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Guide to Researching Photographs


Getting Started

This guide provides helpful tips for finding and evaluating photographs that you can use in the classroom to enhance teaching strategies. The following steps are intended to help guide your search.

Step 1: Determine Search Criteria
Step 2: Evaluate a Photograph’s Classroom Connection
Step 3: Assess Copyright
Step 4: Activate Student Engagement

Note: Throughout this guide, vignettes of an 11th grade history teacher teaching the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s are provided to illustrate the process of researching and using photographs to support the lesson.

Step 1: Determine Search Criteria

Enhancing Teaching Strategies with Photographs: A Case Study

Ms. Green is teaching her high school students about a great American political scandal in her history class. The Teapot Dome scandal was an incident involving bribery that took place in the United States during the Warren G. Harding Administration in the 1920s. Ms. Green would like to use photographs to support her lesson.

There are several things to keep in mind when looking for photographs. For example, is the photo appropriate for the students? Is there enough background information about the photograph to help you and your students fully understand the context in which it was taken? Do you know the location and date of where it was taken? Can you find any information from the photographer about where and why it was taken? Background information helps you avoid making false inferences or poor interpretations about what is in the photo.

Questions to Consider

Will the photograph:

  • Enhance current teaching strategies?
  • Tie to learning targets and connect to standards?
  • Enhance student critical thinking and learning?
  • Engage your students to look closely and study further (keeping in mind their knowledge and experience)?

There are many search engines and websites that contain photographs and photographic ephemera (See Additional Photograph Resources.) Before you begin, bear in mind some search criteria that may help or hinder your efforts to find appropriate photos for your lesson.

These include:

  • Authenticity
  • Accuracy and credibility of the photograph and its source
  • Associated fees for acquiring the photo and/or credit required by copyright holder
  • Rights and permissions (and potential fees) to use the material in classrooms (Note: It is important that you check with your school’s legal policies.)

Determine the Accuracy and Authenticity of the Photograph

Rappahannock River, Va. Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpb-00218)

To determine the authenticity of a photograph, first check the source of the photo. This might be the book or website where you found the image. In addition, look for caption, credit, or date information that accompanies the image. What type of data does the source provide?

Additional clues of accuracy and authenticity:

  • Is the photo intact, or do you know if it has been altered in any way that could falsify the original image?
  • Does the source of the photo have public or education usage in mind? Websites that end in .org, .edu, and .gov are typically intended for public use. Knowing that a site has a mission in the public interest is a good sign that the photo’s integrity is intact.
  • Is the photo from a credible source?

Below are examples of credible websites that house online collections of photographs. Please note, however, that not all photographs from sites such as the ones listed below are in the public domain. Additional research is necessary because, even though the picture is available at a credible site, the photographer or a private entity may own the copyright. (See additional sources in Additional Photograph Resources.)

Tie Photographs to Learning Targets and Standards

Think about connections to local and national standards. For example:

  • When it comes to meeting state and national learning standards, how can photographs help students practice their critical thinking skills? What about comprehension and impact?
  • Using photographs broadens the way in which students approach and retain lessons. Connecting ideas, concepts, data, and other information that are associated with images is called visual learning. Photographs can make a lasting visual memory associated with your lesson.

For more about visual memory, see www.learner.org/courses/globalart/theme/3/index.html.

Step 2: Evaluate a Photograph’s Classroom Connection

Students benefit from discovery. Like playing detective and analyzing clues, content and context inside a photograph helps to enhance the learning experience.

Think about the information embedded in the photograph and how it might expand or magnify the lesson. What does it bring in terms of content that text alone doesn’t provide? What can be learned by looking closely at a photograph? (Learn more about learning from photographs.)

Choose photographs that hold many clues to the time, place, and subject they captured.

  • Direct association: Can you find photographs directly related to your subject (primary or secondary sources)?
  • Contextual clues: For example, can you find photographs that contain material culture, such as period fashion, period technology, period architecture or room décor, emotions or expressions on people’s faces, geography, weather or environment that signify the moment captured?

Note: The Library of Congress has a comprehensive guide to using primary and secondary sources: www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources

Step 3: Assess Copyright

“Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” (www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what)

Important note: This guide is not a legal document. It is intended to provide some helpful tips on searching and finding photographs for use in the classroom. The legal responsibility for any use of photographs or other materials rests exclusively with you. It is recommended that you check with your own institution’s legal policies before proceeding.

Copyright laws can be complicated and a challenge to navigate. Taking extra steps by researching the source of the photograph should give you information on whether an image is available for the public or an educator to use, and how it is cleared for use (for example, public domain).

To determine the designation of a specific photograph, you will need to check the copyright terms associated with it. One way to do this is to check the photo’s credit and/or caption information that accompanies it, then do a search on the source (often noted as “courtesy of” in the caption), and then research the copyright designation of the item in question. Most sources will provide the type of copyright they hold. If you have found a photograph online or in a book, and it does not provide source information, using it for any purpose is not recommended: the photograph may be privately owned or have other restrictions that prohibit its use without express written permission by the copyright holder.

About U.S. Copyright Law

U.S. Copyright Office

Library of Congress, Copyright and Primary Sources

White Paper on Copyright Implications for Educators

To view an activity exploring copyright laws, see America’s History in the Making, Unit 12, “Using Digital Technologies” (www.learner.org/courses/amerhistory/units/12).

Back to our classroom:
Ms. Green sets out to search for photographs depicting scenes of the Congressional investigation of the Teapot Dome Scandal. She has 15 minutes to teach 34 students about the scandal, using photographs to support her lesson. She decides the best approach will be to project four photographs onto a white board during her lesson, and engage her students to look more deeply at them to find relevant content.

She begins with direct association. To search for photos, she chooses key phrases that involve the subject: “Teapot Dome Scandal,” “Warren G. Harding scandal,” “Great American Political Scandal,” “Famous Senate Investigations.”

She starts with her favorite search engine and searches by the key words. She wants to find four photos in the public domain that illustrate the lesson. The search reveals Wikipedia, which then leads her to photographs in the public domain. Wikipedia cites the sources of the photographs, provides a link to the original image, and outlines the use, copyright, and credit restrictions. Ms. Green verifies the Wikipedia information by clicking on the link to the original photo and reading what the pubic domain source provides as additional information.

  1. Teapot Dome is a rock escarpment in Wyoming.

    “Teapot Rock—Famous Teapot Dome [Salt Creek] Oil District—In Wyoming”. Historical postcard. Circa 1922. Wyoming. (Courtesy of www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com.)


  2. Warren G. Harding (far left) was U.S. president during the scandal.

    Warren G. Harding, Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge, and Calvin Coolidge. Between 1915 and 1923. Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, LC-DIG-ds-00894)


  3. Great American political scandal: The secretary of interior, Albert B. Fall, was the first U.S. cabinet member to be sentenced to prison.

    Senator Albert B. Fall. Date unknown. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-07698)


  4. Famous Senate investigations: Teapot Dome was the biggest political scandal in American history until Watergate.

    Harry F. Sinclair, multimillionaire oil magnate (left) and his counsel Martin W. Littleton. Teapot Dome hearing. 1924. Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, LC-DIG-hec-44031)


Ms. Green created a list for the ways in which a photo connects to her teaching objectives. The question she wants to explore with her students is:

What factors lead to political scandals, and what are their outcomes?

  1. Teapot Dome postcard
    • Public lands
    • Private, public sector deals
    • Corrupt deals
    • Conflicts of interest
    • Scandal
  2. Warren G. Harding, et al.
    • President as figurehead
    • President’s accountability for his cabinet
    • Damage to a president’s confidence rating
  3. Albert B. Fall portrait
    • What emotions or ambiance might have existed at the time the photo was taken?
    • What was at stake for Albert B. Fall?
  4. Famous Senate investigations
    • What clues to the seriousness of the scandal can be found in the photo?
    • What clues to media coverage of the scandal are depicted?
    • What clues in the photos exist that portray the relationship between government and corporate America at that time?

Three of the photos Ms. Green found are linked to collections in the Library of Congress. Ms. Green verified their public domain classification by looking at the rights advisory information on the LOC’s website. (See Downloading Image Files from LOC: www.loc.gov/pictures/help/#downloading.) But one of the photos is from a source other than LOC, and it is an unfamiliar website to Ms. Green. The photo postcard of Teapot Dome is linked to the website www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com. Ms. Green knew to check the site for any copyright restrictions before downloading it to use in her classroom, and this is what she found:

“This site is, as the title implies, [is] devoted almost exclusively to the history of Wyoming as told through photographs. Except as noted, the original photos shown are believed to be in the public domain. It should be noted, however, that as with all historic photographs, multiple claimants to copyrights may exist. A derivative copyright is claimed as to changes and digital corrections made to the original photos, but consent is given for reasonable use. Accordingly, if a reader plans to use a photograph, independent due diligence is recommended. If photographs are used from this site, the courtesy of credit to wyomingtalesandtrails.com will be appreciated...”

Ms. Green followed up by doing additional research to verify whether the website had accurately determined the photo’s public domain classification.

She started by uploading the image she had saved in her desktop folder right into her search engine’s image Search field, which she found by first going to the search engines main page, then clicking on the “images” search tab, then clicking on the camera icon in the right corner of the search field and, finally, selecting the “upload an image” tab. Her search resulted in dozens of websites that presented the same photograph of the Teapot Dome postcard as the one she had found, and not all — but many — citing it as public domain. By going the extra mile to seek copyright information on the image, Ms. Green could not find any restrictions of use, or copyright holders to contact; thus, she was able to deduce that the photo is most likely in the public domain, carrying very little risk for classroom use. She remembered to credit www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com as the online source of the photo.

Note: Once you’ve determined if the photo is copyright-free to use, it is important to cite your sources, whether government, private, or public.

Step 4: Activate Student Engagement

Engaging Students with Photographs: Think About Their Backgrounds and Experiences

  • Think like a book illustrator and choose photographs that link the narrative of your lesson to your students’ visual learning.
  • What impressions will stick with your students?
  • What can the photograph offer in terms of content that can’t be conveyed in text form?

Ms. Green examines the photos she has chosen to use in her lesson. The first photo is a postcard that shows Teapot Dome and includes caption that says, “Oil District — ‘In Wyoming’.” The postcard not only establishes place, but the caption highlights its importance to the oil industry. She decides to use this image to teach how the U.S. Department of Interior works with coal mining and oil companies to exploit natural resources. From here, she explains how scandals have occurred between the government and the private sector. The second photo is of President Warren G. Harding, who was president during the scandal. Harding appointed the chief of the Department of Interior to his cabinet, who was sentenced to prison for his role in the scandal. In this photo, Harding appears with his wife; his vice president, Calvin Coolidge; and Mrs. Coolidge in fine clothes in front of Model T Fords and Secret Service agents. The third photo depicts Albert B. Fall, the cabinet member who was sentenced to prison for his role in the scandal. Fall is holding a lit cigar in one hand, and a map of the central United States is in the background. His lips are parted, as if he’s about to say something. The fourth photo is of Harry F. Sinclair, a multimillionaire oil magnate, consulting with his attorney during the Teapot Dome hearing. The men, wearing suits surround the two, and women are seated in the back of the room wearing hats and skirts. One woman has her hand on her hip, which some might interpret as displeasure with the proceedings.

Choose Photos that Have a Contemporary Connection

  • Ask yourself how the scenes depicted in the photos compare to modern day, and use those likenesses and differences to help your students discover the reality of that time.
  • Look for clues or evidence in a photograph to teach your students what work went into a particular subject.

After close examination of the photographs by her students, Ms. Green prompted the students to think about what is happening today that seems similar to the Teapot Dome Scandal. The four photos Ms. Green chose will act as memory triggers to her lesson that she wants her students to picture in their mind during testing.

Additional Information for Using Primary Sources

Reference and User Services Association
www.ala.org/rusa/sections/history/resources/pubs/usingprimarysources

Library of Congress
www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/copyright.html

Additional Photograph Resources

A list of links to a number of photographic collections for humanities and science-based topics can be found here. These sites have been vetted as reliable sources at the time of its creation (2014), but it is the responsibility of the individual to check copyright notifications per site and/or per photograph.

The list also contains educational resources with additional lesson suggestions. These sites provide educators and librarians seeking copyright-friendly materials for educational use.

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