Finally I chose to end with a photo that offers the viewer no real context. It is Alfred Eisenstaedt's
The Guignol Puppet Show, Paris 1963.
In the photo a group of children react to what is going on in an outdoor puppet show. Eisenstaedt snapped the photo at precisely the moment when the dragon has been slain. The children react with different facial expressions. The point of view is from the stage looking out toward the audience so we have no way of definitively knowing what the source of their reaction is unless we know the photo's title. Eisenstaedt was born in 1898 and fell in love with photography when he received his first camera at the age of fourteen. He was called the father of photojournalism and has taken some of the world's best-known photos.
In discussing this photo with my students we had to rely on looking at the reactions of the children. First we discussed whether we had to know what the children were looking at in order to enjoy the photo. They were inquisitive but thought the photo had some wonderful faces in it. As the photo was projected on the screen we added post-it notes to the screen describing what feelings each child was emoting. Then I had each child speculate about the children might be seeing and hearing. Most of them thought the children were seeing a fight or argument and a couple thought they were watching someone do dangerous stunts. They speculated that it could be a person inside a cage with a lion or tiger at the zoo. After collecting and reading their ideas I then informed them what circumstances the photo was taken. They agreed that the photo was interesting whether you knew the title or not. I might choose to extend this photo by having students pick a child in the photo and try to write a description of the child and what they were thinking.
I have given an account of how my students and I dealt with the pictures because it is important to note that discussing the photos is often difficult. Sometimes the photos do not project clearly and that can cause problems. Where possible, I have tried to make connections to other media and to topics my students are familiar with. There are still other photos I would like to try but time and space has limited the choices.
It seems impossible to me to consider a unit like this without actually engaging students in sharing and discussing photos from their family albums and/or taking some photos themselves. While I have not formally included the photographs of Jacques-Henri Lartigue within the unit it was suggested to me that he would be an excellent example to share with students. Lartigue (1894-1986) was from a privileged background. As a child of eight his father gave him his first cameras. Lartigue began to take pictures of his own life. He seems to have had a natural talent for photography and he was never worried about being part of any movement in photography. He was not influenced nor did he influence the world of photography because none of his work was exhibited until1962.
Along with his photographs Lartigue kept diaries from his earliest days. He also drew many of the photographs that captured the same effect that he sought in taking the picture.
In sharing some of these photos with students they could easily see someone their own age recording what they found interesting in life.
I would like to see my students take some pictures and arrange them in some meaningful way. They could take photos of things that are important to them, family members, their homes, etc. Of course, along with the photos I would want them to write about the images and what they mean to them.