Untitled, Cassidy Rodriguez, 2018

Exploring Your Community

Grade levels:
9 - 12

One 45-minute classroom period

Learning Objectives

Can a photograph spotlight bias, unfairness, and injustice in society?

Message to Educators

This lesson asks: How does photography spotlight expressions in your community and other cultures? Using photography to take action for social justice, your students will turn their gazes outward to their surroundings. This lesson plan includes photography examples to spark discussion, a list of materials, and cues that will help you foster a safe space and lead confidently, as students illuminate their backgrounds and identities.

You do not need to be practiced at facilitating discussions using art to effectively lead this lesson. Getty is committed to supporting meaningful dialogue through photography, and the lesson plan was created with educators to carefully walk you through the steps.

In this conversation, you and your students will move from community awareness to highlighting community change. As you and your students explore the elements of culture and community, you may find yourself in deeper dialogue with each other around questions like: What are some of the cultures you see represented within your community or neighborhood? Do you see signs of a dominant culture? Does dominant culture reflect the majority of the people? How do photographers highlight nondominant cultures? Why is it important that we do so?

About this Exploration

In this lesson, students explore how photography can represent their communities, cultural backgrounds, bias, injustice toward groups, stereotypes, and differences and similarities in groups. To start this exploration, the group considers the idea of dominant culture, their own culture, and other cultures that photography can express, by analyzing photographs. Following a discussion of the factors that shape culture, students then begin to consider how these different cultures intersect in our public and private spaces. Next, students create their own photographs representing a culture. In the final reflection, students begin to connect culture to change, through photography as a point of view for that change.

Associated Standards

  • Getty SJA LO (Getty Social Justice and Advocacy Learning Objective): Identify expressions of the dominant culture, one’s own culture, and other cultures. Consider these expressions in different contexts: one’s school, neighborhood, city, state, or one’s country.
  • Getty SJA LO: Accurately and respectfully describe differences and similarities between people and between groups.
  • Getty SJA LO: Ask respectfully about the history and lived experiences of others.
  • Getty SJA LO: Identify stereotypes.
  • Getty SJA LO: Recognize, describe and distinguish examples of bias, unfairness, and injustice in society.
  • CCSS (California Curriculum State Standard).ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.1.C: Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.1.D: Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.5: Make strategic use of digital media (for example, textual, graphic, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence, and to add interest.


  • Projector

  • Photograph from Getty Unshuttered community

  • Photographs from Getty Museum collection

  • Point of View Image Frame or Tableau Organizer

  • Unshuttered 2.0 Framing Composition challenge video

  • A digital camera or smartphone


  • Bias (see also: Unconscious Bias)

    A preconceived and unreasoned inclination or preference, especially one that interferes with impartiality or fairness.

  • Community

    A network or group of people, sometimes living in a particular place, who share interests, values, characteristics, responsibilities, or physical spaces.

  • Cultural Appropriation

    When an individual or group claims rights to the symbols, art, language, or customs of another individual or group, often without understanding, lived experience, acknowledgment, or respect for its value in the original culture.

  • Culture

    A social system of meaning and custom, developed by a group of people to assure the group’s identity and history. The system has unspoken rules that shape values, beliefs, habits, patterns of thinking, behaviors, symbols, and styles of communication. Consider using instead: Social identity group, social group.

  • Discrimination

    Actions stemming from conscious or unconscious prejudice, which favor and empower one group over others based on differences of race, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, language, age, national identity, and other categories.

  • Ethnicity

    A social construct, used to group people based on shared cultural heritage and characteristics such as values, behaviors, language, political and economic interests, history, geographical base, and ancestry.

  • Intersectionality

    An approach coined and theory developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, scholar of critical race theory, which holds that characteristics such as gender, race, class, and others must be examined in relation to each other, rather than in isolation from each other.

  • Justice, Injustice (see also: Restorative Justice)

    In different contexts, “justice” refers to both moral correctness and fairness, and also the rule of law. By contrast, “injustice” usually describes unfairness.

  • Marginalize

    Treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or powerless; placing them outside of a group, society, or community; and enforcing prejudice through societal institutions.

  • Privilege

    Unearned social power granted by societal institutions to members of a dominant group, based on the nature of their identities. Often invisible to those who have it.

  • Race

    A term used to identify individuals as part of a distinct group, based on physical characteristics and heritage. Although at one time the term was purportedly based in biology, race is now understood as a social construct that is not scientifically based.

  • Religion

    A system of beliefs, usually spiritual in nature. Often advanced in the context of a formal institution.

  • Restorative Justice (see also: Justice, Injustice)

    A theory of justice that focuses on repairing or mitigating the harm caused by a crime. As a cooperative, in-person process with all willing stakeholders, its goals for offenders include taking responsibility, understanding the harm caused, redemption, and discouraging further harm.

