Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Depression-Era Photographs: Worth a Thousand Words

Created September 23, 2010


The Lesson


Depression-Era Photographs: Woman at sowing machine

Throughout the Great Depression, the federal government employed photographers to document the need for New Deal programs and the extent of these programs' successes. Today, through the Internet, students can view this record of an era and see for themselves how Americans faced the challenge of those testing times.

Learning Objectives

  • To gain insight into New Deal programs and the experience of Depression-era Americans
  • To recognize the distinction between observation and inference when drawing information from documentary photographs
  • To recognize some ways the photographer can influence interpretation of documentary photographs
  • To gain experience in critical thinking about media.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Work Progress Administration

Introduce students to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its mission during the Great Depression. Established in 1935 as part of the New Deal, the WPA hired unemployed individuals for public works projects ranging from ditch-digging to producing plays. Though sometimes attacked as a "make work" program, the WPA is now credited with helping to stimulate recovery from the Depression by pouring billions of dollars into the national economy in the form of consumer purchasing power.

Activity 2. Using the Image Library of the New Deal Network

The "Image Library" of the New Deal Network includes documentary photographs of many WPA projects. From the "Image Library" index page, click on "Photo Series" under the "Miscellaneous" heading, then click "WPA Photoessays" to find a series of pictures recording a day in the life of "Lucille Normand, WPA Seamstress," taken in Chicago in 1940. As preparation for analyzing these photographs, have students fold a sheet of loose-leaf paper in half lengthwise and write "Observations" at the top of one column, "Inferences" at the top of the other. Explain that as they study each photograph, they will record details they can see under "Observations" and their interpretations under "Inferences."

  • Guide students through this process by analyzing the first picture in the series as a class. (The first picture is titled "Getting Ready to Go to Work." The photos in this series are listed in a misleading order on the website, with the last two, showing after-work scenes, mistakenly listed first.) Encourage students to gather as much information as they can from the photograph itself, while you hide the caption. Have them make observations and inferences about the women and children, their clothing, the room they are in, what they are doing, etc. Discuss how they might confirm their inferences about the picture (e.g., interview the people photographed or the photographer, research WPA records to locate sources of information). Then reveal the caption and discuss the additional information it provides. How does the caption work with the image to help give full meaning to the picture? Have students suggest captions that would evoke different meanings from the picture to illustrate how captions and images relate to one another.
  • Have students work in research teams to analyze the remaining photographs in this series. Then compare notes in a class discussion. What are the students' observations about Lucille Normand's everyday life? What inferences have they drawn from these observations? How does their view of her life compare with that of the photographer, as expressed in the photo captions? Talk about the photographer's scenes. Explore in class discussion the extent to which these photographs document the life of a WPA worker and the extent to which they are advertisements for the work of the WPA.
  • Have students return to their research teams to brainstorm questions they would like to ask Lucille Normand and her family in an interview. For example, they might ask Lucille about her work, her family, her community, her past, her hopes for the future -- anything that would provide more insight into her life. Have each group also make a list of images they would like to add to this series, in order to give a more complete picture of "Lucille Normand, WPA Seamstress." Have students share these ideas in class, and briefly discuss what is left out of this documentary history of a day in the life of one person living through the Great Depression.
  • Conclude by having each student produce either an imaginary interview with Lucille Normand and her family or an imaginary journal collecting Lucille's reflections on the day she was photographed. Encourage students to build on their observations and inferences as they try to recreate Lucille Normand's life in this way. If possible, have students use the WPA photos to illustrate their work, writing new captions for each image if they wish.

Extending The Lesson

The New Deal Network also offers an excellent lesson plan for study of Depression-era photographs of teenagers: click "Classroom Activities" on the site's homepage, then follow the "Lesson Plans" link to Stanlee Brimberg's "Rondal Partridge, NYA Photographer," upon which this lesson is partly based. Finally, any study of the Depression era can be enhanced by exploring the Federal Writers Project interviews available in the "American Life Histories" collection at the American Memorywebsite.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Economic Transformation
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interview/survey skills
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis