Posted by: alexhickey | May 1, 2016

Looking at a Photograph ©

Group Portrait by John Staples c.1900

Group Portrait by John Staples c.1900

Conducting research is occasionally like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  You feel confident there is a needle in there but to find it means examining every piece of hay surrounding it until finally your eyes see what you’ve been looking for.  And, sometimes, even though you know it’s there you never come across it. Then, there are times you find something that you know is significant but there is absolutely no contextual information to make sense of it.

Like all communities there is a rich and complex social, cultural and historical heritage to St. Jacques.  No one person has a complete record of that heritage and like most communities there has never been any concerted effort to create an archive of materials or to record the heritage.  That leaves any of us interested in our past to search through whatever we can that has a connection to the community.  It means talking to people, asking questions in an attempt to put diverse bits of information together to create a reasonable picture of an event or person.

A while ago a friend was generous to pass on to me a collection of photographs taken by John Staples, a photographer who worked in St. Jacques around the 1900’s and later. Among them was a group photo taken outdoors beside a body of water.  Neither he nor I know who is in the picture.  This is where you come in.

Photographs are full of information and we can learn a lot from them.  This photograph represents something real that took place in a particular moment. At the same time, it is something created by the photographer.  A photographic image is never completely neutral and devoid of information.  It contains decisions about how the people were posed, where they were posed and how they are positioned within the image, as well as information about the time in which the photograph was created. However, it isn’t a one way street. When we look at the photograph we take an active role in interpreting it.  We are influenced by our culture, values and beliefs which affect how we view and interpret the image.  Whenever we take time to look at a photograph, we engage in a process of decoding it, that is looking for information contained within it.

How would you decode this photograph?  Take a few minutes to read through the process outlined below then go back to the photograph and apply what you have learned.  If you are able to draw any conclusions or offer any insight into who is in this photo and any information surrounding it please post at the end of the page.

There are questions to ask and conclusions to draw.  A standard method is to first describe the image, then attempt to analyze it before placing interpretation on it and forming conclusions.

Describe the Image

  • What are the essential things you see in the photograph?
  • Does the photograph have a title?
  • Who is the photographer who took the picture?
  • When and where was the photograph taken?
  • Describe the subject matter. Are there people in the photograph? Adults or children? Indoors or outdoors? Does it show the country or the community?
  • How has the photographer arranged the subject(s) in the image?

Analyze the Image
A photographer makes decisions when composing a photograph; decisions about when, where, time of day, sometimes day of week, background, foreground, how much of the environment is included and the arrangement of people or objects in the image. Look at some of these decisions to see if there are any clues in the photo?   Look at the clothes they are wearing? What can you tell from what they are wearing? How old do these people appear to be? What might the relationships be between the people? Are there clues in their facial expressions and body language which might suggest something about them?  What is in the background? Is there anything recognizable that may provide a clue? Can you tell anything about overall mood or feeling of the image and the people in it?

Interpreting the Photograph
This is the point where you draw conclusions about the photograph.  Is it possible to say what is happening in the photograph? What was the intent of the subjects and the photographer in creating this picture? Why was it taken? Why was it taken at this location? Why did the photographer arrange the people in this way?  What is left out of the photo? Is there anything that can tell us the time period when the photo was taken? Does the photo have different meaning to you as a viewer now compared with what it might have meant to those in the photograph when it was taken?  Why would this group of people want to be photographed together?  What are their relationships?

Evaluating the Photograph
You are now at the final stage of decoding the photo. What does this image make you think?  What is the significance of the image? Has its significance changed over time?  Is it a useful piece of information for research purposes?  Does it tell us anything about St. Jacques? Is it really set in St. Jacques? What does it add to our knowledge of the history of the community?

Share your discoveries and conclusions.  Help me make sense of this photograph.


  1. Well, judging by their dress-clothing and fancy hats/purses on the ground it makes sense that the photo was taken on a Sunday, perhaps after church. That being said, the fact that one woman is dresses in white suggests this could be a wedding party.

    The three men in the middle have the same nose and hooded brow-bone with deep set eyes–they could be brothers, or cousins at least.

    Judging by their amount of clothing and how comfortable they look sitting on the ground the photo was probably taken in early spring or early fall (not too hot, not too cold).

    Looking at the land in the background the vantage point seems to be from up at the edge of the field where the old Presentation Sisters convent stood, with the road below unseen from that angle/height. But, who knows!

  2. Hi Alex: Just wondered if you would know of any Poole families. My grandmother, Sarah Poole died in St John’s, March 12, 1920, aged 56. Information from her death records states that she was born in St Jacques. Prior to going to St John’s,(for hospital) she lived in English Harbour West. I have been unable to locate any birth/baptism records for her. I understand she was Church of England until she married James Farrell, a RC, in 1881.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated. Camilla Farrell

    Sent from my iPad


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