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Writing with photographs

Photographs are wonderful things, especially nowadays, if we actually take them out of our cameras and do something with them. I think of that commercial where a kid cannon-balls off the diving board and is forever stuck in midair, pleading with his mother to free him. I have a few hostages like that in my camera right now.

Images of any age, particularly those faded, yellowed snapshots in albums and boxes under our beds, enhance the stories we’re writing and provide an added depth and dimension to our words. However, we must guard against relying on the photograph to tell the story. The reader needs to see that image through our eyes because we know its significance and connection to the story.

This is a two-part article. Today, we’ll focus on how to give images more than a cursory glance, how to look and really see each photograph. Next week, we’ll discuss ways to use these visual clues in our writing. Sound good?

Before we write, we study the image to see what it has to tell us. The amount of information we can gather when we take the time to scrutinize the picture is amazing. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Examine the physical characteristics of the photograph. For the moment, ignore the content and focus on features such as the weight of the paper, border or no border, smooth or scalloped edges, writing or a date stamped on the back, color or black and white, and so forth.

2. Next get a clear idea of the subject of the photo. Is the image of a person, place of thing? Is it a snapshot or a formal portrait? Is it a close up or was it taken from far away?

3. Does this photograph have a history? Do you know anything about its origins? How did you come to have this image?

4. Then, grab a piece of paper and take an inventory of everything you see in the photograph. Be systematic in this review. Start at the top and slowly work your way to the bottom. Go to the left and scan right, looking for items you missed in the top-to-bottom inventory.

5. Answer basic questions about the photograph:

Who are the people? Are they known or unknown to you?
What’s happening in the photo?
When was this photo taken?
Where was this snapshot taken? Be specific.
Why was this image taken? What was the purpose for the photograph?
How was this photo taken?

6. Listen to the photo. Let it tell you its story. Ask yourself questions like these:

How do the people in the photo feel about each other?
Is it a happy or a sad photograph?
What do you think happened just before this photo was taken?
Who do you think took it?
What do you think was going on just outside the frame?
What are the people in the photo saying to each other?
What this a good day or a bad day?
How do you feel looking at this photo?
Why do you think this photo was taken?
How do you think they feel about what is happening?
What are the emotions conveyed in this photo?
Is it a pleasing photo?
Is it beautiful or ugly, new or old?
What is the body language in the photo?
What’s not in the photo?
Who’s not in the photo?
Is this an ordinary or a special day?
What messages do the facial expressions convey?
What do you think happened just after this photo was taken?

So, here’s your assignment. Dig out one or two photographs and study them in the manner I describe above. Do you now see anything you have not noticed before? Do you have a better understanding of the photograph? What have you learned from the image that you did not know before? Tell me about your experience in doing this exercise, and let’s start a conversation.

Image courtsey of

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