferation of images only made us more receptive to, and appreciative of, professional work? In this lesson, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Iraq war, students look at and respond to photos of fallen soldiers’ bedrooms. They then create and present creative photo essays.
Note to Teacher | This lesson begins with a series of images of bedrooms left behind by fallen soldiers who served in Iraq. We imagine that you and your students will be as moved by them as we are. Reading the introductory essay aloud before students see the photographs may be enough preparation, but gauge your students’ reactions, pausing where necessary to talk through, perhaps one on one, any powerful emotions that arise.
And as always, we would love to hear from you. How do you teach with photographs? What strategies do you use to prepare students for potentially upsetting material? How do you know when to regroup?
Warm-up | Before students arrive, print out some or all of the photos from the photo essay “The Shrine Down the Hall.” Post them around your room, numbering each image, and put a blank sheet of paper underneath each one. When students arrive, tell them that the photographs they will look at today were published just as the United States military was marking its seventh year in Iraq.
Before students circulate to look closely at the photos, read aloud to them the short essay “War Memorials with Neatly Made Beds.” Then provide guiding questions for them to consider as they examine the photos: What can you tell about the person who lived in each room? How? What do you feel as you look at each room? What do you notice most about each room, and why? How does knowing that the rooms were occupied by soldiers who have died shape your experience of the photos? How does each photograph memorialize the life, not the death, of each soldier, as photographer Ashley Gilbertson contends?
Ask them to jot down their responses to these questions and any other ideas that jump out at them, both in their notebooks or journals and on the sheets of paper that accompany the pictures.
When everyone has seen and responded to all the pictures, lead a discussion that focuses on students’ reactions to the images. Then ask: How do you think your experience seeing these rooms be different if instead of a single still photo, the rooms were videotaped with the camera sweeping from one side to the other? Do you think you would notice the same things? How might the mood be different? What if they were in color instead of black and white? Why do you think Ashley Gilbertson chose to use still photography and to work in black and white?
To delve further into war photography, repeat this activity using some or all of these iconic images from other wars in which the U.S. fought:
American Civil War – Portrait of a Civil War Soldier (circa 1862), Lincoln and Troops at Antietam (1862), Federal Dead on the Field of Battle of First Day(1863), Alexandria (1863), Rebel Works (1866).
World War II – At Work on the Homefront (1942), D-Day (1944), Flying Fortress (1944), Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945), Times Square, V-J Day (1945), The Kiss (1945), V-E Day Celebration in Times Square (1945),Nuclear Test Cloud in Pacific (1946)
Vietnam – U.S. Presence Felt in Vietnam (1950), Widows’ Walk (1968), War Veterans Protest the War (1971), Protesters Burn Draft Cards (1972), The Fall of Saigon (1975), Saigon Airport (1975), Soldiers at Vietnam Memorial (1988)
Finish the warm-up activity by asking students to talk about or post to our Student Opinion question about the power of still photographs, drawing on either those they have just seen, photos they have taken or which are displayed in their homes.
You might also ask about the modern tendency to photograph virtually everything—friends, concerts, celebrities, funny or unusual things seen on the street, even plates of food in restaurants. Ask: How do you explain the urge to document life by photographing it?
Related | In “What the Still Photo Still Does Best,” Hank Klibanoff weighs how—and whether—the quality of photojournalism has changed as droves of amateur photographers/videographers have begun to post their work and “compete” with professionals. Klibanoff writes:
Today, everyone with a cellphone is a photographer/videographer and streaming video has become a national obsession. But has the proliferation of images devalued photojournalism and dulled its influence? […]
Meanwhile, the surge in the number of photos and videos from nonprofessionals gives news outlets more eyes on news. Editors are busier than ever sorting through citizen offerings of earthquakes, tornadoes, riots and, of course, dogs dressed up for St. Patrick’s Day, and then confirming the veracity of those from politicized situations.
Read the entire article with your students, using these questions:
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- Who was Charles Moore?
- What does Hank Klibanoff call a “golden era of photojournalism”? Why?
- What are the pros and cons of having so many nonprofessionals submitting images to news outlets?
- Who was Neda Agha Soltan, and how did a photo of her spread around the world?
- What does Brian Storm call the “cornerstone” of photojournalism?
Activity | Have students choose one (or more) of Ashley Gilbertson’s photographs to write about in the genre of their choice—personal essay, critique, poem, story, monologue, etc.
Encourage them to find their own direction, as some students may be drawn to building characters based on the items in the bedrooms, others may want to work with the idea of photographs offering glimpses into lives that other forms (news articles, videotaped interviews, etc.) do not. Some may even want to write about the portfolio as a whole, perhaps taking on the idea that these are, as photographer Ashley Gilbertson calls them, war photographs.
When students are ready, give them the opportunity to share their writing with the class and the reasons why they made the choices they did. Then lead a wrap-up discussion. Ask: How do still photographs tell stories? What was it like to try to express or capture in words some of the ideas that you had about these images? How did the writing process, and listening to what your classmates wrote, shift your experience of the photos?
Going Further | Students create their own photo essays. accompanied by an introductory essay that outlines what the portfolio hopes to accomplish.
Here are some ideas:
- Take a cue from Gilbertson and photograph places such as bedrooms, classrooms or car interiors rather than people.
- Or, find creative ways of obscuring people’s faces for a certain purpose or effect.
- Photograph the happenings at a large gathering, such as a concert, political event or shopping mall.
- Capture people’s faces after they have completed or accomplished something, such as taking the S.A.T. or driver’s test, playing an important concert or game, auditioning for a play, running a race, and so on.
Plan a gallery opening or photo show in which all students’ portfolios are presented. If space allows, display each students’ portfolio along with his or her introductory essay. If you have the technology on hand, you might instead present an evening of slide shows, in which students read their essays aloud before their photos are projected. (With this option, you can upload the portfolios to your school’s Web site.)
Ending the event with a panel discussion in which student photographers talk about the enduring power of the still photograph, allowing time for questions from the audience.
Standards | From McREL, for grades 6-12:
1. Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts
2. Knows how to use structures (e.g., sensory qualities, organizational principles, expressive features) and functions of art
3. Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts
4. Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
5. Understands the characteristics and merits of one’s own artwork and the artwork of others
9. Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional democracy
10. Understands the roles of voluntarism and organized groups in American social and political life
11. Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society
13. Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity
14. Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life
19. Understands what is meant by “the public agenda,” how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
3. Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media
1. Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
2. Understands the historical perspective
31. Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States