The camera never lies: film, photography and history in the twentieth century HI1010-05

The first objective is to introduce students to a modern form of primary evidence – the photograph – and to consider how this has been used to develop a level of historical understanding.

Students will also deal with how images – whether paintings or drawings – have had a place in historical interpretation before the camera. Next students will consider the importance of authenticity, the use of image manipulation for contemporary ends, and how this presents challenges for the historian.

By using two examples where images have been related to the central narrative of motion pictures, the course looks to consider how a twentieth-century art form can be both a reflector of the public’s view of history and tool for conveying history to the public.

The object here is to introduce students to the concept of Public History, and consider how this concept has developed in the past twenty-five years. The course will thus ask students to consider the use of one form of primary evidence that students would be familiar with in the media and at home; but also to consider a more modern representation of history through moving images as entertainment, and ask them to consider how this affects their view of history.


15 Credits

Topics covered

  • Introduction: History Through a Lens
  • Images as Historical Evidence Before the Camera
  • The Photograph as Historical Evidence
  • Manipulation – Stalin and the ‘Air Brushing’ of History
  • Manipulation – The Digital Age
  • Case Study: The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mark Bowden and Black Hawk Down
  • Case Study: The Other 9/11 – Chile, 1973 and After
  • From Photograph….: The Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi, 1945
  • … To Film: Clint Eastwood’s Two Iwo Jimas
  • Film as History: Contemporary Film as Social History 11 Film as Public History: Course Conclusion

Learning outcomes

Students successfully completing this course should be familiar at its end with the following:

  • To consider how images and photographs have been interpreted by historians
  • To assess the problems of image manipulation in the context of contemporary use, and the problems this creates for the historian
  • To preview the place of the historically-themed film and documentaries in what the public considers as history
  • To consider the strengths and limitations of film as a way of conveying a historical message
  • To consider how films contemporary to historical events can be used for historical research and the teaching of history


  • Exam (80%)
  • Essay (10%)
  • Reflective journal and forum posts (10%)

Essential reading

  • Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence by Burke, Peter (London: Reaktion Books, 2001)
  • Cinema and History by Chopra-Gant, Michael (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008)
  • Photography: A Cultural History. 4th Edn by Marien, Mary Warner (London: Laurence King, 2014)