  • Stereotype

    Attitudes, beliefs, or assumptions about a person or group that are oversimplified and unsupported, but may also be widespread and socially sanctioned. Stereotypes can be positive or negative.

  • Unconscious Bias, Implicit Bias, Hidden Bias (see also: Bias)

    Negative stereotypes regarding a person or group of people, which influence individuals’ thoughts, attitudes, and actions without their conscious knowledge.

Instructional Plan


As we look beyond ourselves to our communities, we start to explore questions about culture, dominant culture, dominant groups, coexisting community groups, cultural identification, biases, and other markers of people and groups. The questions for inquiry at the center of the lesson include: How does dominant culture present itself in your community? Does the dominant culture in your community reflect the dominant culture in your country? How, if at all, do the two differ? How do photographers use photography to illuminate, explain, or highlight representations of community?

Set the Stage

Because We Live in the Suburbs We Don’t Eat Too Much Chinese Food, 1971, Bill Owens, gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, purchased in part with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © Bill Owens

Project the photograph shown here. View the image on getty.edu. Discussion can begin by simply asking students what they notice.

Questions for discussion:

  • What do you notice first about this image?
  • Describe the subjects of the photo and their location.
  • What compositional and photographic elements do you notice, and why? Include:
    • Framing (The image is horizontally oriented, with a strong point of perspective centered in the image.)
    • The position of the subjects (The subjects all turn toward the camera, in a way that suggests it is unexpected, not posed; the subjects are all seated while the photographer’s higher angle suggests he is standing.)
    • Where this might have been taken (This is the dining and kitchen area of a home; the subjects’ body language displays a level of comfort and ease that suggests it is their home; the title gives even more information about the location.)
    • Foreground and background (The family at the dining table is in the foreground, and the kitchen is in the background.)
    • Lighting (There seems to be a light source coming from the left side of the scene, where it is most illuminated, with shadows falling into the darker kitchen space.)
  • What do you think the photographer is trying to show or explain?
  • What do you think the photographer might be communicating about this culture or community? Do you think there are unintended messages in this photograph?
  • The photograph is titled Because We Live in the Suburbs We Don't Eat Too Much Chinese Food. Does anything change when you know how the photographer titled it? And what do the hot dogs on their plates suggest?
  • Does anything change when you know a bit more about the photographer?
  • What assumptions do you draw, or what expectations do you have, about the photographer’s background and identity?

Bill Owens

Introduced to photography as a Peace Corps volunteer, Bill Owens (born 1938) became a staff photographer for a local newspaper in an East Bay suburb of San Francisco. In 1973 he published Suburbia, a book of photographs notable for its keen observation of middle-class America and the movement of families from urban apartments to affordable new homes in city outskirts. Social critics mocked the suburbs for their apparent conformity, but Owens respected the liberation many suburbanites felt, and their determination to build better lives.

View Bill Owens photographs in the collection.

Discuss: Community and Cultural Dominance

1919, Portland, Colorado, from “María’s Great Expedition,” 1995, Christina Fernandez, gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum. © Christina Fernandez

Project the photograph shown here. View the image on getty.edu.

Let’s look at another example from Getty’s collection. Here we will ask, how might photographers use their work to share their communities, to highlight or confront stereotypes and bias, or frame conversations about the dominant culture, or power and privilege? It’s time to open the discussion to the larger questions of representation and dominant culture. Project the photograph and title above, and with the whole group, discuss cultural dominance with questions such as these:

(Possible answers are in parentheses, and are meant to offer examples, but there are numerous ways these questions can be answered.)

Questions for discussion:

  • What do you notice first about this image? (It appears to be a portrait of a woman with laundry equipment around her. She is brightly lit and the photograph seems to be indoors, in a studio space.) What do you think the photographer is interested in communicating about the woman in the image? (The subject appears to be a young, working-class woman, possibly Latina, with props referring to laundry. Since the photograph appears to be staged, rather than candid, the subject is perhaps portraying a character, someone other than herself.)
  • Do you think the photographer is aiming to impart something complex about the subject? (Consider how the subject and the items are posed and arranged purposefully against a studio backdrop, in other words, not outside, where you'd typically find a laundry line. The lighting is dramatic and the woman has a striking, confident pose with a direct gaze, erect posture, and while simply dressed, perhaps in a uniform, she emanates some glamor. The pose and the formality of the image suggest that the photographer is depicting this person and their work to be of high value, and a respected, important role.)
    • Bonus: Do you notice anything different or out of place with the items in the photograph? (The plastic bottle of bleach would not have been available in 1919, a few decades before plastic was widely, commercially used. The photographer, Christina Fernandez has stated, “I included anachronisms to let the audience know that this is a reconstruction or ‘reenactment.’ By including contemporary elements into the photos, I wanted to convey the idea that this migration story is historical but also still relevant and current.”
  • This photograph is part of a series by the artist, Christina Fernandez, entitled “Maria’s Great Expedition.” The series intends to represent the experience and journey of Fernandez’s great grandmother María González, who the first member of her family to migrate to the United States from Mexico. The subject of this image is the photographer, and in this photograph, as with the rest of the series, she is intended to be portraying María. With this information about the context of the photograph, does it provide a new perspective on the image? If so, how?
    • What do you think the photographer is able to communicate about contemporary and historic culture by embodying her great-grandmother's experience?
  • After learning more about the photographer’s practice and her photography series, does it deepen your understanding of the work? (In creating a photographic narrative for the journey of her great grandmother from Mexico to the United States, Christina Fernandez has said the series “…is didactic in the sense that it tells or teaches a story that is rarely or never told in the art museum.” The series illustrates a personal migration story, from a time when those stories were not reflected in the dominant culture, and not documented through a personal lens. At the beginning of the twentieth-century photography was still a rarity, and not yet used widely or inexpensively enough to document day-to-day life.)

