The Importance of Context When Examining Photographs

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

When leading our primary source workshop, I often pose the question to students “Are photographs accurate depictions of the events they are showing?”  Typically, students respond with “yes, of course.”  I prompt them to reconsider that response and ask what tools do we have available that may make that answer incorrect. This leads into a discussion of photo manipulation with tools such as Photoshop and staged or propaganda photographs and how we must use our cognitive thinking skills when examining photographs to use as evidence of events.

I was fortunate to attend the 2021 Archives Association of Ontario virtual conference in May.  The focus of the conference was doing the work to move our archival collections from their colonial roots into a more inclusive future.  The opening keynote address was entitled “Reimagining Our Futures: Photographs of Sports at Indian Residential Schools” and was delivered by Janice Forsyth.  Dr. Forsyth is an Associate Professor at Western University who specializes in exploring sport’s relationship to Indigenous and Canadian culture.

During her talk, Dr. Forsyth shared an image of a hockey team comprised of students from a residential school.  This image, along with hundreds of others, was an integral part of her research. The image was a typical hockey team pose.  Two rows of children, the ones in the front seated, those in the back standing, all wearing their equipment and smiling for the camera. If you just looked at the image without digging any further, it could be used to support those who argue that residential schools weren’t all bad. However, Dr. Forsyth wanted to know more about the image and the students in the photograph and was connected with one of the students.

Upon speaking with a gentleman who had been one of the students in the photograph, Dr. Forsyth was provided with a great deal of context that altered the information the photograph provided. In the photograph, the students are shown wearing new equipment; however, according to the former student, that equipment was brought in to be worn only for the photograph. In reality, the equipment they were provided with was very old and offered very little protection. He sat with Dr. Forsyth and provided context for more images from the school, all of which highlighted how the photographs were not accurate representations of what sports were like at that school but were stylized to provide a palatable representation of residential schools.

When looking at any photograph, it is always beneficial to include as much context as possible as it is context that allows us to better understand the image we are looking at.

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