Using Photos to Inspire Writing

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Write What You See

Less is More

Photographs are wonderful teaching aids.

By Hank Kellner | Updated April 21, 2019

Less is more. There's really nothing complicated about the photo shown below. A figure stands silhouetted against a gray-to-black background. In the far distance, a bright circle hovers over the horizon.

Silhouetted figureOne fist appears to be clenched as the figure stands with its feet apart. Is the figure male or female? Is it facing the horizon, or is it facing the camera? Does its posture suggest anger, rage, or hostility? Why is the subject standing alone in a space that's delineated by shades of gray?

If you showed this photograph to students to inspire them to write stories or poems, you might ask them the questions cited above. Alternatively, you might simply show the photograph and allow your students' imaginations to kick in and guide them as they create their compositions.

Man with parrotBy the way, if you're a photography buff, you'll probably want to know that this photograph was created using a Leica M-3 and Plus-X film back in the days when silver-based photos were king and digital imaging wasn't even on the drawing board.

Some people maintain that as time passes, people and their pets begin to resemble each other. Many students who view this photograph will certainly comment on the similarities between the man and his parrot. Others will speculate as to where the two subjects of the photograph are standing and why they are there. Still others will be inspired to write papers in which they discuss the relationships that exist between people and their pets. A few will write about their own pets and how the pets affected their lives.

City womanIn this photograph a woman stands alone on a city street, her arms folded, her face a study in anger or hostility. Why is she alone? Why is she angry or hostile? What kind of family does she have? Is she married? Does she have children? Why do people become angry? What are some things that make you angry? How do you cope with your anger?

This photograph — or one similar to it — can trigger many questions that can in turn stimulate students' imaginations and provide the perfect antidote to help them get over the "I don't know what to write about" blues.

Photographs can also lend themselves to teaching specific skills. At Columbus State Community College, for example, Sheila Dickson uses graphic images to focus on point of view as a writing technique. She writes, "Being a 'flower child', I show images of the Kent State shootings in 1970." First, Dickson asks students to write descriptive paragraphs from the points of view of a participating student, a National Guardsman, or an observing student. Then she directs them to write another paragraph from a different point of view. Finally, she tells the students to develop one of their choices into an essay. "Using this technique," she concludes, "I've received some of the best student writing I've ever received at the high school and college level during my thirty-six years of teaching English."

At Independence High School in San Jose, California, English teacher Martin Brandt shows his students side-by-side photos of two women and asks them to respond in writing to the following five questions.

  1. What does each photograph show?
  2. How is each woman dressed?
  3. What do you notice about the environment surrounding each woman?
  4. What do you notice about the condition of each woman?
  5. What do the two women have in common? In this way, Brandt helps his students develop papers based on comparisons and contrasts.

From the Boston Writing Project, Peter Golden reports that in one of several photo-related exercises he uses with students at South Boston High School he projects a photo of Marilyn Monroe (a Norma Jean photo) and asks the students to write down their responses and share them. After the students arrive at a general description of the subject, as in shy or sophisticated, Golden presses them for details. Then he directs them to write descriptions of Norma that convey their conclusion (shy or sophisticated) without using that word. "In other words," he writes, "the readers should come to the same conclusion just by reading the description."

"One of the projects my students and parents are most proud of is a project I do with my high school freshmen," writes Jennifer Sluss, Tech Liaison for the Mountain Writing Project. To help teach purpose and audience in writing, Sluss's students create visual personal narratives/memoirs that she fondly refers to as the Me Mini Movie. In this exercise, students compile photos that tell a story or present an aspect of their lives that they value. "We then add a song to the photos in Movie Maker or Power Point. When we do this, the students must focus on matching the music to their message. We also talk about tone, audience, and the purpose of the Me Mini Movies." Sluss also uses representations of abstract art to help her junior English students relate to the themes and plots of novels.

Carol Booth Olson is the director of the UCI Writing Project, a member of the National Writing Project Advisory Board, and the author of The Reading Writing Connection. Olson has created a "memory snapshot" exercise for use with her students. First, she asks them to select photographs that they associate with significant memories. Then she directs them to create written snapshots that capture a you are there feeling in the reader by using rich sensory details. "I point out that the goal is not to tell about the event but to show what is happening by dramatizing the event," she writes."

Photographs are wonderful teaching aids. They can be used to elicit responses from the most reluctant students. They can be used to trigger the imaginations of students from elementary school through college. They can be used to inspire either expository or creative pieces. When you use them to encourage writing in the classroom, never again will students complain that they have nothing to write about.

©2008 Hank Kellner. All rights reserved.

Next: Every Photograph Tells a Story