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
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.
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?
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Program 1 A Closer Look (video)
This introduction to the course models the process of analyzing photographs with teachers and students. Photography historian Makeda Best discusses the Focus In method with teachers, and educator Julie Keefe employs the method with students at a photography exhibit on "light and dark." Photography curator at the Portland Art Museum, Julia Dolan discusses how she carefully selects a set of photographs to tell a larger story.
Program 2 Witness (video)
Photographs bear witness to world events and help us to learn more about people, places, and situations -- historical and present day. Middle school teacher Donald Rose guides students in analyzing photos from school integration movements of the 1960s. Documentary film producer Ken Burns weaves photographs into historical narratives to bring the past to life. Photojournalist Louie Palu's photos take us deep into mines and war zones, and engage us with the individuals who take on those tasks.
Program 3 Lives (video)
Lives explores the story of human resilience and perseverance. Middle school teacher Donald Rose uses the Migrant Mother photos by Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange to help students understand what elements a photographer chooses to focus on to create the greatest impact. Historian Linda Gordon, biographer of FSA photographer Dorothea Lange reveals Lange's role in engaging Americans in the plight of those who were most devastated. New Orleans documentary photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick talk about the transformation of their photographs after Hurricane Katrina and working with young photographers to preserve the city's cultural heritage.
video 4 Evidence (video)
An image can show us otherwise invisible processes, previously undiscovered life forms, and dramatic change over time. High school teacher Rima Givot engages her students with highly magnified photos of mouse muscle to study genetically modified organisms. Scientist and photomicrographer Dennis Kunkel demonstrates the fascinating process of creating photographs of the microscopic world. Environmental photographer Gary Braasch reports on his worldwide travels to document the state of the planet through repeat photography.
Program 5 Story (video)
Every photograph tells a story: of struggle, of beauty, of community and culture. Social studies teacher Kim Kanof uses photos from the Protests and Politics collection to teach about protests around in the world in 1968. National Geographic photo editor Pamela Chen details the collaborative process of creating photo-based feature stories with design director David Whitmore. Iowa photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier discusses his work documenting the residents and images of marginalized communities across the United States.