Plan : To Censor or Not? The Power of War Photos

Subject Areas: Secondary History, Communication Arts, Journalism

Objective: Students will create a persuasive essay about the regulation and censorship of photographs.

Materials: Students will need to view selected sections of the "American Photography" series. They will also need to access the PBS website’s Photography and War essay. Finally, students will need access to the Internet, research materials, and a word processing program.


1. Choose a photo that represents a wartime event. (i.e. execution of Vietnamese soldier as seen in video or from the web site. See "Photography and War" Feature).

2. Have students look at the photo as you review the circumstances of the historic event.

3. Give students time to work in small groups to brainstorm their reaction to the photo (i.e. How did they feel as they saw it? What were their emotions as they viewed it? What did it make them think about? etc.)

4. The groups should share their brainstormed lists.

5. Facilitate a short discussion about the power of photographs, hitting on the idea that even though you may not know the subject personally, a photo can still have an effect on your emotions, feelings, and beliefs.

6. Students should view the following segments from the "American Photography"series.

Episode 1: First segment up to the point where the Brownie Camera is discussed

[IN Start of film. NARRATION: "In May, 1999, a devastating tornado tore up large areas of Kansas and central Oklahoma."]

[OUT 04:07:01 GAIL BUCKLAND: "There are many shots that we can’t even imagine living without, they become so fundamental to how we view ourselves and how we view a particular era."]  

Episode 1: WWI section

[ IN 28:45:23 NARRATION: "In 1917, the United States entered World War One. The war did have its enthusiastic supporters, but much of the country remained to be convinced. A large percentage of the population was isolationist, and believed that it was senseless for Americans to die in this distant European conflict."]

[OUT 32:55:21 NARRATION: "The pictures showed the truth — that modern warfare was anything but glorious."]

Episode 2: Entire WWII section

[IN 24:07:02 NARRATION: "In the early 1940s, the photograph had completed its conquest of America. After the success of LIFE, the news stands were overflowing with picture magazines."]

[OUT 37:11:10 NARRATOR: "Like the holocaust they documented, the photographs."]

Episode 3: Entire Vietnam War section including Life article on the faces of one week’s dead

[ IN 07:18:15 DAVID FRIEND: "For certain subjects, still photography is the most powerful medium, and I think war is one of those subjects.]


 Episode 3: Entire Gulf War section


[OUT 35:55:25 MIKE DEAVER: "If bringing war into the living room means that, that we as a people will say we don't want to do it that way anymore, we want to figure out other ways to solve these conflicts, then I would say, photography and television has done us a great service."]

 7. Have students go to the PBS site and access the Photography and War Feature. Read the essay as a group. Discuss and debate questions like the ones below and have students relate back to what they saw and learned in the videos to support their arguments and comments. For variety, students could be assigned to one of the groups listed and then complete the debate and discussion aspect after doing some research about the particular war they were assigned to. The research should include the gathering of photos related to their particular war.

Groups: WWI, WWII, Vietnam War, Gulf War

  • Should photographers be allowed on the front lines during war?
  • Should pictures of battle scenes and casualties be released for public viewing on television, in newspapers, and in magazines?
  • Is government censorship of wartime photos ever acceptable?
  • Should war photos be "staged"?
  • Have photos lost their "shock value"?

Exactly how far is too far when we talk about "freedom of press"?

8. Students are now ready to complete the project listed below. They should be prepared to share their work with the class. Write a persuasive essay or speech that takes a stand on wartime photos and censorship issues. In the essay, focus on a specific war, perhaps the one researched, discussed, and debated in the earlier activity. Discuss what limits, if any, should have been placed on photographers, editors, publishers, and the media in general. Give reasons, facts, examples, and details to support your arguments for or against the censorship or close control of the wartime photos and information. Include a photo that you believe represents and illustrates your point of view. When presenting the essay, show the photo and give a bit of background about it. Then give a brief explanation of how the photo supports what you are saying.

Assessment Suggestions:

1. Create a scoring guide the covers the following areas: statement of opinion about censorship of wartime photos, support of opinion with reasons, facts, examples, use of photo in presentation, selection of appropriate photo, correct use spelling, mechanics, grammar, and usage.

2. Have students present their persuasive essays for the class. Allow the class to use peer evaluation to point out strengths and weaknesses in the essay and the arguments presented there. If large group is too time consuming, split students into 5-6 small groups and have them present and evaluate one another’s essays.

Extension Activities:

1. Go back to the discussion items from step 7 (listed below) and facilitate a classroom debate. Students who are for censorship could argue their point, and those against it could present theirs. Students would need to find research to back them up and the formal rules of debate should be followed. Invite an unbiased panel of judges to evaluate the speakers and decide who will win each debate.

  • Should photographers be allowed on the front lines during war?
  • Should pictures of battle scenes and casualties be released for public viewing on television, in newspapers, and in magazines?
  • Is government censorship of wartime photos ever acceptable?
  • Should war photos be "staged"?
  • Have photos lost their "shock value"?
  • Exactly how far is too far when we talk about "freedom of press"?

2. Students could write a letter to the editor describing whether they believe photos should be censored. They will need to support their arguments with specific reasons, facts, examples, and details. Articles could then be submitted to the school or classroom newspaper.

National Standards: taken from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning

Standards are available at

Historical Understanding

Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

Language Arts

Standard 2: Demonstrates competence in the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Standard 3: Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Standard 8: Demonstrates competence in speaking and listening as tools for learning

Thinking and Reasoning

Standard 1: Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument

Biographical notes

Lisa Prososki has been a middle school language arts, social studies, reading, and technology teacher for the past twelve years in the North Kansas City School District. She has conducted numerous classes, presentations, and discussions about various curriculum issues and methods of instruction. In 1995, Lisa was named the Teacher of the Year in the North Kansas City School District. The following year, Technology andLearning magazine presented Lisa with the Missouri Technology Teacher of theYear Award. In her spare time, Lisa enjoys traveling, athletics, scrapbooking, and spending time with her husband.