December 29th, 2001
W. Eugene Smith: Photo Journalism and Compassion
Lesson Overview


“I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war – the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men; and, that my photographs might be a powerful emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again.” Quote from W. Eugene Smith regarding the photographs he took during World War ll.

This American Master’s series lesson for teachers will look at the work of W. Eugene Smith.

W. Eugene Smith is considered to be one of the world’s greatest photojournalists. Smith saw himself as a perfectionist, artist, and a poet. He used these traits to change the world of the photo-essay, and to create some of the most compelling photo-essays of the twentieth century. In this lesson students will learn about Smith’s compassion for the human race through his work during WW2, examine W. Eugene Smith’s photo-essays, build a pinhole camera, and create their own photo-essay.

Grade Level

9 – 12

Subject Areas

The Arts, History, Science, Language Arts


In this lesson students will:

  • develop an appreciation for photography as an art.

  • evaluate Smith’s photographs.

  • analyze one of Smith’s photo-essays.

  • construct a pinhole camera.
  • create a personal photo-essay.


  • corrugated cardboard from a box, or stiff cardboard from the back of a pad of paper

  • black paper

  • black tape

  • a cartridge of 126 film

  • aluminum foil
  • two large rubber bands

  • a ruler

  • a pencil

  • scissors

  • a sharp knife

  • a straight pin or sewing needle

Suggested Books

  • Lincoln, Kirsten; Smith, W. Eugene Smith: His Photographs and Notes.
    Aperture, 1993. ISBN 0893815349
  • Maddow, Ben, Let Truth Be the Prejudice: W. Eugene Smith His Life and Photographs.
    Aperture, 1985. ISBN 0893811793

  • Beauret, Gabriel ed; Hall John T. ed, W. Eugene Smith: Photographs 1934-1975.
    Henry N. Abrams, 1998. ISBN 0810941910

  • Smith, Aileen M.; Smith, Eugene W., Minamata.
    Center Creative Photography, 1981.

  • Smith, Eugene W., Photo Library.
    Pantheon Books, 1986.

Suggested Websites


Visual Arts

Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts

  • Applies media, techniques, and processes with sufficient skill, confidence, and sensitivity that one’s intentions are carried out in artworks
  • Understands how the communication of ideas relates to the media, techniques, and processes one uses

Knows how to use structures and functions of art

  • Understands how the characteristics and structures of art are used to accomplish commercial, personal, communal, or other artistic intentions

Understands the characteristics and merits of one’s own artwork and the artwork of others

  • Identifies intentions of those creating artworks
  • Knows how specific works are created and relate to historical and cultural contexts


Understands the causes and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs

  • Understands the influence of international events on U.S. policies and political developments (e.g., Roosevelt’s foreign policy toward Latin America and the reasons for the Good Neighbor Policy; the effect of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 on the U.S. Communist Party)

Working With Others

Contributes to the overall effort of a group

  • Challenges practices in a group that are not working
  • Contributes to the development of a supportive climate in groups

Language Arts / Writing

Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions

  • Uses complex and compound-complex sentences in written compositions
  • Uses conventions of punctuation in written compositions (e.g., uses commas with nonrestrictive clauses and contrasting expressions, uses quotation marks with ending punctuation, uses colons before extended quotations, uses hyphens for compound adjectives, uses semicolons between independent clauses, uses dashes to break continuity of thought)

Gathers and uses information for research purposes

  • Synthesizes information from multiple research studies to draw conclusions that go beyond those found in any of the individual studies


Understands the sources and properties of energy

  • Knows ways in which light interacts with matter (e.g., transmission, including refraction; absorption; scattering, including reflection)


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