What can a photograph tell us?

Monochrome photograph of five rows of children standing in front of a wagon with the words W & J Turner Colliery Wigan. They are posed for a group photo.

Photograph of Pit Brow Girls, just before starting their work, Photograph consisting of 27 girls & 2 boys. 1893. COPY 1/412

In this activity, we’ll guide you through the kinds of questions you could ask to explore a single photograph in depth. Our example photograph is the above photo of pit brow girls (girls who worked on the surface of a mine).

Questions to ask

In the video above, we take you through the potential answers to useful questions to ask about a photograph. The questions are below – try answering them yourself before watching the video! You can also find further questions that can relate to any documents in our Working with Sources guide.

  1. What type of source is this?
  2. Who produced it?
  3. When was it produced?
  4. What can we infer from this photograph?
  5. What values or attitudes does the photograph suggest?
  6. How does the photograph relate to a historical situation?
  7. Are there any clues about the audience of the photograph?
  8. How reliable is the photograph? Does it have any limitations?
  9. How does it relate to other sources from this period? Does it share the same ideas or arguments?

Read the video transcript

Download a PDF pack with the questions, activity table and images in the video


Study the details of the photograph and complete the table shown below, also found in the PDF pack. Add any other details with your explanation if you can. The first one has been done for you.

Detail in the photographWhat we can infer from it
Girls are wearing headscarvesThe work they did must have been dirty,
so they wore scarves to protect their hair

Challenge: Find your own photographic source from any period in history.

Note down what you find out about your photograph and its date, content, producer, and background.

Work with a partner:

Ask your partner to look at the photograph, but do not give them any information about it.

  • What points can they make about the value of the photograph?
  • Now share all your information about the photograph.
  • Has your partner pointed out anything new in their evaluation?
  • Why is it important to have information about the context/background when looking at photographs?