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Become an Ethnographic Photographer

Grades: 9, 10, 11, 12
Related Subjects: English - Language Arts, History - Social Science, Visual & Performing Arts
Medium: Mixed Media, Photography
Class time required: 2 X 50 minute sessions
Author: Museum of Photographic Arts

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Ethnography is the study of specific cultures. An ethnographic photographer uses photography to study the traditions, customs, daily life, ceremonies, and people of particular cultures. In this lesson, students will document their own culture through photography.


  • Camera (see Teachers Prep)
  • Film Processing Lab
  • Glue
  • Ring Binder
  • Several sheets of card stock paper
  • Writing materials


Vanishing Race – Navaho

Vanishing Race – Navaho
Edward Sheriff Curtis

An Oasis in the Badlands, South Dakota

An Oasis in the Badlands, South Dakota
Edward Sheriff Curtis

Portrait of a Family of Five

Portrait of a Family of Five
William Southgate Porter


Marc Riboud

Patan Durbar Square, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

Patan Durbar Square, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal
Kevin Bubriski

Teachers Preparation

Session One:

  • Familiarize yourself with the work of artist Edward Curtis.
  • Print the images listed above onto overhead transparencies.

Session Three:

  • Develop film or print digital images from Session Two.

Teaching Tips

  • Depending on time and budget, you can have your students bring in their own cameras, provide one-use cameras for each student, or use one or several digital cameras shared by the students. If you use a digital camera, you will also need a color inkjet printer and a computer to print the images, instead of using a photo processing lab.
  • A contemporary photographer to examine is Steve McCurry


Session One:
1. Introduce students to the work of artist Edward Curtis.

2. Have your students answer the following questions about their cultures:
• Where do the people from your culture live?
• What language do they speak?
• What are some of their beliefs?
• What are some of the customs of your culture?
• Do people today still follow these customs or have the ideas changed through the years?

• What ceremony or event is important to your culture? Why is it important?

Session Two:
1. Have your students document their cultures using photographs. Students can also include images from magazines, newspapers, books, etc.

Session Three:
1. After the photographs are developed, ask the student to choose several images that best represents their cultures.

2. Have the students arrange the images in their portfolio (ring binder)—one photograph to a page.

3. Glue the photographs into place.

4. On the opposite page, ask the students to write about the photograph, explaining what the photograph reveals about that particular culture.

History-Social Science: Students can research a culture from a different country and create a portfolio using images and historical documents.

English-Language Arts: Choose a culture from an American Literature novel. Using images and text from the novel, analyze the ways in which this culture was/is represented and/or misrepresented.

English-Language Arts: Students can use Web sites and books about Edward Curtis to research the reasons why Curtis photographed Native Americans. Have students write a reflective or persuasive composition about Curtis’s work and complete a similar project based on a culture they feel needs to be documented.


CA Content Standards

Ninth – Twelfth Grade Visual Arts
1.1 Identify and use the principles of design to discuss, analyze, and write about visual aspects in the environment and in works of art, including their own.

1.3 Research and analyze the work of an artist and write about the artist's distinctive style and its contribution to the meaning of the work.

2.2 Prepare a portfolio of original two-and three-dimensional works of art that reflects refined craftsmanship and technical skills.

2.6 Create a two or three-dimensional work of art that addresses a social issue.

Eleventh Grade History-Social Science
11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.

Ninth and Tenth Grade Language Arts
3.12 Analyze the way in which a work of literature is related to the themes and issues of its historical period. (Historical approach)

2.4 Write persuasive compositions.

Eleventh and Twelfth Language Arts
3.2 Analyze the way in which the theme or meaning of a selection represents a view or comment on life, using textual evidence to support the claim.

3.5 Analyze recognized works of American literature representing a variety of genres and traditions.

3.8 Analyze the clarity and consistency of political assumptions in a selection of literary works or essays on a topic (e.g., suffrage, women's role in organized labor). (Political approach).

3.9 Analyze the philosophical arguments presented in literary works to determine whether the authors' positions have contributed to the quality of each work and the credibility of the characters. (Philosophical approach).

2.3 Write reflective compositions.

2.6 Deliver multimedia presentations.


Boesen, Victor. Edward S. Curtis, Photographer of the North American Indian. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1977.

Curtis, Edward S. The Plains Indian Photographs of Edward S. Curtis. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Curtis, Edward S. Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race. New York: Crowell, 1986.

Curtis, Edward S. Portraits from North American Indian Life. New York: Promontory Press, 1972.

Curtis, Edward S. Prayer to the Great Mystery: The Uncollected Writings and Photographs of Edward S. Curtis. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Curtis, Edward S. The Master Prints. Santa Fe, N.M.: Arena Editions, 2001.

Curtis, Edward S. The North American Indians: a Selection of Photographs from Edward S. Curtis. New York: Aperture, 1972.

Davis, Barbara A. Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1985.

Lyman, Christopher M. The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis. New York: Pantheon Books in association with the Smithsonian Institution, 1982.

Library of Congress
Extended article and images on Edward Curtis written by Gerald Vizenor, Professor, American Studies, University of California, Berkeley in October, 2000.

Library of Congress
Selected images and descriptions of artist Edward Curtis.

Curtis Collection
Features The Curtis Collection, the largest and most extensive collection of Copper Photogravure Plates ever produced. These Copper Photogravure Plates represent the life work of Edward Sheriff Curtis and his massive documentation of Native Americans, "The North America Indian."

Smithsonian Institution Library
Presents images and descriptions of works displayed for an exhibition of Edward Curtis’s work at The Smithsonian Institute.

PBS Series: American Masters
Web site focuses on the controversial aspects of Edward Curtis’ work and features real dialogue between Curtis and the Native Americans he observed and photographed.


Museum of Photographic Arts
Mingei Museum Timken Museum of Art

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