“What Do You See?”: Using Photographs to Learn about World War II

Guiding Question:

How do photographs expand an individual’s knowledge and understanding of an event in history?


These lessons are designed to help students understand events in World War II using non-textual sources (photographs, film, interactive websites, and apps). Students will analyze photographs of selected World War II events and subjects. Through photograph analysis, students will make observations, draw inferences, create questions, and participate in group discussions to develop and expand their knowledge of selected Word War II events and topics. These lessons are designed to provide students with learning disabilities and limited English language proficiency with alternative learning opportunities.


Historical Context

D-Day, June 6, 1944, is the day that Allied forces initiated the invasion of Normandy. Operation Overlord was the largest amphibious assault ever planned and executed. D-Day took over one year to plan, involved a surprisingly effective deception plan, included over 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and more than 150,000 troops. Operation Overlord was a major turning point in World War II on the European front. By the end of August 1944, Paris had been liberated and the Germans no longer occupied northwestern France.

While D-Day saw the Allied forces triumph, the beaches were not won without great human cost. Many of the service members who landed on the beaches of Normandy during the first hours of the invasion were met with an endless barrage of German machine gunfire. The bravery and extraordinary determination of those service members is both amazing and inspiring. However, with bravery and extraordinary determination also comes horrific injury and death. By the time the sun set on June 6, 1944, it is estimated there were over 10,000 Allied casualties.

Civilian war correspondents as well as military photographers captured many historic images in the campaign for Northern Europe. Often their subjects were ordinary soldiers - men like Sergeant Harry Blankenship, killed in the battle for Cherbourg, who rests in Normandy American Cemetery.


  • At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to
  • Analyze photographs by identifying details in the photographs;
  • Generate initial observations, inferences, and questions from photographs and background information known about the photograph’s subject;
  • Construct final observations, inferences, and questions of photographs after World War II content information is delivered; and
  • Compare and contrast initial inferences with final inferences through group discussions.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
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, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1.c Pose questions that elicit elaboration and respond to others' questions and comments with relevant observations and ideas that bring the discussion back on topic as needed.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1.d Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1.d 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.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.3.6-8. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to analyze why they, and the developments they shaped, are seen as historically significant.
D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.
D2.His.5.6-8. Explain how and why perspectives of people have changed over time.
D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.

Lesson Preparation

  • Preview video and film resources to determine which one(s) you want to use.
  • Secure access to technology (computers, laptops, iPads) so that each group or individual student has access.
  • Set students into groups of three to six students each.
  • Print two copies of the Photograph Analysis Worksheet for each student.
  • Print one copy of the Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizer per student.
  • Print one photograph series for each group. You can use the same series for every group in the class or give each group a different series. For lower level students, you can choose one or two photos from a series instead of an entire series.
  • Print one copy of the Photograph Analysis Rubric per group.
  • Cue or share links to pre-selected videos with students.
  • Download smartphone applications to a phone or tablet for student use.

Resources that Connect to D-Day Buildup Photograph Collection

Resources that Connect to D-Day Beach Landings Photograph Collection

Resources that Connect to D-Day to Berlin Photograph Collection

Resources that Connect to Home Front Photograph Collection

Resources that Connect to U.S. Service Members Photograph Collection

Resources that Connect to The Price of Freedom Photograph Collection


Activity One: Introduction and Photograph Analysis (60 minutes)

