December 25th, 2001
W. Eugene Smith: Photo Journalism and Compassion
Procedures for Teachers

Background Activities

Activity One

  1. Bring in pictures from your local newspaper.

  2. Show the collage of Eugene Smith’s work from the following website:

  3. Allow time for the students to view the pictures.

  4. Smith was described as being a perfectionist, an artist, and a poet. Ask the students if they would agree with that statement. Elicit examples from students to support their opinions.

  5. Ask students to compare and contrast Smith’s pictures to the pictures from the local newspaper.

  6. Discuss the differences.

Activity Two

Smith, in the early years of his career, photographed the fighting in Japan during World War ll. Smith hated war and what it stood for. He avoided pictures that romanticized war; instead he wanted to express compassion for the victims of war (both soldiers and civilians). This activity compares Smith’s view of the Japanese people to how Japanese/Americans were viewed and treated by the United States government.

  1. Initiate a discussion with students regarding the attitudes toward Japanese/Americans during World War ll. Write students’ responses on the board.

  2. To find more information on the subject, send students to the history section of PBS’s The Children of the Camps: The Documentary website. This website may be found at the following address:
  3. Discuss the site with students.

  4. In the PBS American Master’s program Photography Made Difficult, a friend of W. Eugene Smith reads the following message Smith wrote on the back of one of his photographs when he was in Japan:

  5. “…but for the luck of the United States birth my people could be these people, my children could be those children. I saw my daughter and my wife and my mother and my son reflected in the tortured faces of another race. Accident of birth, accident of home. Each time I pressed the release it was a shouted condemnation hurled with the hopes that it might survive through the years and at least echo through the minds of men.”
  6. Discuss the differences in perceptions that Smith and the US government (propaganda and internment camps) held of the Japanese people and people of Japanese descent.

  7. W. Eugene Smith wanted his work to carry a message. Do you think he achieved this in his war photographs?

  8. What effect do his war photographs have on you personally?


Activity One

Smith’s Photo-Essays

Duration: Two 50 min. sessions (Excluding class time for presentations.)

Following his years as war photographer, Smith made the transition to the area of photojournalism. In this lesson students will look at some of Smith’s photo-essays. A photo-essay is a collection of a number of pictures on a particular theme. Photo-essays offer a broader, more intense, view of their subject than is possible with a single photograph.



Search your school or local library for books containing W. Eugene Smith’s work. A list of suggested titles might be found in the materials section of this lesson.

The following website contains his Country Doctor photo-essay from Life Magazine:

This site contains a very brief description of some of the photo-essays.

1. Break students into small groups.

2. Visit the PBS American Masters website at the following location:

3. Read the section about Smith’s photo-essays and answer the following questions:

  • What was different about the way Smith chose to create his photo-essays?

  • Do you think this approach is evident in his work? How?

4. Depending on the resources you were able to locate, assign each group one of the following photo essays:

  • Like a Country Doctor

  • Franco in Spain

  • Midwife (African American midwife working in the backcountry of North Carolina)

  • Minamata (Effects of mercury poisoning from factory in Japan)

  • Albert Schwitzer (His work in Africa)

5. Pass out the following list of questions for each group to answer.

  • Describe the setting of the photo essay (time, place). Include any information about the time period that may be relevant to the essay.

  • Smith wanted his work to carry a message. What message was Smith trying to convey through his work?

  • Smith has been described as a perfectionist, an artist, and a poet. Select and make a copy of an example of his work that you think best illustrates each description of Smith. Write a brief explanation.

  • Smith said that he was always looking for truth in his photographs. Did you find examples of truth in his work? Write a brief explanation of what you found.

  • What impact do you think his work might have had on people’s understanding of the subject of the essay? Explain.

6. Create an oral presentation from the answers to your questions. Be sure to include examples of Smith’s work.

7. Present the material to the class.



Activity Two

Make a Pinhole Camera

Duration: Three 50 min. sessions (Time may vary depending on amount of work done outside the classroom.)

  1. Send students to the Exploratorium site to learn how to make a pinhole camera.

  2. Working in groups of two or three students, have each group make a pinhole camera.

  3. Each student will research the scientific basis behind cameras, and write an explanation of how cameras work. Be sure to include at least one illustration.

  4. Pick one of your photos and write a paragraph containing the following information:

  • What do you like the most about the photo?

  • What are you the least happy with about the photo?

  • What did you hope to capture in the photo when you released the shutter?

  • Was your original idea captured in the print in the way you had expected? Explain.

  1. Each group will shoot a roll of film, develop the film, and share its prints with the class.



Activity Three

Create a Photo-Essay

Duration: Four 50 min. sessions (Time may vary depending on amount of work done outside the classroom.)

In this lesson students will work alone or with a partner to create their own photo-essay.

  1. Discuss the elements found in W. Eugene Smith’s photo-essays.

    • How did the pictures work together to enrich the theme of the essay?

    • How did the pictures shape the story? (Discuss how the pictures were organized.)

    • Do you think Smith used every photo that he took? (Discuss the need to edit and select certain photographs to tell your story.)

  2. Photo-essays may include topics such as people, an event, an idea, or a place. Brainstorm possible ideas for students’ photo essays.

  3. Allow time for students to discuss the direction that they want to take with their photo-essay. Make sure that they have selected a manageable topic before they begin work.

  4. Like the Smith photo essays, students’ photo essays will contain text as well as photos. Create a class rubric which will be used to evaluate students’ photo essays. The following site contains ideas for rubrics:
  5. Display students’ completed work.



Activity One

Students will be evaluated on the quality of their oral presentation.

Did the student include the following in their presentation?

  • Description of the setting.

  • Details relevant to the time period.

  • A copy of, and explanation of, examples of the perfection, art and poetry in Smith’s work.

  • Example of, and explanation of, “truth” in Smith’s work.

  • Explanation of impact of Smith’s work.

Activity Two

Students will be evaluated on the following:

  • The completion of a working camera.

  • An explanation of the way a camera works.

  • The description of their photograph.

Activity Three

Students’ photo essays will be evaluated on the basis of the class rubric.


Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2015 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.