Students learn history is rarely black-and-white

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More than 400 London and area high schoolers learned Thursday that history is rarely black and white – and sometimes it’s better understood in shades and tints and sepia tones.

The teens attended Western for a High School History Day that showcased some of the department’s expertise in a wide range of topics. Sessions included lectures and tutorials both on unfamiliar subjects and on events they thought only they knew: the complex role of Roman gladiators; uncomfortable truths about the eugenics movement in Canada; and the moral implications of ‘dark tourism,’ when people visit sites of historical violence and tragedy.

It was the fourth High School History Day led by the Western department.

History professor Jonathan Vance, event organizer, said several first-year students in his class this semester were drawn to the course because they’d attended one of these days in high school.

“It has an impact – even if they don’t major in History and they take a History course and enjoy it, it makes a difference.”

The sessions provided students with a broader picture of history and historical interpretations than they might otherwise experience in their high school classes.

Some of them understood that picture in more than a figurative way as they debated the complicated ethics of the colourization of black-and-white photographs capturing historical events.

Special to Western NewsThe original photo on the left, from Library and Archives Canada, shows soldiers worshiping in a bombed-out church in the First World War. The colourized photo on the right is how Canadian Colour re-imagined the scene for The Vimy Foundation.

Sarah Hart, an MA student studying the history of First World War photography, challenged students to contemplate whether colourizing black-and-white war photographs represents vandalism or is, instead, a valuable reinterpretation of historical events.

On one side of the debate: Peter Jackson, who colourized images for They Shall Not Grow Old, said the process makes historical events more compelling and personal for today’s audiences.

On the other side: Critics, who say the photos themselves are part of the historical record, call colourization a manipulation of the image and the photographers’ intent.

“What happens when we colourize these photos?” Hart asked. “Well, we ‘fix’ the image. We remove any imperfections or scratches in the glass, fix the blurring around any edges.”

At the same time, she said, there’s the ‘fixed’ images aren’t necessarily more accurate. Colourization is as much deduction and invention as it is science.

And, she added, sometimes a photographer makes the esthetic choice to shoot in black-and-white – such as Yousef Karsh’s iconic photo of Winston Churchill (and noted it was jarring to see commercial versions later colourized).

The classes were divided on the wisdom of colourization. Some said it offers new detail they hadn’t considered before, such as an edited chapel scene that showed one French soldier, his blue uniform standing out, among the worshipers in a bombed-out church. One student said the original looked more real and the colour ‘enhancement’ made the image appear cartoonish.

Faith Vanderveen of Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School preferred the original.

“Sometimes, when you add colour, it provides a different focal point than what the photographer intended,” Vanderveen said. “If the photo is in black and white, that was the artistic interpretation of what was happening.”

But photographic evidence is not always a sure thing, either, noted Westminster Secondary student Lucas Keen. “Film doctoring has been a thing as long as war has been documented,” he said.

Hart showed an example of one of Canada’s most celebrated Great War photographers who, like many others of the time, was known to stitch different images together to make a single photo. They included one example showing soldiers trudging through a muddy field, with cavalrymen riding beside them – that it’s an amalgam of two images is obvious by the different lengths and directions of the soldiers’ and horses’ shadows.

In the end, Hart advised, black-and-white, colourized or colour photos might each be seen as more compelling for different purposes – but it’s unwise to assume that any of them has the monopoly on historical accuracy.