Sample Syllabus: The Uses of Photography

First Year Writing Seminar, Princeton Writing Program, Princeton University

Photographic images seem to be everywhere: from drones and X-rays, to Instagram and web cams. By turns praised for its useful detail or artistic beauty and dismissed as mere mechanical reproduction, photography has long inspired heated debates about its relationship to the world we live in. What kinds of narratives and histories do photographs communicate, and how do they illuminate different cultural practices? What is photography’s role in scientific inquiry and the politics of surveillance? This Writing Seminar examines the uses of photography from multiple disciplinary perspectives. We begin with the close reading of a photograph through Walter Benjamin’s famous concept of the aura in “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” We then investigate photography’s diverse functions across a wide variety of contexts, including the archive of The Carlisle Indian School Project, NASA images of the Hubble Spacecraft, and National Geographic photos of the National Parks. In the second half of the semester, students choose a topic about which they are passionate and write a research paper. Possibilities include: photography’s relationship to criminal investigation, social networking, fashion, tourism, food, war, political campaigns, or global warming.

At stake in our analysis of photography is how photographs create different narratives and forms of knowledge— scientific, cultural, or artistic.  How does one “read” a photograph? In what ways do photographs complement and subvert narrative? What is their role in illuminating science? This is a writing course in which you will learn to develop ideas in reflection upon many different kinds of evidence and argument:  literary and film analysis, ethnographic data, critical theory, and the products of contemporary culture.  Each of these genres calls for different and  complex combinations of writerly skill and imagination.  It is a course in college argument and thinking, a study you implicitly requested by choosing to come to a liberal arts university.  A writing course will show you, as few other courses can, that the learning process never stops; one doesn’t “arrive” at being a good writer, but rather continually becomes one.  This writing seminar asks you to be thoughtful and self-reflective about that process:  to question and evaluate your own work in each assignment and in the course as a whole.  Part of assessing your progress will be developing your sense of what you already do well.  In addition, the course will challenge you to figure out how you want to grow as a writer, thinker, and scholar.