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What makes a photo powerful?


Students will examine a variety of photos and pick a photo that speaks to them.  Then, students will answer a variety of questions about that photo, including why they think the photo is so powerful.  They will share their findings with the class and then consider individually how and why emotions are communicated through photography.


  • Students will participate in discussions where they consider why and how emotions are communicated through photography.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, buildingd. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.


45 minutes


Collection of photography books OR online resources.  (See the note at the bottom of this lesson for more details)

Handout: Powerful photography

ELL Differentiated Handout: Powerful photography

Handout: Exit slips

Slideshow: Powerful photography

Lesson step-by-step

1. Building background — 5 minutes

Ask students: What makes a photo powerful?  What different elements of a photograph determine whether a person glances at the photo or studies it for a long period of time?

2. Activity — 15 minutes

Explain that today, students are going to be given about 15 minutes to search through the photography collections that are provided.  Each student should pick out one photo that speaks to them – it can be a photo that they like, hate, feel some sort of emotion toward, etc.  The only requirement is that the photo is somehow visually appealing to them.  Give each student a list of the questions (found below and also on separate sheet) they need to answer during today’s activity.  Then, give them time to look through the photo collections, pick out one photo, and write down the answers to the questions.

*Who took this photo? When/where was it taken?

*Why did you select this photo? What about this photo attracted you?

*What emotion is communicated through this photo?

*How does the photographer communicate this emotion?

*How does your experience of the photo change once you read the caption?

3. Share — 20 minutes

Go around the room and ask each student to share his/her picture with the class.  Students should also share the answers to the questions that they answered about their photograph.

4. Wrap up — 5 minutes

Pass out an exit slip for students to complete before they leave class today.


Students who have a strong background in photography can also discuss how technical elements of photography (aperture, shutter speed, etc) have been or could be utilized to capture the emotions they saw in the photo they picked.

Note about photography materials: For this lesson, you can choose between hard copy photography collections or online photography collections. If you would like to use book collections of photography for this lesson, you will need to go to your local library and check out a selection of photography collections. In the Dewey Decimal System, many of these books are found at 779 through 779.2092.  This lesson works best if you have a wide range of collections from many different photographers and time periods.

The following list of website addresses includes many resources and online photography collections, as well. Please note that some of these contain copyrighted images and therefore cannot be printed/photocopied: