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The EvidenceWeb

Decoding Photographs

By Laura McCoy, visual arts teacher

Ideas: Representation and Interpretation
Decoding the Photograph: Questions to Ask
Resources: Websites of Interest

Ideas: Representation and Interpretation

Photographs are a useful primary source of information and can teach us a great deal about historical events. A photograph is a representation of something real; at the same time, it is something created by the photographer. It is never a neutral representation. A photograph reflects the codes, values, beliefs and culture of the photographer, as well as time during which it was created. The meaning we find in a photograph is similarly influenced by our culture, values and beliefs. When using a photograph for historical research, the viewer must take an active role in its interpretation. This is a decoding, rather than a passive act of looking.

Decoding the Photograph: Questions to Ask

To decode a photograph, it is useful to follow a methodical process consisting of four stages: describing, analyzing, interpreting and evaluating.

In describing the photograph, you must first make note of as much essential, factual information as is available. Does the photograph have a title? Who is the photographer? When and where was the photograph taken? Look at the subject matter and describe it as clearly as you can. Are there people in the photograph? Is it a landscape? Does it show the country or the city? List as many facts as you can. Finally, look at the elements of design: colour, line, shape, value, form, space and texture. How are these used in the photograph?

The photographer makes certain decisions about how the photograph will be composed, and about when and where it will be taken. In analyzing the photograph, look at some of these decisions and consider why they were made. First, what can you learn from the clues in the photo? What draws your eye immediately? Also, look closely at other perhaps less significant, details. What information can they give you?

If there are people in the photograph, what kind of clothes are they wearing? How old do the people appear to be? What do you think the relationships between the people are? What do facial expressions and body language suggest?

What is going on in the background? Do you see any writing in the photo (signs, or posters, for example)? Are there recognizable buildings or landmarks? What time of day does it seem to be? Think about overall mood or feeling. Finally, how do the various elements work together?

In interpreting the photograph, use the information that you have discovered through your description and analysis to draw conclusions about the photograph. Can you now say exactly what is happening in the photograph? What is the photographer trying to say; that is, what is the intent of the photographer? Why was the picture taken at this time? Why did the photographer select this angle?

Consider what is in the picture and what is left out. A photographer uses the boundaries of the photograph as a frame. There is always a conscious decision to focus on some things and leave other things out. How do these decisions affect the meaning?

At this point, you might need to look at outside information. Do some research in order to discover the historical context of the photograph. Was it staged or spontaneous? What was happening in the world at the time? Think about the time period when the photograph was taken. Does the meaning of the photograph change when we look at it now, compared to when it was created? Think critically; do not simply accept the image as a true representation of something that actually happened.

The final stage of your decoding is an evaluation. What do you think about the work? Make a judgment about the value, the significance and the importance of the photograph. Is the photograph useful to you in terms of your historical research? What does it add to your knowledge of the subject? Base this on the earlier information you have gained.


If you look at some photographs, you can begin to see how these decoding tools might be used. Examine the first photograph, "Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, 1929." Ask yourself some questions. Where do you think this photograph was taken? What are the girls doing? Look carefully at the lines in the photograph. Where do they converge and what significance does this have? What is a residential school? Why do you think that this photograph was taken, and for whom?

Next, take a look at "Immigrant children from Dr. Barnardo's homes at landing stage, Saint John, N.B." Who do you think these children were? Why were they coming to Canada? Look at their clothing. What does this tell you about the time period? Look at the lines in the photograph. Where is your eye drawn? How is this photograph similar to "Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic Shubenacadie Indian Residential School"? What are the differences?

Examine the photograph "The Leader, the first newspaper in the Territory of Assiniboia, founded by Nicholas Flood Davin in 1883." The photograph was taken in 1885. What does the photograph tell you about Saskatchewan at the time? What can you find out about Canada at the time? Look at the surroundings. What is the landscape like? Why do you think the photographer chose that particular angle to take the picture from? Think about the prominence of the sky and the effect this has on the mood of the photograph.

