Photographic Memory: Using Historical Images to Improve Student Learning
Photographic Memory: Using Historical Images to Improve Student Learning

When I was an undergraduate in the mid- to late-1990s, none of my history professors used images in the classroom. Looking back, this does not surprise me. The Internet was relatively new then, and there were few sites on which to obtain historical images.

Some educators and librarians were pioneering the use of digital resources during this period, but most colleges lacked the “smart” classrooms that today allow professors to easily project images. By the 2000s, when I was in graduate school, most of the professors I worked with still did not use images to teach undergraduates.

Fortunately, the classroom of my college years is becoming increasingly rare. The last decade has seen an explosion of available historical images on the Internet and their use in many kinds of classrooms.

The Library of Congress’s American Memory Project has millions of images available online. Websites such as Picturing U.S. History have been developed to help educators incorporate images into their classes. Computer stations, projectors, smart boards, and tablets are now abundant. As a result, it has become much easier to incorporate images into college history courses.

Historians are discovering the tremendous pedagogical usefulness of images as well. As James H. Madison points out, images keep class discussion focused and students engaged. He writes that he is “still amazed at how enduringly powerful images are for students,” adding that he “never walk[s] into a classroom without a picture.”1

Like Madison, I have been impressed with the educational impact of images. Photographs of Germans in the 1920s burning money for fuel or using it as wallpaper illustrate the crisis of hyperinflation in a way that no lecture or book passage can. A postcard celebrating the grisly lynching of an African American man highlights the racism and brutality of the Jim Crow era and serves as a horrific counterpoint to a quotation in which a white politician calls African Americans “savages.” It’s clearly the white mob that is acting savagely in the image.

To effectively use images in the classroom, professors must choose ones that will attract student interest but which are also closely linked to that day’s learning objectives. Rapidly cycling through a series of slides with no classroom discussion is not going have much of an impact on students.2 Professors should also provide the appropriate historical context and formulate questions about the image that will stimulate class discussion.

When I use photographs in the classroom, one of my goals is to counteract a common misconception among students that photographs are more trustworthy than printed texts. For example, I show the same Soviet-era photograph before and after one of Stalin’s advisors was purged. In the post-purge version this individual has mysteriously disappeared. We then discuss how much easier it would be to alter photos today using Photoshop.

Photos that have not been doctored can also reflect a certain agenda or point of view. For example, in “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph from the Great Depression, the photographer chose to exclude scattered luggage and an older daughter from the frame, both of which might raise questions about the family’s judgment and discipline. Instead, Lange focused on the despair etched on the mother’s face.3

An even more powerful way of incorporating images into a course is to bring students to an archives. Being able to examine a primary source rather than simply viewing an electronic image on a screen pushes students to consider the photograph as a physical artifact and as a picture. In my US history survey, my students visit the archives to analyze several photographs of Coney Island from its heyday in the early 20th century and from the 1980s, a period of significant decline.

One of the photographic formats we encounter is the tintype, a positive image created on a thin sheet of iron. In the archives, students are able to carefully handle these fragile objects. This provides an opportunity to discuss how Coney Island isn’t the only thing that has changed over the past century; photographic techniques and technologies have as well. If I were to simply project images of the tintypes onto a screen in the classroom, students might not make these connections.

Students tell me that another advantage of visiting the archives it is that it makes the topic they are studying seem more “real” to them. As one student wrote, “to see and hold history in my hand … was just amazing.”4

Looking back on the classes I’ve taught over the past few years, some of my most revelatory teaching moments have happened when my students interact with photographs in the archives. Many of my best classroom discussions have come about as a result of showing the class an image. Like Professor Madison, I try to never walk into a classroom without one.

1) James H. Madison, “Teaching with Images,” Magazine of History vol. 18, no. 2 (January 2004): 67.

2) Madison, 67.

3) Jennifer Keene et al., Visions of America: A History of the United States, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2012), 673.

4) Student blog post, “Primary Sources,” March 2, 2012.

To cite this page:
Eric Platt, “Photographic Memory: Using Historical Images to Improve Student Learning,”, accessed [insert date here],


Eric Platt
Assistant Professor of History
St. Francis College
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