Fall 2021 - CMNS 386 D300

Special Topics in Communication (4)

Photography & Reality

Class Number: 6655

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    We 2:30 PM – 5:20 PM
    WMC 3210, Burnaby

  • Prerequisites:

    Depends on topic, published before enrollment.



Intensive analysis of a particular topic in the general area of communication. This course can be repeated for credit up to a maximum of three times, if topic studied is different.


In our image-saturated society, photography has become integral to how we see and understand the world.  This course introduces students to classic theories and methods for studying photography dating back to the 1980s, focusing on photographs that are used as visual records of social life; whether wedding portraits, family snapshots, passport photos, ethnographic records, or documentary photographs of human rights abuses. The first section of the course reviews theories on the special relation that photographs have to reality.  As Susan Sontag writes, “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing has happened.  The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.”  The course then turns to genres of photography that have the authority of  “incontrovertible proof”, and examines what these images “do” in society, whether in terms of how they are used to categorize and identify “deviants” and manage populations and threats, or in terms of how they cement the intimate bonds of family life that reproduce normative identities.  Here it is necessary to go beyond a semiotic analysis of images where they are reduced to simply ideological representations that distort the world and draw on psychology, sociology, art history and other disciplines. The course assignments focus on government photographs; photojournalistic and documentary photographs; and family photographs.  Note that this course involves difficult subject matter involving the camera and how we voyeuristically witness human rights violations and racist imagery and also explores how to critically examine how photographic practice also are involved in the construction of our identities, enforcing normative gendered ideals and erasing what doesn’t fit in the frame.


  • Tutorial Participation 10%
  • Tutorial Presentations 10%
  • Mid-Term Exam 20%
  • Research Assignment 30%
  • Final Exam 30%



Wells, Liz (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge

PRINT ISBN-13: 9780415854290
PRINT ISBN-10: 0415854296
E-ISBNS: 9781317539728, 9781317539735, 9781317539711

Articles (online).

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Teaching at SFU in fall 2021 will involve primarily in-person instruction, with approximately 70 to 80 per cent of classes in person/on campus, with safety plans in place.  Whether your course will be in-person or through remote methods will be clearly identified in the schedule of classes.  You will also know at enrollment whether remote course components will be “live” (synchronous) or at your own pace (asynchronous).

Enrolling in a course acknowledges that you are able to attend in whatever format is required.  You should not enroll in a course that is in-person if you are not able to return to campus, and should be aware that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who may need class or exam accommodations, including in the context of remote learning, are advised to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca or 778-782-3112) as early as possible in order to prepare for the fall 2021 term.