Look closely at the photograph "Rideau Street, north side looking west, Ottawa, Ontario, 1898."

If you have ever been to Ottawa, think of how the city is different today. Think about the buildings, transportation, and the amount of space. What buildings do you see in the photograph? Can you identify any of them? Are any of them still there today? Do you think that this was a posed photograph or a spontaneous one? What time of day do you think this is? Look at the shadows. What kind of action is happening in the photograph? Find an old photograph of your city or town. Compare it with how your city or town looks today.

This photograph in a locket is a daguerreotype of John A. Macdonald. What is a daguerreotype? When do you think that this photograph was taken? Why was it taken? As the photograph is contained within a locket, this is probably a personal, intimate photograph, rather than a public one. To whom do you think the locket may have belonged?

The photograph, "Quebec Harbour Commission's lifting barge, June, July and August 1877," shows a portion of the barge as it appeared with the net of anchors and chains raised. What would a barge like this have been used for? Look at the details of the boat. What effect does the close-up of the anchors and chains have? What other details do you see in the photograph? Look carefully at the people on the barge and at the building in the background.

Look at the photograph, "Bobby Leach and his barrel after his perilous trip over Niagara Falls, 25th July, 1911." Where do you think that this photograph was taken? Is it a studio shot or was it taken on location? What effect does the background have on the feeling of the photograph? Why is Leach posed as he is? What can you find out about this event? What would the contemporary newspapers have reported about the event?

Having studied these examples, you now have some tools that will assist you with in using photographs as primary sources. Remember to look carefully and to ask questions!

Resources: Websites of Interest

Framing Canada: A Photographic Memory. A virtual exhibition and searchable database of digitized photographs. Library and Archives Canada.
(accessed September 16, 2005)

For Teachers

On Reading Photos

Chandler, Daniel. Reading the Visual. The University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Tête à Tête: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Teacher Resource Materials. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

History of Photography

The American Museum of Photography.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Greenspun, Philip. History of Photography Timeline. Photo.net.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Leggat, Robert. A History of Photography: from Its Beginnings till the 1920s.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

For Students

On Reading Photos

McDowell, Dan. Photographs: A Process Guide for Students. Learn NC: The North Carolina Teachers' Network.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Thibault, Melissa, and David Walbert. Reading Photographs. Learn NC: The North Carolina Teachers' Network.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

On the Specific Photographs

"Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, 1929"

Fisher, Amy, and Deborah Lee. Native Residential Schools in Canada: A Selected Bibliography. Library and Archives Canada.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Mi'kmaq Portraits Collection. Nova Scotia Museum.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Paul, Daniel N. Twentieth-Century Education for Native Americans: Residential Schools.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

"Immigrant children from Dr. Barnardo's homes at landing stage, Saint John, N.B"

Barnardo's: History.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Thomas John Barnardo ('the doctor'). Infed.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

"The Leader, the first newspaper in the Territory of Assiniboia, founded by Nicholas Flood Davin in 1883"

"Davin, Nicholas Flood". The Canadian Encyclopedia.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Monuments and Memorials: Nicholas Flood Davin. Wascana Park.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

"Rideau Street, north side looking west, Ottawa, Ontario, 1898"

Heritage Ottawa.
(accessed May 3, 2005)

"John A. Macdonald"

"Sir John A. Macdonald". Canada History.com
(accessed May 3, 2005).

"Sir John A. Macdonald". Canadian Confederation. Library and Archives Canada.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

"Sir John A. Macdonald". Top Ten Greatest Canadians. CBC.ca.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

"Quebec Harbour Commission's lifting barge, June, July and August 1877"

The Québec Harbour. Saint-Laurent Vision 2000.

(accessed May 3, 2005).

Québec Port Authority. Info Source.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

"Bobby Leach and his barrel after his perilous trip over Niagara Falls, 25th July, 1911"

Dare Devils: Bobby Leach. Info Niagara.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Daredevils of Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls Live.
(accessed May 3, 2005).

Bobby Leach. Niagara Falls Public Library.
(accessed May 3, 2005).