Reading PhotographsHow can you use historical photographs to tell stories about the past?

A good historical photo can be powerful. When we look at photos from BC’s gold rushes—the faces of the people, the objects they hold, the buildings and land around them—we feel as if we know the people and their world better than words can tell us in a book. However, we need to be careful not to think that these pictures tell a complete story. Just as words take time and effort to read and think about what they mean, so do photographs.

Because photographers cannot include everything in a picture, they have to make some decisions. What or who should be in the picture? What or who should be left out? How should it be organized? Who is going to see my picture? How do I want my audience to feel?

In the first reading, we will ask that you take a close look at a photograph of the Cariboo Gold Rush and then, like a historian, use your background knowledge to make sense of it.

Curiosity is the best quality that you can bring to a source from the past. Asking questions will help you tease out the many and sometimes hidden meanings in photographs. We will suggest a few questions and then ask you to think of your own questions.

“Thinking Like a Historian” (Read section) will also point to where you can dig deeper into your questions. Historians look at a wide variety of sources and cross-check their answers. You will need to do the same thing to tell your own story of the people and places in gold rush times.

“Gold Rush Photographer” will ask you to think about the photographer Frederick Dally. It invites you to be a detective, to find out why he took this photograph and why his pictures of the gold rush have become so well known.

There are also “Tips for Teachers” who would like some assistance with choosing and teaching with historical photographs.


The following documents are exercises to help you practice reading photographs like a historian. There are also documents to help teachers use photographs in the classroom.



What stories of the Cariboo Gold Rush do photos help to tell? Watch this short tutorial on how to take a photograph from simple face value to deeper inferences about the past.



Look closer. Examine images related to this subject. Click an image to enlarge and see captions. How would you describe the picture?