The Power of Photo Essays

I have just started teaching a unit on media, specifically social documentaries. So far we have studied the important work of American photographer Dorothea Lange related to the rise and significance of “concerned photography” (also known as “compassionate photography”). Students have engaged deeply with the photos and answered questions adapted from New York Times Critical Lenses guide such:

  • What feelings does this photograph create for you, the viewer?
  • How personal/impersonal is this photo? What elements make it this way?
  • Why do you think this photograph was taken?
  • Is this photo timely? Does it have a timeless quality? Why or why not?

Photos of Lange’s we analyzed in class:

Migrant Mother, Photographed By: Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother, Photographed By: Dorothea Lange
Richmond, CA Photographed By: Dorothea Lange
Richmond, CA Photographed By: Dorothea Lange

Beyond studying the background of photo journalism, students will learn  the basic principles of photography (e.g., rule of thirds, movement, lines, etc.). Following this, students will have the opportunity to create their own social documentary in the form of a photo essay. Students are still thinking through topics, but they are to tell an “untold story” from their lives. Topics which we have brainstormed so far have included: The shifting landscape of the Regent Park neighbourhood in Toronto, Canada; Cultural traditions of the First Nations people in Ontario, Canada; and A Day in the Life of the Pan Am Games 2015.

I am looking forward to seeing what stories students decide to tell. I will keep you posted on the process! I am learning so much along with my students!

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