The emergence of school photographs in France or why your school pics are important visual documents

Cécile J. Esther Guigui, Queen Mary University of London

We all have these childhood photographs somewhere in boxes or photo albums, these school photographs that we dare not to show to our friends because we had a giant smile with braces, or the most awkward hairstyle. School photographs are common and ordinary objects of our everyday day life; they share a strict format, they spread worldwide. Yet, they are more than that and here is why. 

In this article, I explore the emergence of the school photographs in France during the Third Republic (1870-1940). By teasing out the meaning and value of school photographs, I seek to demonstrate how even the most common documents of our quotidian— in this case, the school photograph— are important historical sources for historians that offer an alternative perspective into histories of education as well as into social and cultural terrains. 

The school photograph emerged in France in the 1860s. Under the technical constraints of the medium, the group picture took on strict conventions, in which individuals had to stand straight and still. First adopted in elite and bourgeois schools, by the early twentieth century, it had resolved into a ritual in most schools including in remote areas and in the French colonies. Until today, Tourte and Petitin and David and Valois were the two major houses that specialized in this kind of group portraiture.  

School photographs were mobilized in the late nineteenth century to advertise free public schools and the values of Republican instruction. Engaged in a battle against the Church to secularize the state, Jules Ferry, the leader of the Republicans sought to implement secular public education, grounded on values of individual achievements and equality. In 1881, he instituted primary school as mandatory, free, and universal, especially allowing girls to receive a similar basic education than boys. 

School pictures should first be understood as an institutional and ideological object. As Emile Durkheim has explained school resolved into an institution thought by the state to conform individuals to collective values and norms. Along these lines, Michel Foucault has explained that schools were as much a space of control and discipline as hospitals or the workplace.  

School photographs take us into the school courtyard, where children posed in rows holding similar bodily attitudes and serious facial expressions. The rigid format of this type of image, and the ways in which the sitters are told to sit and behave, leads to the suppression of the individual for the sake of the group. By doing so, the school picture not only purports to promote the community as a whole, but also emphasizes the integration of each individual in this group, by making sure that there is cohesion and order in the picture. 

Paramount to the Republican’s was building a system which modeled an autonomous, self-guided individual and a citizen with civic duties and a national consciousness. Accordingly, school functioned as a space to build a tight community with a firm sense of solidarity and united by a sense of collective belonging to the nation as citizens. To this effect, integration of each member was key to honing to these aspirations. As we can identify these elements in the school photograph, the very format of the picture developed and perpetuated as it provided a visual space to materialize these aspirations.

While school photographs document the history of an institution, focusing on the individuals in the picture, they also record trends and allow for the identification of the socio-cultural identities of collective groups. As they attempted to homogenize differences, these images undergird similarities between individuals, such as their similar hairstyle or fashion. In this sense, they provide valuable insights into ideas of performance, body norms and gender identities of a specific group at a certain age, time and space. 

Nevertheless, school pictures are not deprived of “forms of resistance” or elements that break the conformity of the image and allow for the individuality of sitters to re-emerge. Sitters could transgress the format of the picture, by wearing something different, by smiling for example by expressing signs of affections, crossing their arms or standing very close to the person next to them. 

In fact, school pictures were also conceived for individuals and their families, they are meant to be consumed within the family sphere. Even so, the ways they are kept, stored and discussed by individuals and families also constitute valuable sources of information for historians of material culture. The photograph is not only a visual proof that an individual attended this institution and integrated this community, but it is also a valuable support for narrating stories on what happened within the school walls. Accordingly, school photographs merge into the visual life story of individuals and take part in the cultural practice of family photography. 

School photographs are lieux de mémoires that help trace ideologies, identify trends and allow for stories on school experiences to be told. Far from being transparent and common objects, this article invites you to look differently at your school photographs. 

Sources and Additional Reading:

Batchen, Geoffrey. « Vernacular photographies ». History of photography 24, no 3 (2000).

Burke, Catherine, et Helena Ribeiro de Castro. « The School Photograph: Portraiture and the Art of Assembling the Body of the Schoolchild ». History of Education 36, no 2 (1 mars 2007).

Charpentier-Boude, Christine. La photo de classe: Palimpseste contemporain de l’institution scolaire. Editions L’Harmattan, 2009.

Deloye, Yves. École et citoyenneté: l’individualisme républicain de Jules Ferry à Vichy : controverses. Paris]: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Surveiller et punir. Paris: Gallimard, 1975

Hirsch, Marianne, et Leo Spitzer. School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference. University of Washington Press, 2019.

Nora, Pierre. Les Lieux de mémoire: les France. Vol. 3. Gallimard, 1992.


2023 Call for Papers!

🚨Call for Papers Alert!🚨

We’re opening up our seminar series for more PhD speakers in 2023!