  • Assign and have students move into groups of three to six students each.
  • Distribute one Photograph Analysis Worksheet to each student.
  • Introduce the concept of photograph analysis to students. Share the following quotes about photographs to get students thinking:
    • “A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.” —Ansel Adams
    • “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” —Diane Arbus
    • “The camera cannot lie, but it can be an accessory to untruth.” —Harold Evans
    • “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” —Henry David Thoreau
  • Depending on the age or level of the students, consider introducing some or all of the following issues:
    • Photographs can be cropped, meaning certain items can be edited out of the picture after it has been taken. Images can also be enlarged or reduced in size and lightened or darkened.
    • Photographs can be choreographed or arranged. The photographer can manipulate people to do what he or she wants them to do.
    • The photographer’s purpose for taking a picture can affect a photograph. Photographers make choices than can mirror their perspective or point of view. Therefore a picture is not a random representation of an event, but rather the act of a photographer taking a picture of something that he or she wants to use.
  • Model analyzing a photo using Photograph Analysis Worksheet. Suggested prompts include:
    • What is the first thing you notice about the picture?
    • Do you have any prior knowledge of what is happening in the picture?
    • What is happening in the picture?
    • What is/are the subject(s) in the picture thinking? Is/are the subject(s) happy, angry, tired, dirty?
    • What is/are the person/people wearing?
    • Where was the picture taken? What in the picture helps you figure out where the picture was taken?
    • Are there any buildings or landmarks in the picture that help?
    • When was the picture taken? Day? Night? What season? Winter? Summer?
    • What was the weather like in the picture? Raining? Cloudy? Sunny? Clear?
    • What do you think happened before the picture was taken?
    • What do you think happened after the picture was taken?
    • Why was the picture taken?
    • Who do you think the photographer took the picture for (intended audience)?
    • What was the photographer trying to say with the picture?
    • What can you learn from the picture?
    • Think about the viewing point that the photographer chose. Why do you think the photographer took the picture from behind his subject or from a high or low point?
    • Think about what is not shown in the picture. It is impossible for a picture to capture all elements of an event. What elements of this event do you think are missing?
    • Did the person or people in the photograph know that they were being photographed?
  • Teacher Tip: Encourage students to not only look at the picture as a whole, but to break the photograph into four quadrants and look at them individually. Breaking a photograph into parts often helps the viewer pick up on details that would have otherwise been missed. Encourage students to make predictions about the photographs they are analyzing. Have them ask themselves what they think happened after the photo was taken. What happened before the photo was taken?
  • Distribute one Photograph Analysis Rubric to each group. Read the directions and discuss activity expectations.
  • Distribute computers or tablets if available.
  • Distribute printed copies of photographs to each group (alternatively, provide links for photographs).
  • Allow each student to select a photograph to analyze.
  • Teacher Tip: For students with more severe learning disabilities, consider using photographs from the Homefront Photograph Collection. These photos do not show any violence and most are less complex, making them easier to analyze.
  • Read the following to students before they begin their analysis: Although photographs capture a moment in time, they are still subject to what the photographer wants the viewer to see. Photos, like text, are not always free of bias. Pictures can and are easily manipulated by a photographer. The angle, time of day, distance, subjects, etc. are all selected by the photographer. All of these factors affect the outcome of the photograph. Conversely, the viewer also brings his or her own experiences and biases into the picture when viewing a photograph. For example, an individual who has served in the military will most likely view a photograph of soldiers fighting in World War II much differently than someone who has never been in the military. The veteran will probably look more closely at the equipment the soldiers are wearing, what weaponry they have, how many soldiers there are, etc. Additionally, determining the purpose of a photograph can help the viewer interpret it. For example, did the photographer take it for propaganda reasons to show the American public that we were winning the war?
  • Have students analyze their chosen photograph using the Photograph Analysis Worksheet.
    • Teacher Tip: If students seem to be struggling with their analysis, stop the activity and model the analysis of a photo using the think-aloud strategy. For example, using the first photograph in the U.S. Service Member Photo Series (Chow is served to American Infantrymen on their way to La Roche, Belgium, 347th Infantry Regiment). Project the photograph or hand out a copy to each student and begin doing your analysis.
    • Ask yourself a few of questions and answer them yourself. What is the first thing that I notice about this photo? The first thing I notice about the photo is that it is winter and very cold. Do I have any prior knowledge about this photo? I know that the men in this photo are most likely American service members fighting in World War II. What is happening in this photo? Soldiers are lined up getting something to eat.
    • After asking and answering the first few questions aloud with yourself, start bringing the students into the analysis. Ask the questions and have students answer them. Make sure that you go through this modeling activity, you are filling in the Photograph Analysis Worksheet with both yours and student responses. For example, what is the weather like in the photo? Possible answers from students might be that it looks like the photo was taken during the winter, it looks very cold, there is snow on the ground.
    • Encourage them to expand on their answers. Why does it look very cold? What in the picture makes you think that it was very cold when the picture was taken? It looks cold because the soldiers have scarves around their heads and necks. It has to be cold for the snow not to melt. What do you think the soldiers are thinking? Do they look happy, sad, tired? They look cold and tired and hungry. What makes you say that? No one is smiling in the picture. The third soldier in line looks worried. Why do you think the photographer took this photo? Did he take it to show people back home that even in the cold, soldiers are getting fed well? Make sure to refocus student responses if they start to get off track.
    • Additionally, ask the students what questions the photograph leaves unanswered. What additional information would they like to have about this photo? Can they make any inferences with what they can see in the photo and what they know about World War II? Fold the photograph into quadrants and ask questions about each quadrant. Does folding it change what you see? Continue this activity until you feel that students are ready to work on their own.

