Seeing the World Through Photographs (again): Photo Exercises for the English Classroom

Seeing the World Through Photographs (again): Photo Exercises for the English Classroom

Old rangefinder camera and black-and-white photos.

“When you look at my pictures you are seeing my life.”

– Douglas Kirkland (1934-), American photographer

Photographs capture moments, inform viewers, and start conversations. In last week’s blog post, we discussed how street photography documents moments and events without the subjects’ consent. These candid, sometimes startling images, can provoke intense discussions and even controversy. However, staged photography (think fashion or advertising images – even smart phone photography) can provide equally though-provoking discussion pieces.

These photos impose a narrative as opposed to capturing one, and the decisions made by the photographer in conveying said narrative can be analyzed and questioned. You could review color choice, mood, and composition in addition to 5W+H questions like the following:

  • How would you describe this scene?
  • How would you describe the subject?
  • What are the people doing in the photograph?
  • Do you like about this photo? Why?
  • What do you think happened a minute later?
  • How do you think the main subject feels? Why?

As I’ve previously mentioned, using photo exercises in class provides many opportunities for compelling conversation. Below are a few examples from Compelling Conversations – Japan that are similar to ones I’ve used in my own English classroom to great effect. By the way,  Shiggy Ichinomiya, a co-author of Compelling Conversations – Japan, also works as a professional photographer in Southern California.  The first two photographs were taken by him.

Let’s take a look at three photography exercises from Compelling Conversations – Japan.  Examine the photographs and discuss the questions that follow.


Japanese tourists are often surprised at the huge portions served in the United States. The Sidewalk Café, a famous beachside American restaurant in Venice Beach, California, serves many international tourists.

  1. What is happening in this picture?
  2. What kind of food do you like to eat when you travel?
  3. How much food is too much food for you?
  4. Can you think of some fast food restaurants that change their menu to adjust to local tastes?
  5. Have you been to any international fast food restaurants? What kind of food did they serve?
  6. With your partner, can you list the last five fast food restaurants you ate in?


This couple got married at Santa Monica Beach in California. What do you think inspired this wedding photo? Describe the picture.

  1. Do you think you have to be best friends to marry your partner?
  2. What are some tips to help couples remain close friends?
  3. Do you believe the phrase “opposites attract” is true? Why?
  4. What do you like about this photo?
  5. What do you think makes a good marriage?


  1. Can you describe this picture?
  2. How would you describe this girl?
  3. Do you think she is passionate about photography? Why?
  4. Would you ever get a tattoo? If yes, of what? If no, why not?
  5. Sometimes Westerners with tattoos want to go to Japanese hot springs (onsen), but find they are not allowed. How would you explain the reasoning for this?
  6. Does your opinion of people change if you see they have a tattoo? Why?

What are your tips for discussing photographs in the classroom? What do you look forward in picking photographs? What, in your opinion, makes certain photographs spark compelling conversations? Why?

For more sample content from Compelling Conversations: Japan, click here. For individual lessons from other Compelling Conversations titles, including Compelling American Conversations: Student and Teacher Editions, visit my store on Teachers Pay Teachers!

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About the Author

Eric H. Roth teaches international graduate students the pleasures and perils of academic writing and public speaking in English at the University of Southern California (USC). He also consults English language schools on communicative methods to effectively teach English. Roth co-authored Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics in 2006 to help English language learners increase their English fluency. Recommended by English Teaching Professional magazine, the advanced ESL textbook has been used in over 50 countries in English classrooms and conversation clubs. Easy English Times, an adult literacy newspaper, has published a monthly column, “Instant Conversation Activities,” based on the book since 2008. The first specific version for a particular country, Vietnam, was published in 2011. Compelling American Conversations came out in 2012, and Compelling Conversations – Japan arrived in 2015. Eric enjoys sharing reflections, resources, and teaching tips on this #ESL #EFL #ELT blog.

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