Bring us your presentations, creative writing or any other way you want to share your research!

Get in touch and make sure to share!

For more details, find our presentation guidelines for this seminar series here:

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Historical Perspectives Call for Papers, 2022-23 (Semester Two) 

Last semester, Historical Perspectives was delighted to welcome so many fantastic postgraduate researchers who shared their fascinating work through talks and panels. Our thanks go out to all our contributors! Our call for papers for the second semester is now open and we’re welcoming contributions for both talks and panels. Talks should respond to our theme for the year, or you could contribute to the following panels: 

Reject Tradition, Embrace Modernity* 

And now a reminder of our theme. We’re not ignoring the mediaevalists and classicists of the world, don’t worry. Nor do we mean the more traditional topics, methodologies, or sources are unwelcome; far from it. But we know current research is varied, inventive, and fresh. Some might be re-addressing the well-trodden topics with new perspectives; others might be carving out new fields. We’re all ‘establishing our niche’ somehow, and we hope that these talks and panels will help dive into the whys and hows. 

Our panels for the year are ‘Let’s deconstruct (just to build again): decolonising knowledge’ and ‘The part-time PhD experience in History’. These are provisionally scheduled for 1st March and 10th May respectively. 

To contribute to a talk session or a panel, please send in an abstract (max 250 words) and a short biography (max 150 words) by Friday 27th January at 5pm to 

Let’s deconstruct, just to build again: decolonising knowledge (1st March, provisional) 

Discussions on decolonising knowledge challenge academics and non-academics to focus on the remnants of colonial power relations that continue to influence knowledge creation about how we see and understand the world, people, and societies. The idea that Western knowledge and culture are somehow the core of a ‘universal knowledge’ goes a long way in the past and continues to prevail until today. The uneven power ties between researchers in the Global North and the Global South continue to exist and affect research. Decolonisation of knowledge is that exact need to deconstruct our way of thinking about knowledge and rebuild it through learning again and in new ways, beyond the shadow of colonialism. Through this panel, we want to contribute to that! 

The part-time PhD experience in History (10th May, provisionally) 

In line with this year’s theme of ‘reject tradition, embrace modernity*’, our second panel will highlight the part-time PhD experience. Perhaps you have care responsibilities, or must work to fund your PhD, or have an internship or other role built into your programme, or part time just suits you! Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt that this mode of study is here to stay. Are there issues that particularly affect part-time students; equally, are there advantages or doors opened to you? Do you have a unique story you’d like to share? In short, what would you like others to know about part-time PhD research in history? (Because we’d love to hear it.) 

Social Media Assistant Role opportunity

New Year, new us! 

Come join our team! We’re looking for a helping hand with our social media – this is a great opportunity for a PhD student! 

Please share and get in touch!

#phdopportunity #volunteering #phd #phdstudent #history #twitterstorians 

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Join Our Team! 

We’re looking for someone to help run our social media! 

Alongside our social-media co-ordinator, You would: 

  • Help run our Twitter, Facebook, Eventbrite and WordPress platforms 
  • Scheduling and advertising events 
  • Participating in team discussions and planning 
  • Have opportunities to chair seminars and panels 

This is a voluntary role, and is perfect for gaining some extracurricular experience alongside their PhD. 


Historical Perspectives Newsletter – December 2022

Here’s your Historical Perspective newsletter for December!

December featured two fantastic events with amazing speakers. Thanks to Katherine, Kremena, Jessica and Luke for speaking with us!

Before we take our winter break, we wanted to highlight that we will be posting a new call for papers in Janurary – keep an eye out for more!

And Alana shares her thoughts on the historical period drama Gilmore Girls.

As always, drop us a line at to get in touch.

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December 2022

The roundup

We hosted our second panel of the year on bringing historical research to life. We were delighted to host Kremena Dimitrova, Katherine Mackinnon, and Jessica Secmeszoy-Urquhart for a fascinating and productive discussion.

Rounding off the month was Luke Thrumble sharing his amazing work on British foreign policy in the Cold War. Eagle-eye followers will have recognised Luke from our Twitter conference in August, and we were delighted to welcome him back to hear more about his research.

Coming up

And now for some hibernation!

We’re signing off until the new year where we’ll be bringing you more Historical Perspectives talks, panels, and beyond. Keep your eyes open for our call for papers for the second semester: we’re looking forward to what 2023 has in store.

A perspective on…Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)

I know, I know – how is this historical? Well, it happens in the past (so, checkmate) and it’s key in my own personal history. I think if you cut me open, the script is carved there like a stick of rock. Simply put, ‘Gilmore Girls’ takes place in a cosy small town, follows the titular family over seven years, and contains some of the richest characters and dynamics you’ll find on the silver screen. Or is that nearly two decades of bias talking..? Alana