History & Photography – Teaching history through the lens of photography: An Italian project.

Photography has been portraying reality for almost two centuries now. Exceptional collections of photos are stored in Archives worldwide – millions, maybe billions of images. Their importance is given not only by their value as evidence of the past but also by their aesthetic qualities. Most of these preserved photos are unknown not only to common people but even to professionals. Images are not often used in schools and universities even if photography is the most appreciated form of art by contemporary youngsters in the era of mobile phones (which are also cameras) and social media (where people post their photos).

It’s starting from these considerations that me (an independent journalist, curator and consultant – www.alessandroluigiperna.com) and my partner Eff&Ci-Facciamo Cose (www.effeci-facciamocose.com) have created History & Photography, (the website is now also in English), a project conceived for the general public, schools and universities. The aims are in fact: to tell history by photography (and to tell the story of photography), to valorize historical photo archives, to show their images to the world (by exhibitions, photo projections, etc.), and finally, but no less important, to support teaching history with photography.

“Private Roy Humphrey is being given blood plasma by Pfc. Harvey White, after he was wounded by shrapnel”
9 August 1943, Sicily, Italy, Unknown Author, © courtesy US NARA
The picture comes from the exhibition “The Total War. The Second World Conflict in the best images of American state archives”, which will be exposed at “la Casa di Vetro” in Milan, https://www.lacasadivetro.com/ , since February until June 2020, on the occasion of the 75° of the end of the Second World War

We offer, to schools and universities: guided visits, live commented photo projections and photo galleries to be used via the web. The first and second proposals, however obvious, are still a novelty (at least in Italy) even if, in a digital world, images are much more accessible. The last proposal is what makes History & Photography project really innovative from an educational point of view: our selections of images (40 – 70 pictures about a specific topic) can be shown in classes on digital blackboards by professors (as manual slideshows) with a web connection. Schools and universities pay a fee and we give them a reserved link and a password of access which expires after an agreed period – a system to avoid to lose the control of the images.

Photography must be a big show for eyes, brain and heart if we want to seduce the great public, the youngsters and the press. That’s why our first selection of the images is based on their aesthetic quality and only at a later time on their documentary importance. The goal is to avoid that images are siginificative only from the historical point of view. In fact reactions to our proposals are positive only if images also have a strong visual and emotional impact. A curatorial choice which ensures an artistic appeal which immediately engages a larger audience than the limited rank of insiders. Recently, we made this approach explicit also inserting in the titles of our selections “…in the most beautiful photos of …”.

Images are digital reproductions of prints, negative films, etc. and they come from private and public archives all over the world. Photos are accompanied by journalistic-style texts. The logic is that of the captions of photo-news in the first illustrated magazines: human aspects are as important as the historical ones.  A choice of contents which seems to work very well. Professors in fact ask for a different way, compared to their lessons, to look at history: they want less notions and more emotions. Students, for their part, seem to be particularly attracted by the human side of history.


“Game of Craps”
August 1908, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine
© Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection
The picture comes from the exhibition “Lewis Hine. American Kids. The investigations of the famous American photographer on the underage condition of the poors and immigrants in the United States of the early 1900s in the photos preserved by the Library of Congress”, https://www.history-and-photography.com/lewis-hine-american-kids, on display until 27 January 2020 at “la Casa di Vetro” in Milan – https://www.lacasadivetro.com/

History & Photography project answers also to a need. In Italy, most schools and universities, in fact,  have digital black boards and web connections. What they don’t have are the contents. Professors are taught to get  images from internet, but it’s an art to choose beautiful images, it’s a profession to deal with copyrights. And it takes months to look for and choose images among thousands, to create an original sequence, to write texts. A demanding activity that only a few seem to want to take on. Finally, they also seem to refuse the concept of digital books: books are boring in any form for students. They look for already prepared and more contemporary alternative contents, which is exactly what we offer them.

The reactions have been very good, even if the project is still little and young. Italian press, in particularly, loves our project a lot – see https://www.history-and-photography.com/press. Rai Scuola website, the national television channel dedicated to teaching, have defined History & Photography “a unicum in Italy (and maybe in the world)” for its contents and its educational live and digital via web offer – see http://www.raiscuola.rai.it/gallery-refresh/i-have-a-dream-la-lotta-per-i-diritti-civili-degli-afroamericani-dalla-segregazione-razziale-a-martin-luther-king/1616/0/default.aspx. The comments people, professors and students write us after visiting our exhibitions show a great appreciation for our work – see https://www.history-and-photography.com/commenti-dei-visitatori.

A very strong stimulus to go on. Our final goal in the educational field is to revolutionize with images the way of teaching history and let the youngsters know the photo archives of the world. We need, now, partners to promote our project and spread it out all over the world. Beautiful photography is in fact a universal language with no cultural borders.

Alessandro Luigi Perna

5 comments

  1. Its like you read my mind. You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

    Liked by 1 person

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