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The Picturing Plattsburgh Project: HIS 104: "History in Photos" Student Exhibit

Exhibit created by students in Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus' HIS 104 class, Spring 2024


The Picturing Plattsburgh Project 
HIS104: “History in Photos” Student Exhibit


by Jessamyn Neuhaus

May 2024

Think back to the last time you had to read a history textbook. Did you look at some of the pictures before you started reading? Most of us enjoy looking at photos that document past events and which seem to capture a moment in time. Certain photographs of the American past have become so famous that virtually everyone has seen them, but most people don’t know how to actually interpret and understand photographs. Today, manipulating and altering a photograph is something anyone can do on their phone. In fact, with artificial intelligence, we can create realistic, totally convincing photos of things that never happened and don’t exist. 

So what can photos actually tell us about the past? What photographs in history are the most important and where can we find important, truthful history in photos? I posed these questions to students in January 2024, at the beginning of a general education history survey class called, “HIS 104: American Narratives.” As a historian and educator, I’m always searching for ways to make the study of the past and the tools of historical analysis meaningful and relevant to students today, and I know that photographs are one of the most compelling primary sources available when trying to understand the past. So I designed a section of HIS 104 titled, “History in Photos.” Link to the syllabus for “History in Photos:” Syllabus 

I promised students that: “In this course, you will learn what questions to ask about any photograph as evidence of past events, to examine photographs in their historical context, and understand their benefits and their limitations as a window into the past. Come to this class prepared to see something you’ve done your whole life—look at and take photographs—in a whole new way, and to view the American past through the lens of a camera/camera phone.” 

In addition to the Cardinal Core (the SUNY Plattsburgh general education program) learning outcomes, “History in Photos” had four specific student learning outcomes: 

  1. Use photographs as primary sources to increase your own understanding of life and events in the United States from 1877 to today
  2. Identify what information you need about a photograph and its historical context when you are using photos as primary sources
  3. Explain how photographs as primary sources document diverse American identities, including how some groups experienced bias and discrimination, and worked to create change from 1877 to today 
  4. Apply what you’ve learned about photographs as primary sources to document life on campus at SUNY Plattsburgh, particularly the diverse identities of our students, faculty, and staff

The culmination of Student Learning Outcome #4 is this online exhibit, “The Picturing Plattsburgh Project.” Link to the project assignment details: Picturing Plattsburgh Assignment 

This online exhibit consists of photographs taken by students in the Spring 2024 HIS 104: “History in Photos” class. Every student took at least three photos documenting some aspect of their own daily life as undergraduate students at a small, regional state university in 2024. In addition, students documented with their photos a major celestial event on April 8, 2024: a total solar eclipse. (Being in the path of totality, students, staff, faculty, and campus visitors to Plattsburgh witnessed the full eclipse.) 

Then, we as a class discussed all the photos, and selected the ones we felt were most historically significant and represented important parts of college life. We then organized the photos into four categories: 

  • Campus Places and Student Places
  • College Activities 
  • Student Life
  • Total Solar Eclipse

Students provided a short written description of their photos and a recorded brief discussion with some additional details about their photo. Not every photo includes a recording as well, and some students did not want to turn on their cameras to record their comments. But each of the  videos included with these photos offered a way for students to have their voices–literally and figuratively–included in the exhibit.

These photos are not highly artistic or professionally-crafted journalistic photographs but rather casual and ordinary photographs (usually referred to by students as “pictures”), taken mostly–though not solely–with their smartphones. With the exception of the eclipse photos, none of these photos document exceptionally rare or groundbreaking events. But they do reveal many details about day to day life for undergraduate students at Plattsburgh, including ways students socialized, studied, and attended to basic needs like food and laundry in 2024. Seen as a whole, they vividly reflect the hopes, challenges, and social bonds shared by many young adults pursuing a college degree in 2024. 

Exhibit Design by Jessamyn Neuhaus and Special Collections Librarian Debra Kimok

Profile Photo
Debra Kimok
Benjamin F. Feinberg Library
FL 132
SUNY Plattsburgh
2 Draper Avenue
Plattsburgh, NY 12901