In last week’s post on Writing with Photographs, we talked about ways to look at photographs—how to systematically examine the photograph’s physical characteristics, inventory the image, listen for the story the picture has to tell and answer the basic who-what-where-when-why-how questions.

Now, let’s focus our attention on what to do with the information gleaned from the study of our photographs. You have many options. You can simply identify the photograph, or you can fashion a story around it. Here are a few of the ways you can use photographs to aid in telling the stories of your life.

Caption – Caption each photograph with a minimal amount of information. Make sure to include basic information necessary to identify the image and tell its significance. This is crucial because without these few details, the picture loses all value in the hands of someone who knows nothing about it.

Cameo narrative Cameo narratives as defined by The Photo Scribe: How to Write the Stories Behind Your Photographs by Denis Ledoux are “short lifestory narratives, generally 50 to 150 words.” Combine a number of these to create an annotated photo album that tells your personal or family history.

Character profile – Group together several photographs of the same person and write a character sketch. Choose photographs that illustrate different facets of this person’s life. Possibly show the person over time or involved in activities that he/she loved or in places significant to him/her.

Profile of a place – Tell the story of a place, its history, its significance to you or your family, what happened at this place, etc. Describe the place in detail. Write your memories about the location and what it means to you to.

Event profile – Bring a certain event, trip, party, holiday, etc., to life with a photograph(s) and a story. Use your writing to set the stage for the event and give details about it, the people involved, the emotions of the event, and so forth.

Enhance your story – Take information you discovered from examining the photograph and add it to a life story you’re writing. Blend the newfound facts into the story, but remember, even if you are including the photograph in the story, describe it anyway. What you see may be different from what others might see. Allow others to experience the photograph through your eyes.

Remember the who-what-where-when-why-how questions you answered earlier? If you’re writing a story of any sort, the who becomes your characters, the what becomes the action, the where and when become your setting, the why becomes the character’s motivation or desire, and the how becomes the backstory. You may not have all these elements in your photograph but use the ones you do have to fashion a story.

Here are a few basic techniques to improve any story  regardless of whether it’s a paragraph or a hundred pages long.

Be specific – Avoid generalities. Use concrete nouns, and don’t rely on adjectives and adverbs to paint a picture. It should be not just a pretty flower but a yellow daffodil.

Action verbs – As much as possible, use verbs that show action and stay away from state-of-being verbs—is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Gravitate to words that give energy to your story—run, jump, explode, skip, swim, race, etc. 

Use your senses – Appeal to as many senses—sight, sound, smell, taste and touch— as possible. Don’t only rely on sight.

Show, don’t tell – Give examples that show emotional traits of a person. Rather than say, “She is so kind,” it’s better to write, “She visits residents of the nursing home every Sunday afternoon.” That shows the woman’s kindness.

Dialogue – What might the people in the photograph be saying to each other? Let the photograph speak. Reconstruct a conversation and put the story in the subjects’ own words.

Remember my warning—do not rely on the photograph to tell the story for you. It is not powerful enough to convey your message. The reader needs to see that image through your eyes, so you should describe the photograph and convey its significance.

Now, go back to those photographs you examined last week and write about them. Try several of the different approaches to writing about photographs mentioned in this article and see which ones work best for you. Then send me one of your photo stories. I’d love to see what you come up with.

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