Photo Detectives Activity


History, Social Studies, African American History

Recommended for middle school students.


Students are familiar with reading a story or a textbook in order to learn about history. In this activity, students will learn to “read” photographs by focusing on details, and draw conclusions based on their observations. Particularly in the era the photographs are taken (1910-1930) students will identify developments, problems, and characteristics of life in the South. Becoming “photo detectives”, they will learn to ask questions that explore themes related to everyday life. This activity may easily be adapted to address various grade levels, and is designed to give teachers this flexibility.


Students are placed in the role of historian, and will be able to:

  • Analyze historical photographs, differentiating between observational and deductive reasoning.
  • Compare and contrast past American community with current American community


Access to the Jackson Davis photographs (images may be printed out on a high quality printer if necessary). “Detective Notebooks” including data sheets and question sheet (printed copies for each student).


  • Orient students to the idea of “reading” photographs to learn about people in our past. Inform them that they will become “photo detectives”, observing and questioning images to find clues and explore life of people living in the South in the early 20th century. The more they look, the more they will truly see and learn!
  • “Read” a photograph together as an example to the group. Use negative # 0042.

Ask students questions based on the detective notebook format.

  1. Make sure that they begin to analyze images using their objective skills only. Students should list only what they can see and identify first.Ask, for example:
    What objects can you identify? What type of structures are in the picture? What materials do the objects appear to be made from? What do the people look like? How are they dressed? Is this picture candid or did they pose for the picture? What do they appear to be doing in the picture?
  2. Now move into the deductive mode of questioning. What can the students infer from the photograph?Ask, for example:
    When do you think this picture was taken, and what clues lead you to think this? How old are the people? How do you think the people in the image feel? What might they smell? What type of weather do you think there is outside? Why might you think this? Why is there a pile of wood in the foreground? What problems might be faced by the people in the photograph? How does what you see in the photograph differ from what you may see if the photograph was taken today?
  3. Invite students to make up more questions based on their observation. Students should be encouraged to explore the photograph as deeply as they can! They are actively making a connection to the past.

* After students have gotten the hang of reading a photograph as a group, divide them into pairs or groups of three. (It is not recommended that students work alone because they will not benefit from the interactive brainstorming process.) Pass out their detective notebooks. Remind students to help each other first tell What I See (observation), and then move into What I Infer (deduction). Then based on their deductions, compose questions that need further investigation.

NOTE: It is the teacher’s decision to include as many or as few photographs in the activity as they see fit. Photos in the Detectives Image Base are divided into thematic categories: Work and Play, Family, School, Transportation, and Dress. Student groups may either choose a category they are interested in, or the teacher may assign all groups to work on a single category, or that certain groups work on a specific theme.

Photo Detectives Image Base

Example Photo: #0042

Work and Play: #0044, #0685, #1856

Family:  #0670

School: #0043, #0585,#0002

Transportation: #0859, #1671, #0195, #2257

Clothes/Dress: #1366, #L1206



Students will write a detective’s summary of what they found based on their notebooks. These summaries should convey ability to work with group/partner, and what they learned about an aspect of life in the South from their investigations. Students’ notebooks should be evaluated for ability to use observational skills to analyze and draw conclusions.



Ask students to locate the oldest photograph owned in their family. Using the skills learned in the activity have them share their photographs and what they reveal historically about life in the period in which the photograph was taken.


Suggested Questions

What is happening in the picture?

What objects in the picture can you identify?

With which general time period are those objects associated?

What would be the same or different if the photograph were taken today?

Is there anything in the photograph that you cannot identify?

How are people dressed?

What are they doing?

Do you think that the people in the photograph are related? If so, how?

What clues suggest this?

What do the facial expressions or body language suggest?

Where do you think the photograph was taken?

Are there structures in the photo?

What are they used for?

What distinguishing characteristics of buildings or environment give you clues to the location?

Why do you think the photographer shot this picture?

What do you think he was trying to tell you?

How does this compare/contrast with other works by the photographer?

Add your own questions below and answer them as a group!