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Reading Photographs


Long before Photoshop and other image-editing tools, artists, photographers, and composers were manipulating images. We still live in a culture and world where we want to assume that cameras provide us with an objective truth. Dorothea Lange


We want our students to understand that readers are always thinking. This is true whether they are reading a novel, a comic or a photograph. We are able to read photographs just like we read other kinds of texts. 

Here, we look at some ideas for using photographs to support the development of effective reading strategies. 


Asking Questions

Good readers ask questions. We can use different types of photographs (such as advertising, news, and snapshots) to help students understand the role that questioning plays in making meaning.

A photograph is a construction not a reflection of the truth. The photographer uses the camera to construct the message he or she wants to communicate for a variety of purposes. In order to read the photograph, the students must be able to understand the purpose and recognize the techniques that have been used.

Purposes include:

  • to hold a memory

  • to influence or promote
  • to inform or advertise
  • to persuade
  • to entertain
  • to create an emotional response
  • to send a cultural or social message
  • to provoke a response or a move to take some kind of action

The purpose determines the way the photograph is constructed in order to convey a particular message. Changing the purpose, changes the message. 

Students need to be asking questions as they deconstruct, analyze, interpret and produce images if they are to become critically literate.

Possible questions for analyzing visual media include the following.

  • Who created the image?
  • Why was it made? What is its purpose?
  • Who might like this message? Why?
  • What do you notice about the way the message is constructed e.g. the colours, lighting, characters, etc.?
  • What is omitted from the message that might be important? (Other ideas, information, points of view, etc.)
  • How might other people view the message differently e.g. a single mother with 3 small children, a lonely widower who loves dogs?


Critical Literacy

Two photos with different points of view are examined from a critical stance.

Examining the photos helps students see that photos are never neutral. They are created in such a way as to influence the viewer to a particular point of view or bias. We want to help the students see beyond the bias and understand that photographers create the perspectives that are represented. They can then decide whether or not they agree with this perspective.

Adapted from McLauglin & DeVoogd 2004


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