Picture This

7 Minute Read

I’ve yet to meet a writer who didn’t have at least a passing interest in photography. And little wonder, too, as a good photograph contains within it many of the elements that make up a good story, not the least of which are relationships, conflict, and drama.

It’s also the case that photographs benefit from a clear subject, a well established setting, and a compelling overall mood or tone. Even in the most abstract of images, our eye knows precisely where to go, and we have some sense of the atmosphere that the photographer is trying to cultivate. And, similar to creative writing, what reaches the audience’s eye is always the result of a series of decisions–some technical, some artistic, and some necessitated by circumstance–that hopefully enthral the viewer and invite contemplation.

Commonalities aside, the two art forms do diverge, and to my mind, that’s where things get interesting. Take, for example, the camera’s ability to isolate a single instance of time and to seal it off from what came before and after. Poets have tried to do the same, of course, with varying degrees of success, but even the shortest poem can’t rival the efficiency and the immediacy of photography. A photograph appears instantly before us, and without any imaginative toil on our part, we’re ushered into the scene and asked to make sense of it.

Photographs represent such a creative treasure trove for this very reason: that insta pic your friends took of a trip to Toronto last year may only show you the raincoats they were wearing outside the CN Tower, but there’s nothing to stop you from asking yourself what they did earlier that day, or that evening. Or even in the weeks or months before. In fact, it’s the ability to create a compelling back story that makes creative writing such a distinct medium. When you’re writing a story, you can pan in whatever direction you like, even well into the past or the future. You can also capture textures, scents, and tastes in ways that photographs can’t.

(Okay, so: technically, I’m guessing a photograph could probably capture a texture, but it couldn’t necessarily communicate what texture feels like, or is similar to, or what memories it brings to mind. In other words, it would be a literal depiction of that texture, robbed of association and figurative meaning. Photographers of the world, please line up here to argue with me. Seriously, I’ve got all day).

Getting Started

For this activity, we’re going to take advantage of these creative possibilities by first choosing a photograph from your phone, then spending some time looking at the elements that made up the photograph. Where and when is it set? Who is the main subject? What’s happening in the frame? What details stand out to you?

Once you have clear sense of what’s happening within the frame, use these clues to stretch the borders of the image to reveal what it otherwise obscures. In other words, imagine anything that’s not readily made obvious by the photograph itself. It could be something outside the frame that would affect how the image is interpreted; it could be a recollection of the moments before, or after. Or many years later. In essence, I want you to do what the camera can’t, and to do so by showing your reader the bigger picture. Move through time and space, and imbue the image with as much meaning as you can.

You are, of course, welcome to choose any picture you like, provided you find it interesting. After you’ve chosen one, try writing for at least ten minutes.

If you’re fortunate enough to be doing this activity as part of a class, you can extend this activity by passing your phone to the person seated next to you.

Take a look at your classmate’s image, consider it carefully, and then imagine a backstory for the subject (or subjects) of the photograph. Write for ten minutes, and then pass your partner’s phone along. You and your classmates can do as many rounds as you like. As always, it’s a great idea to meet back together as a group and to read what you wrote out loud.

One Last Thing

Many of us use the cameras on our phones every day, and frequently without giving our daily snapshots much thought. And yet, as I hope this activity illustrates, even these moments carry with them no shortage of meaning.

Too frequently, new writers feel as though they need to set their stories in far-flung lands, or to feature characters who are over-the-top in order to intrigue their readers. While there’s certainly no harm in being imaginative, we all do well to remember that it’s the everyday details that enable our readers to relate to our characters and to feel connected to the story. Looking at pictures on our phones can remind us of this need to feel connected, as frequently the images capture not only the daily activities that make up our lives, but also the relationships that matter to us most.

Looking Back

Each time that I complete this exercise in class, there are always at least a few students who tell me that it was easier to write about their classmates’ images than it was to work with their own. I’m not sure why exactly that’s the case, but these same questions keep coming back to me:

Do we know too much about our pictures, and by extension, our own lives? Is it liberating at times to know less about a photograph, entirely so that there’s more room to make stuff up?

Those are, of course, hard questions to answer. Let’s go ahead and ask some more:

Is it ultimately more rewarding to turn your own experience into writing that other people can appreciate and enjoy? Or is that entirely besides the point? Is all that matters that the story itself is compelling for your reader?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but they’re definitely worth exploring at length. In our next activity, we’re going to stay with the theme of ekphrasis, which is writing that takes its inspiration from visual art, but this time, we’re going to shift our attention from the photograph itself to the person behind the camera.


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