The Pull of a Photo

Need an idea to start writing? Here’s one that works for me when I’m feeling stuck.

It starts with a photo album. Perhaps you’ve experienced the pull of an album of old photos. Opening one can sweep me away like a mountain stream. Whether the photos are of myself or of previous generations of my family, it doesn’t matter. Either way, a photo can draw you deep into your own memories like a sinker to pull your fishing line down to where the fish are.

Give me a photo album and I’m likely to be submerged in my own thoughts for an hour or more. Time dissolves. I think that’s a sign of some important thinking going on. So take advantage of it.

Plunge into one photo, one that attracts your attention, for one reason or another.

First, describe what is in the photo: where you are in it, how old you are in it, what you are doing, what the weather’s like. If there are other people in the photo, describe their gestures, posture, clothing choices, and perhaps you can detect their thoughts or feelings at that moment as well. In addition to your sense of sight, try to describe the sounds, smells, textures, and perhaps tastes that the photo encapsulates. Notice I’m asking you to describe the photo using present-tense verbs, as if the photo is happening right now. This enlivens your writing.

After you’ve described the place and the people, think about what is not visible in the photo. What I mean is, try to answer the following questions:

  • Who is behind the camera?
  • Why is the person behind the camera taking this particular shot?
  • What were you thinking about when it was taken?
  • How did your life, the life of others in the photo, or your relationship to the place change after the photo was taken?

When you explore the answers to these questions, sometimes the photo takes on more importance than you previously realized. Perhaps it becomes a milestone along your life’s trek, or perhaps it symbolizes a “calm before the storm” (or a “storm before the calm”) in our emotional ties to others.

If we stop and consider the number of photos, either in paper or electronic form, that we tend to collect over the years, the amount of writing that is waiting for us is staggering. If each photo has the potential to become a poem, a vignette for a memoir, or the basis for a short story, think about how much writing those photos could generate. Rather than waiting for the lightning of inspiration to strike you, just look into the dynamo of a photo album!

Author’s Bio.: Yahya Frederickson is the author of three chapbooks: Returning to Water (2006) and Trilogy (1986), both published by Dacotah Territory Press; and Month of Honey, Month of Missilles (2009), published by Tigertail Press. His poems have appeared in numerous national journals. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and Fullbright Visiting Scholar, Yahya is currently a professor of English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.