Gone are the days when history was a subject researched and studied through textual sources only. Although text-based sources are still very important, the visual image also now has pride of place in the American history classroom.
Photographs, cartoons, paintings and other artisitc media and film all convey messages about what life was like in the past. There are also problems to be faced when interpreting the messages of each.
An example is the study of the histroy of Native Americans. Visual imagery is an excellent way of expanding our understanding of the prejudice faced by Native Americans in the last 400 years.
Photographs such as this one of the Wounded Knee massacre can enhance students understanding of the horrors of this event because they tell its story like a thousand words never could.
However, there are problems in interpreting old photos that students need to be ware of. Too often they believe that photos are presented to them as fact with no need for analysis.
They need to think who’made’ the photo: the photographer or the person who published it. They also need to ask about the values implicit in the photo. Why was that particular shot thaken? Why not another one? Is this a white American spin on native life, or a genuine impression of native life?
If we are to encourage students to movebeyond understanding photos as illustration and towards understanding them as sources in their own right, we must get them to ask these difficult questions about meaning and significance.