Interpreting Photographs

Why are photographs useful primary sources?

Photographs present a visual record of a moment in time. This can enhance our understanding of events and moments by giving us a sense of what they looked like.

How to interpret photographs

Example

Source: CHUR 1/97A-G, images 210-218

Description: Photograph of Victory in Europe celebrations in London, including Winston Churchill with the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, the Victory Parade, Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul's Cathedral, crowd scenes in Westminster, and around Buckingham Palace

Date: 8 May 1945



Method

1. Think about what the source is

These photographs show scenes from London on 8 May 1945 celebrating VE Day, which marked the German surrender that meant victory in Europe in World War II. The images include overhead shots of the crowds in the street as well as photographs of Churchill with the royal family and political leaders. 

2. Consider the background

By 1945, London residents had undergone many hardships. Family members were separated from one another by military service and evacuations, and people were enduring rationing and scarcity of food and clothing, frequent bombing attacks and the constant fear and uncertainty of war. Many had experienced the deaths of family members or the losses of their homes, and citizens had made great sacrifices to support the war effort over a period of several years. 

3. Consider what surface level information you can interpret from the photograph

For each image, ask yourself:

  • What do I see in this image? Sometimes it helps to divide the image into nine parts like a noughts and crosses board and look at each section separately, taking in as much detail as you can. Notice the setting (buildings, landscape, etc.), the people and the objects that the photographer chose to capture with the lens.
  • What is happening in this image? What are people doing?
  • Can you tell where this photograph was taken?
  • How many people do you think are in this image? Have you ever seen similarly sized crowds in London or another major city? What was the occasion?

4. Consider the deeper level information you can interpret from the photograph

For each image, ask yourself:

  • People living in London had endured a lot of hardship by the war’s end. What do these images show about their state of mind and emotions?
  • Who do you think took these pictures? What do you think the photographers were trying to say about the scenes that were unfolding in each image? How and why do these sources become even more valuable if we know who took them and why, and where they were published (if they were)?
  • Several images show leaders like Churchill and the royal family. What role do leaders have in celebrations like this? What does their presence mean (if anything) to the participants?
  • How can photographs give us a perspective on historical events that written documents may not? What can an image show us that cannot be conveyed in words?
  • How do you think a historian could use this source to better understand the past? What possible questions can you imagine asking about this source?

Need more help?

You may find it helpful to compare these visual sources to written accounts of VE Day celebrations in London

It is also useful to consider what life was like in London during World War II

 

How do I interpret other types of primary source?