Activity Two: Share Photograph Analysis, View Videos, Introduce Multimedia Resources (60 minutes)

  • Assemble students into assigned groups and share and discuss photo analyses within each group. Encourage students to express their ideas clearly, pose questions to other students’ analysis, modify their original ideas when presented with new information or reasoning, and respect the ideas and analysis of others.
  • Show preselected World War II videos. Refer to the chart in the lesson preparation section for a listing of which videos apply to each Photograph Collection.
  • Introduce ABMC interactive websites and smartphone apps. Allow students time to explore and interact with the apps. Depending on the level of your students, this activity can always carry over into the next day.
    • Teacher Tip: If time permits and your students are engaged, exploring these apps can easily encompass an entire class period. Possible drawback for lower level students is that the interaction with these apps relies somewhat heavily on reading skills and does use some vocabulary that might be above some students’ level. However, the apps do have some great features for lower level students like timelines with pictures and short texts.

Activity Three: View Websites and Apps, Students’ Second Analysis of Photographs (60 minutes)

  • Now that the students have learned more about the context of their photograph, ask them to complete a second Photograph Analysis Worksheet on the same photograph using new information learned from archival films, videos, interactive websites, and apps.
  • Conduct class discussion on new insights gained from photographs based on newly acquired information on World War II.

Assessment Materials

  • Distribute Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizers.
  • Ask students to use the graphic organizer to compare their initial first photograph analysis (before they have explored the multimedia resources) to their second photograph analysis (after they have explored the apps and websites).
  • Facilitate a class discussion on results of Compare and Contrast activity. Possible prompts:
    • What changed from your initial analysis to your final analysis?
    • What stayed the same in your analysis of your photograph?
    • How did what you learned watching the videos and using the apps change what you saw in the photograph you analyzed or how you interpreted what was happening in the photo?
    • Did learning more about World War II help you analyze? Do you think it is easier to analyze a photograph when you have background information on the time period and event of the photograph?
  • Teachers can assess this lesson in several ways:
    • Teachers can assess the quality of the two separate Photograph Analyses using the Photograph Analysis Rubric.
    • Teacher can assess the completed Compare and Contrast Organizer. This will reveal the student’s ability to identify and analyze what changed from their first photograph analysis (when they had limited information on the historical context of their photograph) to the second photograph analysis (after they had explored and discussed the historical context of their chosen photograph.)
    • Depending on the student’s abilities, the student can present this information in writing or verbally.

Methods for Extension

  • Students can select a photograph and research its context. Based on the researched information, they can re-analyze the photograph and annotate how this new information altered their interpretation of the photograph.
  • Students can create a timeline of a World War II battle or event using photographs they find on the internet or in books or magazines.
  • Students can create a photo essay of a World War II event using photographs they find on the Internet or in books/magazines. For more information, see
  • Students can use a photoshop program and alter a World War II photo to illustrate how simple alterations can drastically change a photograph.
  • Students can research a World War II event and illustrate how different media organizations have portrayed the event through photography. For example, contrast how Germany has photographically documented D-Day versus how the United States has documented it. Or how a veteran’s organization photographically portrays the daily life of a World War II service member vice how an anti-war organization portrays it.
  • The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains U.S. military cemeteries overseas. These cemeteries are permanent memorials to the fallen, but it is important that students know the stories of those who rest here. To learn more about the stories of some of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, visit the Understanding Sacrifice Interactive Map.


  • Students can work with a partner within a group to complete an activity together.
  • Teachers can extend class time to complete activities.
  • Teachers can provide a completed example of a photo analysis for students to use as a reference.
  • Students can provide and compare/contrast information orally.


Return to Activity

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Other Sources