This essay will investigate the documentary photographs of three photographers, building the groundwork necessary for teachers to understand and teach a series of lessons where students better understand the role of documentary photography, how they might investigate a subject for themselves and the activity of critiquing photographs.
Recent writings on visual culture and art education often emphasize contemporary artists and artworks as an avenue for exploring the images and ideas faced by school-aged students. This is a vital and significant curricular need in the classroom, however the relevance of historical artworks can offer avenues for analyzing contemporary issues and equally provoking artworks. By approaching historical artworks that relate to contemporary topics, students may learn more about themselves, their world, and our history. It is for this reason that I began to explore the documentary photographers of the Japanese American Internment Camps.
As a photography teacher I struggled with my student’s photography assignments. I wanted to give assignments that challenged them to work beyond the snapshot or to at least look into the image and think about their role as the photographer. The photograph, simply by the nature of the technology, implies a myth of reality (Sturken and Cartwritght, 2001). Often, it is fair to assume that the subject reflects reality but the subjectivity of the photographer’s influence or stance is seldom as apparent to the viewer as it might be with a painting or sculpture. In an age where the image is easily manipulated via technology and/or appropriation is the norm, a black and white or sepia photograph from an historic era seems to hold a more definite “truth” for the viewer. There is both the photograph itself and the subject therein. Additionally, there is the historical information that we attach to the photograph when we learn which event it marks. Historic images, such as those around WWII, appear to offer tangible evidence of the history many of us learned in school and they assist in our construction of the past.