Photo distortion lesson for middle school students

“In an age when pictures have become more eloquent than words, schools are still programmed to reduce the child’s immersive interaction with the visual world to the practical poverty of the alphabet. Visual literacy should become a pedagogical priority in order to prepare our children to function within the increasingly visual complexity of our environment.”

—Vik Muniz, Artist and photographer, born in Sao Paulo, Brazil,
he now resides in New York City. (Tugend, 2003)

To continue the discussion on middle schoolers becoming critical thinkers, this post will discuss the importance of questioning visual media messages. According to media literacy expert David Considine, “It is no longer enough simply to read and write. Students must also become literate in the understanding of visual messages [and learn] how to spot a stereotype, isolate a social cliché and distinguish facts from propaganda” (from Tugend, 2003).

A lesson developed by Belinha De Abreu, a Connecticut media literacy middle school teacher, focuses on photography (Tugend, 2003; De Abreu 2008).

First, is it important that students understand that every photo is created after several considerations are made (Tugend, 2003). Ask students, “What does the photographer choose to shoot? What changes do photo editors make?” Students should also be made aware of the media’s capability to alter photos by learning about photo editing software and what it means to crop, digitize and airbrush (Tugend, 2003).

Show students examples of original photos and then those that have been altered. Some examples include:

Time magazine used the same photo on their cover as Newsweek, however the covers look very different. Point out to students the use of photo-editing software to change the photo of OJ Simpson. An important question to ask students: “What is the effect of the edited image?” A student of De Abreu’s responded to that question, “It looks more mysterious and…evil?” (Tugend, 2003). Students need to understand that sometimes the media may edit images so they appear a certain way. In this case, they wanted to make OJ Simpson appear ominous (De Abreau, 2008).

This is an original and edited photo of Katie Couric. Point out to students her whitened smile and thinner arms and waist. Then show students the Faith Hill photos, which include more disparities. 

Have students compare the original photo of Faith Hill to the photo printed on the cover of Redbook’s July 2007 issue. Ask students what differences they can identify. There are several differences found, a few of which include (De Abreau, 2008):

  1. Erased lines around the eyes
  2. Removed some of her upper back and shoulder area – a small “hump”
  3. Removed some of her back where at the top of the dress, making her thinner in the waist
  4. Made her arm skinnier around the elbow area

These subtle manipulations can be powerful. According to De Abreau (2008), “For young teens, such ‘picture perfect’ images raise questions of whether their normal bodies are acceptable at a time when their bodies are changing and they are vulnerable to self-doubt” (p.35).  For more information about how boys and girls are affected by these images, see posts by ag7966 in the Gender category.

For students to apply this lesson in real life, equip students with digital cameras. Either at home, or on a field trip, ask students to take photographs of media they see, including magazines, advertisements, logos, etc. This will help them realize how surrounded by these media messages they truly are, as well as how to use a digital camera, a valuable media tool.

When reviewing the photos the students took, engage them in conversation about what may have been done to alter these images, or what decisions they think might have been made before taking the photo or creating the media message. What messages might the media be trying to portray with these images?


De Abreu, B. (2008). Seventh Grade Students and the Visual Messages They Love.

Tugend, A. (2003). Reading between the lines. American Journalism Review, 25(2), 46-51.

This entry was posted in Middle School and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Photo distortion lesson for middle school students

  1. Frank Baker says:

    You might also be interested in my site IS SEEING BELIEVING?

  2. elmediat says:

    I have some posts on my media literacy blog – that may be useful. I also have lessons and resources available online for my class that you may want to take a look at – .

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