Standard Lesson

Comparing Portrayals of Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Photography and Literature

6 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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Huck Finn's moral journey parallels Mark Twain's questions about slavery.  Like the photographers of the nineteenth-century, Twain, a Realist, struggled with how best to portray fictionalized characters, while still expressing truth and creating social commentary.  In this lesson, students use a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast Mark Twain's novel and excerpts from Frederick Douglass' narrative to original photographs of slaves from the late-nineteenth century.  Then they write an essay to compare the different portrayals, arguing to what extent art can reliably reflect truth.  In addition, they will discuss art as social commentary.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Our students live in a world where information comes to them in visual and auditory form much more frequently than in written form.  Thus it is not surprising to see evidence that they sometimes have difficulty making the connection, via imagination, between written word and the experience that it represents.  Photographs can become subject matter for talking about and writing as well as exemplars for writing.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology



Professor Reuben provides key points about the Local Color Movement and Realism along with study questions.

Although this background focuses on photography after 1880, the short essay also offers a discussion of the role of industrialization in photography as well as an overview of how photographers were attempting to reflect the Realist movement of European painting.

This timeline provides a clear overview of the advancement of photography during the nineteenth century.

The Digital Library provides clean copies of public domain texts produced by Project Gutenberg and other online sources.  Students can access the complete copy of Douglass’ narrative.

The American Museum of Photography provides online access to historical photographs, including these representations of slave life from the mid-nineteenth century.

Provides Twain’s unique perspective on the role of photography in his contemporary world.


  1. Students should have finished reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  2. Preview background material related to nineteenth-century photography and depictions of slavery in the PowerPoint presentation.
  3. Arrange access to computers with Internet access for all sessions.  Prepare bookmarks of the online gallery, “The Face of Slavery & Other Early Images of African Americans” at the American Museum of Photography and Chapter 1 from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass.  Also, familiarize yourself with and prepare bookmarks of the Venn Diagram, 3 Circles, the Comparison and Contrast Guide, and the Compare & Contrast Map.
  4. Schedule access to the computers for these sessions and arrange access to an LCD projector, if necessary.
  5. Photocopy Essay Assignment and Rubric (one copy per student).

Student Objectives

Students will

  • write journal entries in which they evaluate Jim’s personality, Frederick Douglass’ personality, and quotations about truth and misrepresentation by Mark Twain.
  • learn about the historical and cultural context of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as it related to the development of photography.
  • describe photographs of slaves in an on-line gallery.
  • organize the descriptions of Jim, the photographs and Frederick Douglass by using the Venn Diagram, 3 Circles.
  • complete a pre-writing activity in which they organize the similarities and differences between the photographs and either Jim or Frederick Douglass using a Compare & Contrast Map.
  • write an essay in which they compare and contrast the photographs with either Jim or Frederick Douglass, argue that one piece is a more reliable depiction of slavery, and argue to what extent truth can be depicted in art.

Session One

  1. Begin by having the students respond to the following in writing in their journals:
    • List 5 words to describe Jim’s personality.  What impression do you have of him? 
    • What do you think is his opinion of Huck Finn?  
    • Do you think he is a believable character?  Why or why not?
    • Mark Twain wrote:  “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain't so.”
 (Notebook, 1898)  Do you agree or disagree with Mark Twain?  Explain.  Do you think that the truth always prevails, even in fiction?  What problems do you think a writer faces when trying to reflect reality?  Does this quotations change your opinion of Mark Twain’s depictions of Jim?  Why or why not?
  2. As a class, review students’ journal responses to describe Jim, and have students record all the adjectives on their own paper.  Then, lead a discussion about Mark Twain’s quotation (above).

  3. Provide students with an overview of the historical context of the novel by using the PowerPoint presentation.

Session Three

  1. Begin by having the students respond to the following in writing:
    • List 5 words to describe Frederick Douglass’ personality. 
    • What impression do you have of him? 
    • What surprised you most about his memories of slavery? 
    • What was the most memorable or striking moment from this chapter?
  2. Introduce students to the Interactive Venn Diagram, 3 Circles and the Compare & Contrast Map.  Give groups a choice of which interactive to complete to compare Jim in Huckleberry Finn and/or Frederick Douglass to the photographs of slaves.
  3. Students use the remainder of the session to complete their Venn Diagrams or their Compare & Contrast Map.  Remind students to print their work when they are finished, as it will not save.
  4. Before they leave, have each group share one way in which Frederick Douglass’ memories were different from the photograph they analyzed.

Session Four

  1. Using an LCD projector, show the entire class one of Twain's quotes.  Discuss the quote as a class and then have the students respond to the following questions in their journals:
    • To what extent do you agree with Twain’s criticisms of photography?
    • How does this quotation by Mark Twain enhance or complicate our understanding of the photographs in the online gallery?
  2. Hand out the Essay Assignment and Rubric, and explain expectations.
  3. Have students open link to the Comparison and Contrast Guide, and go over the guidelines of a Compare and Contrast Essay (using the essay assignment and rubric as a guide).
  4. Allow for a reasonable amount of time before Session Five.  Students will need class time to complete their essays, or they may be done for homework before moving on to Session Five.

Session Five

  1. On the day the students return with their completed essays, students will have individual conferences with the teacher to discuss and assess their essays using the provided rubric.

Session Two

  1. Have students open the links to the online gallery, “The Face of Slavery & Other African-American Photographs.”  Have all students click on the first photo, "Slave Boy Brought to Waterbury from Bucks Hill by Aunt Ella Johnson's Second Husband (Whelan)" circa 1855 and/or bring it up on the LCD projector.  Ask students to describe the photograph, using the following questions to catalyze their responses in their journals:
    • Describe the boy’s face.  What emotions can you describe?
    • Describe what the boy is wearing.
    • How old do you think the boy is?
    • Describe how the boy is sitting.
    • What colors are used in the photo?  Ask students to share their responses to the photograph.  Discuss any similarities between this photograph and their responses to Jim’s personality.
    • Lead a class discussion where you ask students to share their responses to the photograph.  Discuss any similarities between this photograph and their responses to Jim’s personality.
  2. Divide students into 8 groups, one for each of the remaining photographs in the online gallery.  Ask the students to describe the photograph and record their responses, using the following questions to guide them:
    • Describe the setting of the photograph.
    • Describe the expressions on the slaves’ faces.
    • Describe what the slaves are wearing.
    • Describe how the slaves are sitting or standing.
    • Describe the colors used in the photograph.
    • Does the photograph seem natural or staged?  Why do you think this?
    • Read the provided history of the photograph.  What essential information do you need to remember?  How does this history change your response to the photograph?
  3. Before they leave, have students share one surprising or enlightening finding that they group discovered about the photograph.
  4. For homework, students will read Chapter 1 of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.


  • Have students choose a contemporary social issue, such as homelessness, pollution, poverty, racism, etc. to photograph.  Students use their own cameras to create a “photo essay,” as it relates to their local community.  The students write an introduction explaining their message about the issue.
  • Have students review a recent copy of a news magazine Newsweek or visit a news site that provides collections of photo essays, such as Life, Time or U.S. News & World Report. Have students choose one photo essay, print them out, and compile photographs to create a collage of contemporary issues as viewed via art. Students can write a paragraph for each photograph, arguing to what extent is a reliable source or merely a misrepresentation of the news story.
  • Students research contemporary forms of slavery, using Mini Singh’s webpage as a starting point.   Also, students analyze photographs of child trafficking in Benin and Gabon at and discuss how the photographs of the victims contribute to a better understanding about such contemporary forms of slavery.

Student Assessment / Reflections

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