Teaching Community with the Photos of Rómulo Lachatañeré

By Alex Tronolone, Manager, Curriculum Development
August 29, 2022

The Center for Educators and Schools at the New York Public Library provides curricular materials inspired by our archival collections that you can easily integrate into your teaching. Stay tuned to the For Teachers blog channel for posts that highlight the Library’s collections and their connections to the classroom. This post, designed with elementary and middle school classrooms in mind, features highlights from a collection of photographs taken by Afro-Cuban photographer Rómulo Lachatañeré held in the Photographs and Prints Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

A group of shirtless children stand underneath a sprinkler in an East Harlem street; one of the children squares up with fists at the photographer while the others smile, looking directly at the photographer.
Group of children, mostly boys, gathered under sprinkler, in East Harlem, New York City.

Photo by Rómulo Lachatañeré, captured 1947-1951. Gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 cm. Photographs of New York City and Puerto Rico. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 3990817

A group of shirtless children, mostly boys, stand underneath a sprinkler on an East Harlem street. One of the children, in the center of the photograph, poses like a boxer, two fists outstretched in front of his body; while the others smile, looking directly at the photographer.

A small group of young children look inquisitively at some older children and adults gathered around an accident victim, who isn’t visible. One of the older teens appears to be illustrating a point emphatically with his hands.
Eastside - Group of men and youths gathered around an accident victim; one young man appears to be arguing with the others, East Harlem, New York City.

Photo by Rómulo Lachatañeré, captured 1947-1951. Gelatin silver print, 24 x 19 cm. Photographs of New York City and Puerto Rico. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 3990815

A group of small children looks on inquisitively at some older children and adults, who are gathered around something. One of the older teens has his hands outstretched as if to add emphasis to whatever he's saying. In the background, on-lookers observe the action.

These street scenes were captured by Rómulo Lachatañeré, a self-taught ethnologist and photographer who moved to New York City from Cuba in 1939. Rómulo Lachatañeré’s sympathetic eye for the street life of his East Harlem community in the mid-twentieth century, especially children, make these photographs excellent objects of study in the classroom. Inquiry into their subjects can open discussions about community, play, and historical concepts, like change over time. Additionally, these photos can serve as inspiration for students’ own creations.   

These photographs were originally featured in NYPL’s East Harlem Curriculum Guide, prepared in 2012, with assistance from the photographer's daughter, Diana Lachatañeré, curator of the Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Books Division at the Schomburg Center (now retired). Here, we share some new ideas for integrating them into classroom teaching, with an eye to their use in supporting teaching creative writing, community history, and information literacy.

Image Analysis & Creative Writing

First, we suggest doing a visual inquiry with one or two of the photographs, using your favorite protocol (like VTS or Artful Thinking). As students practice close looking, questions and stories emerge. 

  • What’s happening in this photograph?
  • What happened just before it was taken? 
  • What happened just after? 

The photographs might inspire creative writing projects, like poetry and historical fiction. If your students have library cards and access to a computer, they can use the online software tool Pixton to insert the photos into graphic novel-style panels to illustrate their stories. (Interested in getting library cards for all of your students at once? Reach out to schoolvisits@nypl.org to schedule a class visit.)

A 3x2 grid of archival photos and illustrated scenes created using the online software Pixton, like a comic strip.
We used Pixton to create this mini-comic with a selection of Lachatañeré's photos. Click the image to enlarge.

Communities Then & Now

Next, as students practice visual inquiry, more focus on elements of play and community can help to illuminate both continuity and change in the way children exist in their NYC community. 

  • Have you ever played in a sprinkler in the summer? Was it like this sprinkler, or was it different?  
  • Have you ever shared roller skates with a friend (or maybe stood on the pegs of their bike)? What else do we share in our communities?
  • Do we still play in the streets, or do we mostly play elsewhere? Why do you think that is?
  • Does your NYC community look like the ones in this photo? How is it similar or different?
Two children, wearing dark-colored jackets. Each wears one roller skate. One is bent over, affixing the skate to their foot. The other stands by, one roller skate on and a lollipop stick hanging out of their mouth.
105th Street - Two boys playing with roller skates, each wearing a single roller skate on their right foot, East Harlem, New York City.

Photo by Rómulo Lachatañeré, captured 1947-1951. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 cm. Photographs of New York City and Puerto Rico. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 3990818

Information Literacy & Ways of Knowing

Finally, we can use these photographs to invite students into thinking about the field of information sciences. Here is a short procedure for surfacing the ways in which our individual perspectives influence the way we see the world:

  • First, choose one or two photographs to share. For this activity, it’s important that multiple groups are looking at the same photograph.
  • Next, pairs of students should look at their photograph. Have them use single words or short phrases to describe (“tag”) their photograph.
  • Then, pairs of students with the same photograph gather into groups to compare and contrast their "tags" for their photo. A Venn diagram may be helpful to graphically organize their thoughts. (If you have an NYPL card, you can use it to access blank Venn diagrams in the Scholastics Teachables database). 
  • Finally, have groups share how their descriptions were similar or different. As a whole class, reflect on these differences. Were there any disagreements about how a photo should be described? 

The process of “tagging” a photograph is not unlike the way an archivist might describe the item for inclusion in a searchable database, or the process of creating hashtags on social media. When students compare and contrast the ways in which their descriptions are similar and different, we open a conversation about language, perspective, and learning about the past. To extend their learning, students can take the terms and phrases they used to search the items in NYPL’s Digital Collections. What else might they find using those terms? What might be missing? How are they related to community? 

Most importantly, we hope the photographs of Rómulo Lachatañeré inspire curiosity and provide students with more questions than answers. It’s a perfect opportunity to encourage them to reach out to a librarian for help in using the Library’s resources to pursue their own inquiries.

Connect with your local librarian

 self-portrait of Rómulo Lachatañeré. He looks confidently away from the camera, his arms crossed in front of him, holding a lit cigarette between two fingers.
Romulo Lachatanere, self portrait

Photo by Rómulo Lachatañeré, captured 1951. Gelatin silver print, 25.5 x 20 cm. Rómulo Lachatañeré Portrait Collection. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 2047731

To discover more about the community of East Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s, and explore the themes and topics the classroom activities above might raise, students or teachers might ask a librarian for help to:

  • Use fire insurance atlases to visualize the built environment of East Harlem. 
  • Use the recently released 1950 census to explore the population of East Harlem at the time. 
  • Check out literature related to the Caribbean diaspora and immigration to New York City.
  • Check out books related to art-making, like graphic novels and photography.
  • Schedule a visit to their local library (or for a librarian to come to your classroom!)

There are over 200 photographs by Rómulo Lachatañeré not yet digitized! You can schedule an appointment to visit the Photographs and Prints Division of the Schomburg Center to see more from the collection: Photographs of New York City and Puerto Rico.

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