Christina Fernandez

Los Angeles–based photographer Christina Fernandez’s (born 1965) Mexican heritage often influences her work, along with themes of migration, immigration, labor, gender, and her relationship to her home city. In the series “María’s Great Expedition,” Fernandez photographed herself posing as her great-grandmother María González, the first member of her family to migrate to the United States from Mexico. In these staged images, she evokes the challenges immigrants to the Southwest have had to overcome – and more universally, the challenges of migration and the strength of those who undertake the journeys.

View Christina Fernandez photographs in the collection.

Exercise: Communicate Point of View

Using the group’s list of aspects of cultural dominance, let’s take some time to explore our own community and cultural dominance. Begin by showing the Getty Unshuttered 2.0 Framing Composition video and discuss around Point of View. [Also see Resources section].

Share the Point of View Image Frame or Tableau Organizer. [See Resources section]. Pass out the organizer, and have students choose to work individually or in a group. You may wish to assign the class groups or allow students to self-select. You may wish to let students know that their frame or tableau is going to be shared, so that they can determine what they want to frame or not about their community. In this exercise, students are invited to create images, or for a more active experience, create a real-life tableau. Use your knowledge of the group when assigning work on the organizer.

With the Point of View Image Frame or Tableau Organizer complete, students then put together the artistic idea of photography or image with their present understanding of cultural dominance or community.

Have students come back together as a class to share Frames or Tableaux and discuss what was or wasn’t shared in each image that was created.

Practice: Use Point of View to show Cultural Dominance and Community

In this practice, students use framing and perspective in a photograph of something in their community, to communicate a point of view about cultural dominance or community.

If time allows, this can be a good point to call out additional photo and narrative skills for the students. In the earlier exploration of cultural dominance, we discussed elements such as framing, foreground, background, scale, proportion, lighting, and position relationships. The related photography skill videos listed under Resources can also serve as quick skill refreshers. Ask how they will apply these skills and understandings in their own practice.

Encourage students to continue their practice at their homes and in their neighborhoods. Assigning the cultural dominance and community point of view exercise as homework, if possible, affords students time to work on the assignment, and the opportunity to use contexts from their daily lives.


Reflection can take place in the group setting or individually. Ideally, have students share one to three photographs with their peers. They can each choose to speak about their intention with the photo(s) or not. Having the viewers provide positive feedback is key to the exercise. However, sharing can be a vulnerable moment for students. Use your best judgment about whether a group reflection is appropriate, and enlist the support of your students to create a safe space.

Questions for discussion:

  • What is the first thing you notice about the photograph?
  • What is the photograph expressing about a particular culture or community?
  • What did you discover about yourself, your community, and others, in the course of the project?
  • What was challenging, and why?
  • What part are you most proud of, and why?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Alternatively, individual reflection can be useful, using the same framework of questions.


  • Observe the group discussion of the lesson. Assess contributions to the discussion. Did students pose thoughtful questions? Did they respond to questions with reasons and evidence? Did they listen to different points of view? Did they clarify and challenge ideas and conclusions when appropriate? Did they synthesize evidence and ideas?
  • Photograph students’ frames and tableaux in class to check for understanding and completeness, and to assess students’ understanding of how artists use framing and point of view to prompt dialogue about community and cultural dominance.
  • In the Reflection section, assess student feedback for clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • Encourage students to share their photographic work from this lesson on the Getty Unshuttered app.

Thank You...

…for your commitment to using art to inspire youth creating social change in their communities. Please adapt and improve upon this lesson plan to meet the needs and age range of your group. Now is the time! We are grateful for educators like you who listen, learn alongside their students, and inspire action.

Banner Image: Untitled, Cassidy Rodriguez, 2018