Images and film are very powerful visual aids for teaching and learning. I must confess that I have not always used them effectively in my teaching. I use PowerPoints for all my classes and I spend a considerable amount of time selecting images that go with my slides. Yet, the images are only used for illustration purposes. They could do more with them! I sparingly use movies. Usually, one movie for the whole semester. Why? I have been very skeptical of movies because most times they dramatize and tell stories in ways that simply appeal to the audience, even when not historically accurate. Paul Weinstein has rightly observed that in movies, “Facts can be twisted, timeliness conflated, endings revised for perceived audience satisfaction. The bottom line in the film business is not accuracy but profit.” He goes on to argue that these perceived weaknesses of film can actually be turned into advantages. This can be done by utilizing “film as a gateway to history.”
Understanding the historical inaccuracies that are in film or images is important to making better use of these important historical sources. It was often said that ‘Photos don’t lie!” Is that actually the case? Today, we have abundant softwares and apps that can manipulate photos. A photo can be edited to show President Obama and I shaking each other’s hands. Ever used any of the Instagram filters? You can even transpose one face to another body or marsh two faces to create one. ‘Okay, that is today,’ you may say, ‘they couldn’t do that a century ago.” Perhaps they did not have the sophisticated technologies we have today but they still manipulated photos. Some of the photos we find in historical archives today were staged by photographers. The person taking the photo wanted to tell a story. It is still the case today. Do you see some of those photographs taken by charities working in Africa? They always have children or women looking poor, barely with any clothes on their bodies. As a kid, the Europeans were never interested in having photos of me or any of my neighbors. They went to the remote villages to take photos of the most vulnerable. Those photos were used to tell a story, that every black person living in Nigeria was poor. So, understanding the context of the photo is important. This is not to say that photos and films are not important sources for doing history, we have to be aware that these are not uncontroverted evidences and we can ask these sources questions “that are parallel to those we ask of historical books.”
Knowing this, how can I use images and films more effectively in class? I have to change the approach of using images simply for illustration purposes. Together with the class, we can question these images. Who took the photograph? why was it taken? what kind of camera was used? What editing was done to the photo? Is it a staged photo and why? What are some of the elements in the photo? Is there any reason why the photographer included certain elements and not others? Together with the students, we try to uncover the history behind the image. I can have them identify certain things that are unique with the image. I can also take the image, make some editing to it and have them try to spot the differences and to tell me why certain things are emphasized in one image and not in the other and what the image teaches us?
The same approach can be applied to film as well. I can assign the students a film and make them uncover the historical differences between what is portrayed in the film and what is in other historical sources. I will have them spot the differences, what is emphasized in the film that helped them have a better appreciation of the event. I will ask them, If they were expert historians asked to consult on the making of the film, how would they approach the historical facts? I will also have them focus on the technical aspects of the film, as well as the context of the film. Who are those in charge of the film? What other films have they done? Is there a relationship between this film and their other work? How does the original script compares to the final project? What was cut out of the film? Why?
In this way, the students are trained to be historical detectives who are trying to uncover the evidence that is depicted in the image or film. With this approach, I am not doing a one-way lecture on the film, but together with them, I am helping them have a better grasp of the historical event by following the same procedures historians use when doing history.