How To Use Photographs As Prompts for Writing Life Stories
“Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really wants to see.” —Paul Strand
My generation knows the pleasure, both tactile and emotional, of exploring a box of dusty old photographs: the sense of discovery, of time travel, the good fortune of glimpsing our parents as carefree teenagers, of seeing ourselves as Garanimals-clad kids.
But this is becoming a thing of the past. Do you even have a box of photos in your home?
It saddens me to think of our children inheriting a box of old devices (your iphone will be extinct one day, you know!) and wondering how they can access the digital trove of photos they know must be stored within. And they likely won’t be able to retrieve those images, as the technology will have changed by then.
Just as I wish my mother and grandmother had jotted names and dates on the back of their old photos, our kids will one day be wishing we left some clues about our own pictures (metadata, anyone?).
I urge you to go a few steps further, to not only record the details of important photographs, but to elucidate the stories associated with them. To leave a visual AND narrative history to your children, a gift from the past for the future.
In an Instagram: a caption’s a good start
Most of us are used to typing up a quick 100 words about the photos we post to Instagram. It’s amazing how revealing—and often emotional—such a brief caption can be.
Take the success of the wildly popular Humans of NY, in which Brandon Stanton captions photographs of people he meets on the street. His carefully chosen snippets of conversation, which he selects from a longer interview, are illuminating, and capture something highly particular about the individual.
How does Stanton engage his subjects? “They have a person who’s taking a genuine interest in their life, asking them questions about the meaning of their experiences and their thoughts on things that maybe nobody has ever asked them about before,” he says. “I think people appreciate someone taking an interest in their story, and it’s validating in a way.”
But Stanton also knows how to edit. He says he knows he’s completed an interview when the subject tells him something he’s never heard before. It’s when they get into specifics, dive a little deeper than their initial answer, to reveal something personal and telling--that’s when HONY’s posts are most liked. Here’s a recent example:
What does this have to do with your own Instagram posts? Check out your captions. Use them as practice to help you hone the skill of writing vignettes about your life. Do this intentionally for a few weeks. (If you’re not on Instagram, you can do the same thing on Facebook; and if you eschew social media for sharing personal photographs, challenge yourself to type up your captions in a personal document.) After you have at least 5, take a look at them with a critical eye. Did you say something meaningful? Do your comments add context or emotion to the scene? What would you add?
If you are feeling confident that your captions are capturing moments you want to preserve, share them with a sibling or partner to gauge their reaction. The best written vignettes will garner not praise, but laughter, smiles, or tears. They’ll tap emotion, forge connections. At best, they’ll generate conversation and deeper reminiscence.
Beyond the caption: shaping your (small) life stories
I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth reiterating: Shorter is often better, especially when it comes to autobiographical writing. That’s why using photos as jumping-off points for your stories can be such an effective method.
Don’t worry about length when you sit down to write. Just choose a photo, and begin sharing. A few initial ideas:
Talk, don’t write.
Pick up a digital recorder (or use the function on your smart phone) and talk into it. Often spoken language is more direct. You won’t get hung up on sentence structure or finding the perfect words. Rather, your language will flow and have a natural rhythm. Your words will be honest and forthright. You can transcribe your recording later.
Find a partner.
Having someone to listen to your story can be a powerful aid. Even if that person doesn’t engage you or ask questions, the very act of listening—an occasional nod, an understanding expression—let’s the speaker know that what they are saying matters. The more you converse with someone about your life stories, the easier it becomes to share them, shape them, and delve even deeper.
Small details. Moments. A focus on life as it is truly lived. Did your mother enjoy a cup of room-temperature tea every night before bed? What did the hand-me-down pajamas you’re wearing in the Christmas-morning picture feel like? It wasn’t just a red car, it was a 1955 crimson Cadillac convertible that your dad referred to as “My Dorado.” This is not to say get lost in the details: Do not go overboard describing every object and movement in your story with multiple modifiers. This is to say that the specificity of the right details brings an era or a person to life in a most vibrant and revealing way. Choose wisely.
If you hadn’t taken the picture, what would you want to know? Make believe you’re interviewing yourself. This is a helpful exercise in making sure the most essential (often obvious to you but not others) elements do not get left out of your story. And then, like HONY’s Stanton, edit, edit, edit: whittle your interview down to the bone, keeping in those details that surprise, delight, enlighten. I suggest waiting at least a day, longer if you have the luxury of time, to do the editing; it’s amazing how such distance enables us to better self-edit.
Your first assignment: Choose a picture, and use it as a prompt to write a life story vignette.
Look at your chosen photo. Study it; ignore it. Eat some lunch and let the memories the picture elicits percolate. Now sit down at your computer to free write: Don’t worry about story structure or creating something for an audience, just write from your heart. If you are more comfortable with pen and paper, you might forego sentences altogether and jot down phrases, recollections, adjectives. The key to both approaches, whether stream-of-consciousness writing or brainstorming, is to go fast and to not worry about anything. Just do it.
You may find that this one photo has stirred a wealth of memories for you to mine. Perhaps it recalls one vibrant scene from your childhood. Consider yourself lucky if either of these is the case! You’ve got the makings of a life story vignette at your fingertips.
And if the photo you’ve chosen reveals nothing more than a string of boring observations, don’t fret. First, go through this list to see if you get anywhere:
What is your personal connection to the photo?
What would you caption the photo (include as much basic factual information as possible, answering Who, What, Why, When?)
Write a question the photo brings to mind.
Write a detailed observation about the photo.
Boring…? Next, try this exercise from author Beth Kephart, an early assignment she would give to her creative nonfiction students at the University of Pennsylvania, as detailed in her book Handling the Truth:
Study the background of any chosen photograph. Not the foreground, the background. What’s in the picture that you didn’t see when you were snapping? What lies beyond the chosen subject—just to the right or the left? … What does the startle of the once-unnoticed detail suggest to you? What would happen if this small thing—and not the obvious thing, the central thing, the thing easily seized and snatched—was the start of your story?
Still nothing of interest? If you are convinced there is a worthy story attached to the photo, show it to a sibling or other relative to see what memories they may have. If you have other pictures from the same period, gaze at those for clues. Maybe it means something to you not for the story it tells, but for the one it does not tell: Who is the subject gazing at? What happened right before the camera was snapped? Who was left out of the moment—was it you? Or was the picture in a frame at your grandparents’ home, and your memory of that is what’s important?
If nothing more reveals itself and yet you are still compelled to include the photograph in your life story, ask yourself, why? Draft a caption that at least puts the image in context, reveals a mystery, or taps an emotion. Then leave it at that, and turn to your next photo. It is likely that after taking this approach with more of your family snapshots, this one will eventually find its way into your narrative or, rightfully, be edited out in favor of others that weave a more textured and colorful tapestry.
Next steps, and advice for non-writers
If all of this appeals to you but you’re not a DIYer, that’s what we are here for. You may want to begin the journey of remembering and selecting photos on your own, using much of the advice provided on the blog—and then hand it over for refining and shaping; our expert editors and designers will transform your memories into a beautiful heirloom that reveals even more than you had imagined. If you only get as far as piling up those boxes, no worries: We’ll walk you through the whole process! Set up a free consultation to learn how we can work together.
In future posts we’ll tell you about:
How to prepare your stuff for an editor and book designer to dive in
How to share memories that are painful
How to honor a mother