Skip to main content Skip to main content

Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Focus in on this Photo: #5020 Columbia University, New York, 1968

#5020 The black and white photograph depicts a group of young people sitting on the floor in the entry hall of a building. The young people gesture in the direction of the open door on the right. An older man on the left stands in front of the closed door and leans in to look at the group.


Date: April 1968
Location: New York, New York
Photographer: unknown
Source: Bettmann/Corbis /AP Images


Scholarly behavior included such things as demonstrations, confrontations, and sometimes ended in violence. At Columbia University in April, a professor finds an entrance blocked during student sit-ins. Students took over four buildings during a big protest demonstration. New York City police were called in to get some out of the buildings.


A group of young people sits on the floor in the lobby of a building, occupying all floor space up to the doorway. The pair in the front has a blanket spread across their laps. Some of them make “peace” signs with their fingers.


On the left, an older man peers into the lobby. Because of his suit and the dossier of documents he holds, he appears to be someone of some authority.



The encounter between the demonstrators and the authority figure seems unconfrontational.


Through the expressions and gestures of the students, the photograph conveys a sense of excitement, intensity, and unity.

Build on Your Observations

The number of students, their sitting postures, their peace signs, and their means of blocking the doorway are clues to the fact that this is a demonstration.


The vantage point of the photographer gives us a view from the outside, and conveys that this is an occupation.


The vantage point of the photographer, who stands outside the door, not only demonstrates for the viewer the tactics of the protestors, but it also serves to convey the mood of the scene in this enclosed space.

Make Inferences

The photograph portrays unified students coming together in protest, and asserting their role as more than just students—but as members of society. The date and caption tell us this is Columbia University in New York City in the spring of 1968. On April 23rd, University students began a nonviolent occupation of campus buildings. Among other issues, students and community supporters were protesting the university’s research that they contended ultimately supported the war in Vietnam.

The photograph illustrates the fact that as part of their campus-wide strike, Columbia students took over university buildings and offices for a week, including the office of the university president, Grayson Kirk. As many as 200 students occupied one building. They communicated between buildings via walkie-talkie.

The sign taped to the door on the left is a significant detail. The sign has the heading “Liberated Building,” a phrase students used to declare their occupation. Students identified each occupied building as “liberated” by a banner or sign. Some signs read: “This is a liberated building which all sympathetic to the cause are welcome to enter through the corner window!” Others read “Liberated Building – Support the Strike!”

Formulate Further Questions

What was the response of the administration?

Did students on other campuses make similar actions? On behalf of what causes?

What were the common sentiments among university students at this time that led them to participate in such protest activities?

What was the impact of this protest?

Series Directory

Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. © 2015
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-905-6