"The Emperor from Africa" tells readers about Septimius Severus, ruler of the Roman Empire from 193–211 CE. It also  offers readers some extraordinary photographs by renowned photographer Don McCullin. This lesson has you reading two types of texts: the written and the visual (photographs).
For students: We hope this guide sharpens your reading skills and deepens your understanding. 
For teachers: We encourage reproduction of these ideas, freely and without further permission from AramcoWorld, by teachers at any level.
Common Core Standards met in this lesson: SL.1/SL.4/W.1 (see details below).
  —The Editors

Do you have comments? I'd be pleased to hear from you at [email protected]
  —Julie Weiss

The Emperor from Africa

"The Emperor from Africa" tells readers about Septimius Severus, ruler of the Roman Empire from 193–211 CE. It also offers readers some extraordinary photographs by renowned photographer Don McCullin. This lesson has you read two types of texts: the written and the visual (photographs). By the time you finish this lesson, you will be able to: 
  • Read and summarize the article;
  • Analyze Don McCullin's photographs;
  • Use your analysis to evaluate why McCullin's work is so highly regarded;
  • Write an evaluation in the form of a persuasive essay, or present it to your class.

The Written Text

Read "The Emperor from Africa." Make a time line that shows the rise of Septimius Severus's family over the course of several generations, culminating in Septimius being emperor of the Roman Empire. With your time line, make notes about the elements of the story that stand out for you—because they surprised you, or you relate to them, or they connect to something you've studied before. When you're done, have a class discussion about different takes of students on what was important in the article. Then, as a class, discuss, the overall tone of the article. What opinion does writer Barnaby Rogerson seem to have of Septimius Severus? Point to evidence in the article that supports your answer.

The Visual Text

To get you started reading the visual text, look at the first photo (the triumphal arch in Leptis Magna). Working on your own or with a partner,  examine the photo. Make some notes about what you notice. You might include details about what you see, how you feel when you look at the photo, anything that strikes you as particularly interesting or unusual. When everyone is done, bring the class together. Have people share their impressions and have a scribe write them on the board or chart paper. 

"Reading" the Photographs

Divide into small groups. Each group will choose one of Don McCullin's photos, but not the one just examined in the previous activity. As a group, look at the photo to get first impressions, as you did before. Then, look more deeply at the photo, using the following to guide you:
  • First Impressions: How do you feel when you look at the photo? What contributes to the feeling? (For example, do the images of ruins thrill you? Do they make you feel sad?)
  • Content: What is the subject matter of the photo?
  • Color/Black and White: Most of the images we see are in color. These photos are black and white. In a 2019 interview, McCullin said this about working in black and white: 
    We don't live in a black and white world, but once you see a black and white photograph, it haunts you. I have done a few pictures of wars in colour, but they don't work—they feel too cosy—while black and white photographs will penetrate your memory. 
    How does the fact the photo is in black and white affect you? One critic has called McCullin's black and white photos "menacing." Does menacing describe the photo you're studying? What words or words would you use to describe it?
  • Light and shadow: In a black-and-white photo, light and shadow are especially important. Look at the parts of the photo that are in a shadow. What effects do the shadows have both on the image itself and on you as a viewer?
  • Lines: Look for the lines in the photo. One line will be the horizon, but you will notice other lines too, like rows of bricks and the edges of buildings. How do the lines affect the image? Do they, for example, guide your eye from one part of the photo to another? Do they divide the image into distinct parts?
  • Composition: How are the parts of the photo arranged int he frame?  In that first photo you looked at, for example, the arch isn't centered; it's to the left of center. Why do you think McCullin made the photo that way? Why, for example, do you think most of the photos are taken from a distance rather than close up? What impact does that have on you as a viewer?
  • Movement: None of these photos include people or objects that are moving. But your gaze moves around to different parts of the photo. How does the photo pull you in and guide you as a look?
The Photographer's Intent

Once a photographer like McCullin releases his creations into the world, he loses control of how people make sense of them. As viewers, we have our own experiences and perspectives that shape how we respond to the images. Often our views differ from the photographer's. In the 2019 Interview, Don McCullin explained what he saw when he photographed the Roman ruins. He said the following:
I'm very proud of my photographs of the architectural ruins of the Roman Empire. ... When you are standing in front of these great sites, you can hear the ringing of the pain of the people who built them, whose lives were sacrificed by the industrial side of creating these places.
When you see the photos, do you hear the ringing pain that McCullin heard? If not, how does knowing what he thought and felt when he created the photo affect your understanding of it now? 

Before you move on to the next part of the activity, share your photo and analysis  with the class and listen to what other groups have to share. Ask each other any questions you have and look for the similarities and differences in how the groups read the photos.

What Makes a Photographer Great?

Now that you've analyzed some of Don McCullin's photographs, why do you think he is so highly regarded? Use the photo analyses you and your classmates did to answer the question. Then, use your answer as the thesis statement for a persuasive essay, using the photograph as the evidence to support your point of view. Or put together a presentation for the class that answers the questions, and again, uses the photos for evidence. 

This lesson meets this Common Core Standards:

SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on the ideas of others and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. 
SL.4 Present information, findings and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience. 
W.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.