Social Sundays: Photos for Primary Source Analysis

Primary sources are a valuable way to explore and understand an event or period.  I love to share actual letters and documents with students, and pictures, too. 

Recently, my students were investigating the Great Depression. The photos from that era paint a powerful image that can be just as or even more powerful than the descriptions of the breadlines or Hooverville shacks.

I collected a group of pictures from the Great Depression. I set them up with a primary source analysis activity at a station. 

Students selected two of the photos to analyze. The purpose here was twofold: 

  1. To introduce students to the reality of the Great Depression and 
  2. To have students think about what story the photos tell us about a period in our history.

We could have stopped there, but there was definite interest in exploring these and more photos. One of the project options for the unit was to create a story of the Great Depression with photos. The rest was pretty much up to students - and as always, I love to see what students come up with. There were posters and timelines and photo journals. And while I can't share them all, I did get permission to share this work in progress photo movie that one pair of students created.  These are the individual frames.

Of course, photos, drawings and artwork are wonderful primary analysis tools. How do students use photos in your class for primary source analysis?  Join the discussion in the comments section below.

Social Sundays is a weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message on Facebook or at the store in the question and answer section. 



  1. I really like your idea! Primary sources are so important. Our district has created a research project to meet our state research standards where students have 50 primary sources to view and they narrow down to 3 images that catch their attention. They then research one of their three to create a book page for our class "Pivotal Moments in History" book we compile.

    I have a couple of activities for students to access and analyze primary sources. I use "History Mysteries" as a framework to give students a reason to dive into these sources and look for clues to solve a problem. One of these mysteries has students looking at a dozen different primary and secondary sources surrounding the Trail of Tears. I use photos and printed versions of other documents including paintings, journal entries, newspaper articles from the time, land deeds, etc. I do not tell the students what is going on and I usually get them hooked by showing them a photo or image where they aren't sure what is happening. They then get to travel to stations (or you can have the documents travel to the teams for less chaos) and they look for more clues to put the story together. By the end, we have information from various perspectives on a specific historical event. I do this with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory as well.

    Another primary source activity I enjoy doing is my Harlem Renaissance Art Show where I have 6 artists featured for students to experience. I set up two listening stations for students to hear music from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, I have paintings by two visual artists, and I put out a few poems by Langston Hughes and others. I also include a short biography about each artist with their photograph. The questions I give students are more open ended to allow them to experience the art.

    I feel having these kinds of activities is really important- the primary documents are the evidence of what truly happened. Students also need practice in reading older script writing. Many of our kids are not learning to write in cursive and so it's more difficult for them to read some of our nation's older documents. Presenting those primary sources in addition to photos and pictures is one way I make sure my students are exposed to the script and language used by those who came before us.

    1. That district research project is awesome! What a great way to use images and get students to connect with them!

  2. There are so many powerful images from the Great Depression for students to connect with!

    Many years ago a colleague got approval to use department funds to purchase sets of primary source images from Jackdaw Publications. We had sets of 12 large images (17” x 22”) for various topics, one of which was the Great Depression. Each image had a description at the bottom.

    One activity we’d do with these was a photographic analysis. Students would be arranged into small groups, with each group receiving an image with the description covered up. After they wrote their thoughts, they would uncover the description to see if their analysis was close to what was in the description. Then they’d switch images with another group and analyze another photograph. We usually did this a total of at least three times.


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