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Photos that changed the world

One of the most enjoyable things I do is spend time working with teachers and primary sources. There’s just nothing like a really cool document, even if it’s just one that you find online.

I especially like a good photograph. And so when I started running across different lists of “important” photos at the end of 2009, I had to stop and look.

You know the sort. Most important photos of the year, of the decade, of all time. Most important photos if you voted for Obama, if you read Twilight books, if you call it soda or pop. You get the idea.

Afghan girl at Nasir Bagh refugee camp, 1984. © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

But it did get me thinking. Are there lists of truly important photographs? Photos that changed the world? And if these lists exist, how could I use them in a history class?

As it turns out, those lists do exist.

A few things come to mind:

  • Ask kids why these photographs made the cut and others didn’t. What makes them special? What impact did they have, short and long term? Was the impact positive or negative?
  • Start a unit or lesson with an image from the list that is content or era specific. Provide some background and have kids predict what the upcoming unit or lesson will be about.
  • Use the Visual Discrepant Event Inquiry method with one or more of the photographs.
  • After instruction, have students create a list of possible titles for a specific photograph.
  • Put kids in smaller groups, provide access to multiple lists and force each group to create a shorter list of just five or 10. Compare lists and have each group justify their decisions.
  • Have kids list and share human geographical characteristics of an image.
  • Print out the different photos and ask students to sort them by categories. Don’t define the categories. Do them same thing with small groups. Ask them why they used the categories they did.
  • Have kids discuss what the lists would look like if a person from India selected the photographs? How about some one from eastern Europe or China or Nigeria? Are the lists above too “western?”

I’m sure you can come up with a few of your own. Let me know what works for you!

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