Reading Science History Through Photographs
From YouTube videos to memes, from graphs to diagrams, a lot of the information we take in every day comes from pictures. The process of reading images is called visual literacy. Academics define visual literacy as “set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media.” (Lundy and Stephens, 2014). Reading images is a critical skill not just for life, but also for researching and writing captivating nonfiction.
Every book I’ve written has required analyzing and interpreting photos or videos. That’s where I glean juicy details, especially about characters and settings. Writing a scene is certainly easier if I can picture it in my mind.
Today, I want to focus on reading just one type of primary source — the photograph. Many of the books on this month’s book list are illustrated using archival photographs. For example, Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America has an entire photo album in the back matter.
Likewise, THE 1918 FLU PANDEMIC: Core Events of a Worldwide Outbreak by John Mickols, Jr. features many historic images from the 1918 flu pandemic, including those sourced from the Library of Congress (LOC) or the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
And here’s the good news: many of those LOC and NARA images can be found online. If you go to LOC.gov and search for 1918 and influenza, you’ll find dozens of historic images you can review with your students. Or click here to access my search. At the NARA, find 1918 influenza images here.
Activity – Reading Historic Photographs
This activity will help your students learn to read historic photographs, glean useful details, and interpret them.
First, select a historic photo, perhaps from one of the collections mentioned above.
Next, review the Library of Congress’s Teachers Guide for analyzing historic photographs. You’ll find that here. The LOC encourages students to work through a three-step process. Those steps are:
- Observing – noting details from the photo
- Reflecting – generating and testing hypotheses about the image
- Questioning – asking questions that lead to more observations and reflections.
Students could work on this activity individually, in small groups, or as a whole class.
Once you’ve analyzed your photo, consider how you could use the information you discovered in a piece of nonfiction writing.