Images and films have a rather short history within the field of history due to their relative time of inception as technological advancements. Yet, these items are some of the things that we can safely say have revolutionized how historical work is done and presented. They have also provided another means for historians to practice their craft.
Photographs, for example, have been around for slightly longer than films. Because of their nature—the still image of a moment in time—it seems that they have been more readily accepted as a means of transmitting historical knowledge than film, which is plagued by notions of inaccuracy and fictitious recounting through wanton use of the creative license. However, both are fraught with their own problems and distortions if not properly studied, which can also be said of any text. This is to say that images and film can prove to be just as useful for teaching about history—and making this teaching interesting—as the most captivating written account.
Particularly now in the digital age, these mediums are ubiquitous throughout many aspects of our daily lives, including the field of history. Even now, I am writing to you about history through a digital platform. The information I am presenting to you, the reader, was obtained through digital mediums (except for the assigned readings I printed out as I do like the feel of a hardcopy). And the final work I have been conducting over the course of these semesters have all been hosted digitally and utilize digital tools, digitized images, and informational digital videos. The reality is that regardless of how we feel about these mediums and their usage in the classroom, someone is already using them to reach your audience.
With this in mind, there are many uses for images and films in history. Because of the transformative nature of the digital age, images can include digitized photographs, stills of artwork, sketches and so on. Films can range from documentaries to feature films to biopics. All of these can have a place in historical research and teaching of history. What is important is that we practice historical thinking with all of them. When we analyze a piece of writing, we look to understand the piece holistically. Who authored it? Why did they author it? Who was/is the audience? What was the political/social/economic context the piece was written under? What do others say about it? Similarly, we ask these questions about photos and films (though maybe with slight alterations to suit the medium). With images, we should account for what is not in the image and if the image was altered for things such as publication. With films, we should account for the techniques used for narration and understand the interpretative conclusions reached through use of creative license.
For the work that I do (and will be doing), the use of images will likely have a key role. Many historical images related to American Indians exist today. From the creation of artwork and iconography like Lakota winter long count calendars and ledger art to collections of battlefield photographs and portraits by the likes of Edward S. Curtis, there are many opportunities to present imagery to potential audiences such as students. And with these opportunities, come the chances to expand on encouraging historical thinking.
As I explained in the beginning paragraphs of this post, we can do more than just present these items to students. This would leave them with the assumption that photos are simple true representations of historical reality, a piece objective in nature. Rather, we need to work to contextualize them and treaty these as any other source of information that we can verify. For me, all of the above instances would be great sources for teaching with images. They are open to the general analysis and evaluation of their historical accuracy and authenticity, but they also leave room for a cultural analysis—in a historical and contemporary sense. How did the cultures that created these pieces view them? How did they intend for them to be used? How has their perception transformed with time? How does their perception influence modern historical/social/political narratives?
It may come as a surprise to some to know that American Indians have been the subject of films since the early days of cinema. And these films have greatly influenced how American Indians have been, and continue to be, perceived.
Just like with photographs, we need to examine the context around the creation of a film if we want to understand its role in teaching about history. Though there is plenty of problematic content we can scrutinize and use for detecting inaccuracies, we have to analyze more than just the content. Natalie Zemon Davis brings this point home when they explain that
Reviewers of historical films often overlook techniques in favor of a chronological summary of the plot or story line and the overall look of the moving picture in terms of costumes and props … viewers respond as well to the film’s modes of narration, just as readers respond to the organization and rhetorical disposition of a history book.¹
This standard applies to all films. Feature films and historical depictions would probably be my focus if I were to pick particular films to show the audience. I feel like these both can capture historical depictions and contemporary feelings that are comparable to active narratives in society today. However, there would not be an overwhelming focus on spotting inaccuracies. Just like with images, I would use a cultural framework to help students deduce the impact and value of the films. What were the intentions behind the creation of the films? Were they striving for accuracy and/or authenticity? Did the film utilize cultural consultants? How does the film influence stereotypes/existing narratives?
Images, films, sounds—all these things can be, and often are, used to crafted digital stories. These can be used to teach and they can be used to demonstrate the practice of historical thinking. In digital storytelling, the producer is bringing narration into a more active role. Rather than having it told through the plot or by the silence of text or imagery, the producer is adding the entertaining and informative values through their interpretation of items and the crafting of the story they tell. This can be a powerful tool for an audience, whether they be students in a classroom or viewers sitting at home.
For me, I see the versatility of digital storytelling. It can be used for assignment project; it can be used as an exercise for student in a classroom; and it can be used to conduct the teaching of others. An interesting application for digital storytelling would be its use in priming students for larger assignments in a classroom/coursework type setting. In addition to assigning readings or informational videos, using digital stories that highlight microhistories can prove to be a beneficial tool for demonstrating novel presentation of otherwise mundane sources. It helps to bridge that gap of accuracy and authenticity by providing the viewer of the topic with an engaging modality that isn’t required to sacrifice accuracy in the name of entertainment. With this, one is accomplishing the encouragement of historical thinking and interest in the topic in a multidimensional way, as opposed to the rather one-dimensional approach of text-based materials.
1. Natalie Zemon Davis, “Film as Historical Narrative,” in Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), 8.