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Place, Community, and Representation in Photography

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Language Arts And English +7 Age Levels Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old)

Guiding Questions:

How do photographers represent places and other people? What is the goal?

What are the ethical considerations in that representation for photographers?

How can we use images and photography to convey a message and persuade?

How have photographers throughout history used their images to create social change?

How can media, especially photography, raise awareness for social problems and challenges?


The lesson will provide examples of how analyzing and creating documentary photographs can foster deep thinking about global and local issues. Additionally, students will consider how to use digital photography and other digital media tools to communicate ideas or persuade an audience. Students will look at photos from social reformer Jacob Riis who documented the poverty and poor living conditions of immigrants to New York City. His work led to social change and reforms. His images also raise questions about the ethics obtaining photos and representation. The collection also includes images from the Smithsonian’s “Down These Mean Streets” exhibit. Students will consider a view of New York life through documentary street photography and how place and city life are represented in photography.


Time- 1-2 class periods with optional extension activities

Day 1:

Warm Up/ Engagement:

Have students do a chalk talk on chart paper on the following terms:

immigration, urbanization, sweatshop or factory, New York City

These concepts will be important for students to consider and have some familiarity with prior to discussing the work on Jacob Riis.

Looking Closely:

Next, show a photograph from Jacob Riis using the Project Zero Global Thinking Routine, "The 3 Ys" to analyze the story the image tells about living conditions for immigrant workers in New York City.

Students should consider why someone might be taking this photograph and who the intended audience might be.

Additionally, students might read some primary sources from that period written by Jacob Riis or others about the living conditions for immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York in the late 1800s.

Next, have students consider or take on different perspectives in the image by drawing the scene to include the photographer.

Have students read the Smithsonian article about Riis and watch a short video about his life and work. Alternatively, there’s an article from the Click! exhibit on Riis that students can read about how photography changes our awareness of poverty.

Exit Ticket/Reflection:

What did Jacob Riis intend to communicate through his photographs?  Do you think his images are respectful of immigrants and poor people? Why or why not?

Day 2

Today’s work focuses on exploring images from the “Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography” exhibit. Allow students time to explore the gallery and identify photos that are meaningful to them.

In small groups, have students work in groups of two or three to analyze an image of their choosing in the collection using the “3 Ys” routine. Have students share their findings with the group.

As a reflection, have students consider some of the guiding questions about how photographers choose to represent places and communities.

What associations does the viewer have with these photographs?

What mood is created with these photographs?

How might you be able to create a sense of place with photography?

Extensions:

Additional resources related to Jacob Riis:

Library of Congress Exhibit

Magic Lantern Presentation from Riis

Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half Educator Resource Guide

  • Have students complete their own documentary photo essay on their own neighborhood or community.
  • Have students read excerpts from ‘Down These Mean Streets’ and connect them to the images in the collection.
  • Join the Out of Eden Walk community and have students document their neighborhood and gather stories.

The 3Ys: Project Zero Global Competency Routine

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access

Jacob Riis Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery

Sisters, Washington Heights, New York

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Destroyed Housing, Brownsville, Brooklyn

Smithsonian American Art Museum

University of the Streets, Brownsville, Brooklyn

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Child in Washington Heights, New York

Smithsonian American Art Museum

New Addition, Washington Heights, New York

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Family in Brownsville, Brooklyn

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Domino Players, Washington Heights, New York

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Robert Kennedy’s Campaign Office, New York

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Casa Evita

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Young Man with Roses

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Children at Play

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Kite Flying on Rooftop

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Wedding Day, Washington Heights, New York

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Take my picture, Washington Heights, New York

Smithsonian American Art Museum