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Writing Project 1: Worth a Thousand Words:  Photographs and the Stories they Tell

Due Tuesday January 30 in class and on Blackboard via Turn It In


During this assignment cycle you will develop skills that move you beyond surface-level responses, question your initial assumptions and stereotypes, and develop rich ideas with productive analytical potential.  You will work on hierarchizing your ideas and composing   strong thesis statements that unify your essays.



Sturken, Marita excerpt from Tangled Memories p19-26 (on Blackboard)

Van Agtmael, Peter “Why Facts Aren’t Always Truths in Photography” Time Magazine


Photo Archives:

Time Magazine  “The Most Influential Images of All Time”

CNN “25 of the Most Iconic Photos”



In our diagnostic we began thinking about the ways the history we were taught is not made up of events fixed in the past; rather, curriculum and standards evolve.  They can be mobilized to support a particularly ideology or shaped to suit a particular interest.  In the curricular controversy described our Springboard essay we read how some critics felt we should teach AP History by valuing the country’s accomplishment and bolstering patriotism so we might motivate students to serve our country’s highest ideals.  Others argued we should critically unearth hypocrisies and reveal the darker side of our nation’s past. The parties in this debate understand that formal education standards and curriculums explicitly shape young minds’ attitude toward the United States.  Yet other, less formal mechanisms educate us about our historical legacy as well.  Visual images elicit powerful responses.  Marita Sturken argues that photographs “offer incomplete but often compelling versions of the past that often eclipse more in-depth historical accounts” (20).  Therefore we must develop skills that enable us to recognize, interpret and critique the way photos teach and communicate.


Writing Task:

Choose an iconic historical image from one of the archives provided. Answer the following prompt in a thesis driven 4-6 page essay:


Points to Consider:

  • Viewers’ responses to images are, of course, not monolithic. Our interpretation of any event, photograph or narrative is filtered through our identity and experiences; a recently arrived refugee will have a very different understanding of a photograph of war or refugees than a comfortably-situated middle class citizen.  So, for the sake of this assignment, our “viewer” can be the typical reader of Time Magazine, who, according to Time’s self-reported demographic material, tends to be a 50+ years of age, college-educated, middle-class American citizen. If you do want to engage with the idea that the typical viewer’s reception is restrictive or limiting, do so at some point in the essay.  It’s not required, but it could offer an evocative angle that complicates your thesis.


  • Do make sure to have a single and cohesive main point argued throughout your paper. Avoid listing traits and attributes.  Make a claim regarding the image’s overall attitude toward its historical subject.  Offer evidence from the image and explain how that evidence supports your claim.  How does your image’s composition work to communicate a message?


  • If you’re not entirely clear on the historical context of the photograph, do a bit of research. Do not do copious research, and cite it at length in your paper.  Just read around enough to acquire a bit of familiarity with the historical moment and its context.  Or conversely, choose another image with a context you’re more familiar with.


  • Pick apart the image. What does it focus on?  What grabs the viewers’ attention?  What is foregrounded?  What is in the background? Who is its audience?  If it’s in color, look at the color composition.  Examine the details as well.  Remember that while photographs seem to be factual representations of a historical moment, they are not an unmediated reflection.  They are both composed and curated.  Even in the days before digital photography, photojournalists still had editing tools at their disposal and hundreds of proofs to choose from.


  • Time Magazine and / or CNN have designated this photo to be “iconic.”  What do you think that means?  Spend some time reflecting on why this photograph is “iconic.”


  • Consider complexity. If there are aspects of your photograph that don’t fit within your overall argument or work against the message, attend to them as well.  Don’t gloss over, avoid, or overlook these complexities.


  • Do take care not to simply repeat the material / evaluation / assessment that Time or CNN have provided as background information.


Details:  This essay should be typed with one-inch margins in 12-point Times New Roman Font, double-spaced, stapled and have an original title.  Your essay and all of your pre-writing materials (including your image) need to be turned in at the beginning of class on 1/30 in a two-pocket folder.  Your essay also needs to be submitted electronically to Turn It In (via Blackboard) before class.

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