A Picture's Worth

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General Steps:

To help students better understand Canada’s contribution during the Second World War photographic images can be a useful tool to facilitate the growth of historical empathy and contextualize the human realities of the conflict powerful images such as Claude Dettloff’s portrait of a family being divided by war, Sgt Bill Grant’s recording of the landings on Juno Beach or the iconic 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh are etched in the pictorial lexicon of World War Two for generations of Canadians. However, do we know the nuances behind events, the motives of the photographer, or the accuracy of the published image?

Faced with the challenge of exploring the Second World War, young historians often become overwhelmed with amount of evidence that is quickly, and often easily, available via an internet search. This is never more evident than when student researchers look at the visual records compiled between the years 1939 and 1945. How then, can educators help students build context for the images that fill our archives, textbooks, and memories?

A Picture’s Worth is designed to help both teachers and students shift their historical mind-set from a story well told, to sources well scrutinized. Students will pose inquiry questions, collect and analyse evidence, and struggle with the issues of significance while looking to define a unique historical context. During the project, students will build and strengthen their research skills with a focus on corroboration and validation of photographs documenting Canada’s journey through the Second World War As images are critiqued, events explored, and motives unravelled, student will develop key inquiry and research skills and create a contextual frame work to help understand how the events of the Second World War unfolded and a sense of empathy towards the men and women involved in the conflict. At the end of the project the young historians will have linked together a series of images captured by Canadian photographers and blend them into a hypothetical vignette of a uniquely Canadian journey through the Second World War.

Stage 1: Setting the stage:

In order to understand a war as vast as the 1939-45 conflict, it will be helpful to understand smaller aspects of the larger event. The r task is to focus general thoughts into a focused and detailed body of knowledge. This task involves:

  • a) Researching the timeline of an individual Canadian battle, war related events, or extended campaign.
  • b) Looking for 15-20 photographs depicting the battle or event. Choose a wide range of subjects and styles. Explore subjects such as recruitment, shipping overseas, enduring combat, daily life at war and at home, the wounded, the dead, human loss, homecomings and peace.
  • c) Documenting all evidence using MLA citations.
  • d) Researching and providing biographies for three Canadian war photographers summarizing their war experience, the conflicts they covered, and their artistic style.

Stage 2: The power of images:

The student’s task is to tell a tale of war. In order to do this he or she will need to focus on an aspect of the war that might have affected a single individual. Instructions to students include:

  • a) After reviewing your personal archive, creating a question to guide and focus your thoughts. What theme of the human condition are you going to explore? Try to empathize with the people living the events in the images you have collected. Could you walk a mile in their shoes?
  • b) Refining your question and put it to a group of your peers.
  • c) Once you have a refined question, choosing 5-8 photographs from your personal archive with which tell a Canadian war story.

Stage 3: Digging Deeper:

There is a chance that the image you are looking at could be mislabelled, incorrectly identified, or, in some cases, even staged. It is up to you, as a historian, to cross reference the images you have chosen with vetted historical evidence. Therefore it is critical to corroborate the history depicted in your photographs with primary and secondary sources. Possible sources for corroboration could include solider diaries, newspaper articles, military records, other photographs (minimum three sources per photo).

Stage 4: A tale to be told:

Create a fictional account of the events linking your photographs. This can be achieved in a variety of ways that could include letters home, journal entries, and log entries of a commanding office, a tail gunner’s debriefing , a politician’s speeches, or a grieving widow eulogy, for example.

Suggested resources:


Cohen, Jonathan and Meskin, Aaron. “Photographs as Evidence,” Photography and Philosophy: New Essays on the Pencil of Nature, ed. Scott Walden. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008: pp. 70-90.

Mnookin, Jennifer. (1998) "The Image of Truth: Photographic Evidence and the Power of Analogy," Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol.10: Iss, Article 1. 

Online photo collections: 

Canada at War

Canadian Army Film Core

WWII in colour

 Library and Archives Canada  

Japanese Canadian Photograph Collection 

Second World War Canadian Army Air Photos

Canadian War Museum

The Canadian Virtual War Memorial

About Canada’s Military Photographers

The Memory Project

LESSON RESOURCES  (Click on the link)


A Picture's Worth

Adrian French


Victoria, British Columbia

This project develops historical inquiry skills while building a greater awareness of Canada's Second World War experience through images.

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