Every picture tells a story

Students ask historical questions about unusual photographs from the past.
Key inquiry question #1: 
What is my history and how do I know?
Key inquiry question #2: 
What stories do other people tell about the past?
Key inquiry question #3: 
How can stories of the past be told and shared?

Learning Intention

We are learning to:

  • use photos to ask historical questions about the past. 

Success criteria

What I'm looking for:

  • I can use a photograph to describe how life was different in the past.

Student Activities

Every picture tells a story

Students use photos from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales to ask historical questions about the past.

Number of set tasks: 2

NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum History K - 10

A student:

  • HTe-1 communicates stories of their own family heritage and the heritage of others 
  • HTe-2 demonstrates developing skills of historical inquiry and communication 


Comprehension: chronology, terms and concepts

  • distinguish between the past, present and future (ACHHS016)

Use of sources

  • explore and use a range of sources about the past (ACHHS018)
  • identify and compare features of objects from the past and present (ACHHS019)

Explanation and communication

  • develop a narrative about the past (ACHHS021)
  • use a range of communication forms (oral, graphic, written, role play) and digital technologies (ACHHS022)
  • Continuity and change: some things change over time and others remain the same
  • Perspectives: people from the past will have different views and experiences

Learning across the curriculum

  • Literacy

How the stories of families and the past can be communicated, for example through photographs, artefacts, books, oral histories, digital media, and museums (ACHHK004).


  • pose questions about another’s object or photograph
  • discuss then and now; past and present
  • recognise that stories of the past may differ depending on who tells the story

Background notes for teachers

This activity is designed to introduce students to photos as historical records of people, places and events in the past. 

Students examine photos from the State Library of NSW to find out about what life was like in the past. They then compare life in the past to life in the present, and explore different points of view in the photographs. 

Discuss the following with your students:

People like photos because they help us remember people, places and events from a long time ago.

Photos can tell stories about what happened in the past without using words. However, a photo without words can also give us the wrong message. When words and pictures work together they can tell wonderful stories.

Have you ever seen an old photo of someone in your family and asked, ‘I wonder who that is?’, ‘I wonder what they were doing?’, ‘I wonder where they were?’. 

Each of these photos from the State Library of NSW tells a story about things people liked to do in the past. Look carefully at each photo. What do you think they were doing when the photo was taken?