Controversial Photo Essay Topics

Of all the resources we publish on The Learning Network, perhaps it’s our vast collection of writing prompts that is our most widely used resource for teaching and learning with The Times.

This list of 401 prompts (available here in PDF) is now our third iteration of what originally started as 200 prompts for argumentative writing, and it’s intended as a companion resource to help teachers and students participate in our annual Student Editorial Contest. (In 2017, the dates for entering are March 2 to April 4.)

So scroll through the hundreds of prompts below that touch on every aspect of contemporary life — from social media to sports, politics, gender issues and school — and see which ones most inspire you to take a stand. Each question comes from our daily Student Opinion feature, and each provides links to free Times resources for finding more information. And for even more in-depth student discussions on pressing issues like immigration, guns, climate change and race, please visit our fall 2016 Civil Conversation Challenge.

What’s your favorite question on this list? What questions should we ask, but haven’t yet? Tell us in the comments.

And visit our related list as well: 650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.


Social Media and Smartphones

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Taken June 8, 1972, the most famous photo of the Vietnam War depicts a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing a village, Trang Bang, which had just been mistakenly bombed with napalm by North Vietnamese planes. The photographer, Nick Ut, doused the young girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, in water before transporting her to an American center for medical attention. The photo’s effects were immediate and wide-reaching. President Nixon was so worried about its effects, he speculated that it was a fake, created to bolster anti-war sentiment.

But 40 years after it was published worldwide and run up against many newspapers’ and magazines’ publishing standards, the photo faced similar obstacles when Facebook briefly removed it, arguing that its nudity defied their terms of use.

Robert Mapplethorpe Goes to Trial

In April 1990, Hamilton County prosecutors charged the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati with obscenity for showing a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work—included images of S/M and gay culture—entitled, “The Perfect Moment.” It was the first time in the nation’s history that a museum had been taken to criminal court for works it had chosen to display.

At the trial, which occurred four months after the exhibit had closed, the defense had the exhibit’s curator, Janet Kardon, analyze the three works (which depicted explicit material, like a man with a bullwhip in his anus) only in terms of their formalistic properties: light, composition and form. It took the jurors all of two hours to acquit both defendants.

Predictably, the works garnered record-breaking attendance and more than 80,000 visitors to the museum.

Photoshop and Blurred Lines: Can it Still Be Called Photography?

Photos have been edited ever since developers in dark rooms figured out how to burn and dodge to lighten or darken images, but Photoshop, launched by Adobe in 1990, has become photography’s best friend and bête noire.

While the most infamous instance occurred in 1994, when Time magazine darkened O.J. Simpson’s skin on its cover, retouching is par for the course in fashion magazines, where it can easily slip from “gloss” to “re-invention.” When Kate Winslet appeared looking supermodel-thin on the cover of British GQ in 2003, she commented, “The retouching is excessive. I do not look like that and more importantly I don’t desire to look like that.”

Recently, Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian West, Kerry Washington and Zendaya have all called out magazines for the body-shaming and racism involved in excessive retouching.

A Female Photographer Rules the Roost

Fine art has always been a boys’ club, but in May 2011, Cindy Sherman became the most expensive photographer in the world. Her work, “Untitled #96” (1981)—a self-portrait of the artist posing as a teenage girl, lying on the floor—sold at Christie’s for $3,890,500. The next year, for her MoMA retrospective The New York Times credited Sherman with “Taking photography out of a ghetto and putting it on the same firm fine-art footing as painting and sculpture.”

The Digital Revolution and the Shock of Abu Ghraib

Digital cameras, especially as they made their way into phones, turned everyone into a photographer, editor, journalist, pornographer and whistleblower. Nowhere was this more apparent than in April 2004, when the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison—discovered on the camera of a guard by a fellow soldier—were revealed to the public through leaked photos.

The abuses drew domestic and international condemnation of abuses during the Iraq War, and also proved a boon for terrorists; Osama bin Laden would reference the images specifically in a 2010 essay printed in Inspire, Al Qaeda’s recruitment magazine.

Photo Update by Richard Prince

A master of appropriation, Richard Prince has been commenting on others’ work since his “Cowboys” series, beginning in 1980, where the artist photographed packs of Marlboro cigarettes (with images shot by Sam Abell), removed the text, and reframed them as high art. His work, collected by museums like the Guggenheim, Whitney and Smithsonian, is among the most expensive for a living artist.

He provoked an uproar in 2014 when he showed “New Portraits” at the Gagosian gallery in New York. Comprising inkjet on canvas images from Instagram of attractive women, like singer Sky Ferreira and model Candice Swanepoel, the works sold for $100,000. The show pulled into question not only what photography could be in the digital age, but issues of fair use, as subjects took issue with the artist using and then selling their personal images. Prince laughed off the controversy with a tweet.


Celebrities woke up to a new digital reality on August 31, 2014, when nearly 500 images—featuring celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Amber Heard, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick in various states of undress and posing in sexual situations—were posted online for the world to see.

Thought to be stolen from Apple’s iCloud, they first appeared on the message board 4Chan, but were quickly disseminated to more trafficked sites like Reddit. The FBI opened an investigation, and one hacker (there are thought to be many involved), 36-year-old Ryan Collins of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to 18 months in prison. But there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle. The photo leak was a wake-up call: Old notions of privacy and security have quickly become history.

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