Photo Analysis: Photography as Literature

If your students struggle with literary analysis or moving beyond a superficial reading, you can move their thinking to the next level with Photo Analysis. When students encounter literature (especially the classics!), they sometimes believe like the threshold of entry is too high–like they need a college degree to “get it.” But when it’s a photograph? A song? A painting? An unconventional road to analysis convinces them you really will accept more than one right answer.

Once you’ve convinced them of that, it’s all about support.

You can integrate Photo Analysis into any unit. It validates visual learners and develops your students’ media literacy. Students can begin with historical perspectives and research before translating their skills to analyzing advertisements. This makes it a versatile type of analysis!

And it’s fun.

That’s right. If you’re looking for a last unit before holiday break, Photo Analysis is great for maintaining student engagement. Also, if you let them become the photographer, they’ll channel their winter excitement into art.

Before students learn the “lingo” for Photo Analysis, have them write quick responses to photos. You can choose anything (I love the site Pixabay for this!), but remember: you’re seeking to activate their critical instinct. What stands out in the photo? What do the colors make them feel? How does the photographer guide their eye?

You know how students need to learn the terms “foreshadowing” and “mood” before they can explain how an author develops these in text? Photographs are the same way! Our students are more sophisticated amateur photographers than any generation before them, but they still need the domain vocabulary. After you introduce saturation, they’ll understand how the filters on their phones or on Facebook manipulate it. Moving beyond just choosing a filter, they’ll articulate formal elements like line, texture, and movement.

In my unit, I also share two nonfiction readings to build foundational knowledge: The Psychology of Color and The Psychology of Perspective. [Here’s a FREE copy of The Psychology of Perspective–thanks for being a loyal Coffee Shop reader.] These two ideas are foundations of media literacy. I aim to transition students to analyzing advertising and propaganda, so understanding these ideas is crucial. As a quick research project, have students discover how (and why!) theme park designers use forced perspective. What a fascinating topic! This example clearly shows how we’re influenced by design.

I have students brainstorm broadly about things that stand out to them in a photo. We close read photos as we close read literature: What captures your attention? What aspects do you like best? Are there any elements you don’t understand? Students may need to research the photographer or time period to truly understand what’s happening in a photograph.

Once they’ve brainstormed, students pick one idea and transform it into a claim. 

For example, observe the following photograph. Students may claim that the girl climbing on the netting represents the child’s quest for independence from the parent. 

Once students have a claim, they go back and look at what they’ve noted through brainstorming. What formal elements support their claim? How can they ground their interpretation in the Elements of Art and the Principles of Design?

We can imagine that the texture represents difficulties and obstacles she may face. Additionally, the girl's line of sight leads us to believe she's more interested in the netting itself than looking at the photographer. Perhaps this signifies her desire to concentrate on her achievements, rather than her parents' perspectives on her achievements.

Students need practice and feedback. Luckily, this is an excellent opportunity for some collaboration and peer feedback. Also, collaboration means students keep more responsibility for their learning. Have students brainstorm about photographs in groups and present a group analysis. Or, have students complete independent analyses, but then exchange with a partner to discuss how to strengthen their claims.

Here’s a FREE introduction to Photo Analysis! If you're looking for a flexible unit to work in, you can find mine here. If you don’t have time to do the whole unit, you can still integrate Photo Analysis throughout the year. You can incorporate it as your students research–maybe they find a photograph from a historical era under study and analyze it as art. You could also have students find a photograph and write an analysis showing how it illustrates the themes of their independent reading. The possibilities are endless!

Here are some other resources from Coffee Shop Teachers that focus on out-of-the-box ways to help get students into analysis: 

Using Art to Analyze and Teach Literature (a blog post by The Daring English Teacher)
Photo Prompt Cards (using photographs to inspire creative writing by Addie Williams)
Video Analysis: This is America (by Tracee Orman)
Analyzing a Music Video FREEBIE (by Stacey Lloyd)

Happy teaching!

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