If you are looking for the writing exercise on providing context for your photos that I promised at the end of the Miniclick presentation, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve adapted it from an original provided by the Writing Center at Loyola Marymount University.
Using Text to Enrich Your Photographic Practice
“Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy. Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks… The camera’s rendering of reality always hides more than it discloses… Only that which narrates can make us understand” (23). – Susan Sontag, “On Photography”
What Susan Sontag implies above is that because “photographs cannot themselves explain anything,” they are great points of departure for us as writers, who are in the practice of explaining. I have asked you to bring a photograph which is a “potential object of fascination,” which represents what Sontag calls an inexhaustible invitation to “deduction, speculation, and fantasy.” All you have to do now is accept this invitation, become fascinated with this object.
1. Share: If you are with friends or a group, share your picture with a neighbor. (If you’re along, obviously, you can skip this step.) When you get someone’s picture, ask questions about who, where, when. Ask obvious questions: “Why is that person smiling? Is that your boat?” These questions should get the group to think beyond their initial understanding of what the picture means. Ask as many questions as you can. When people question you, think beyond the first explanations that jump to mind. There are always deeper explanations, or at least more detailed reasons.
2. Objective detail: Take time to look at the picture and think about all the items in the picture, clothes, dogs, items in hand, in or on hair. Write what is there, literally what you see. Look at the foreground, the background, the colours, the gloss, the paper on which the picture is printed. Consider the picture an artifact. Write it all down. Think detail!
3. Circumstances: Recreate the circumstances under which the photograph was taken. If you were there, use your memory. If you weren’t, even better — use your imagination. Who took this photograph? If it was you, why did you take it? If it wasn’t you, why do you think the photographer took it? What was the photographer doing before and after the picture was taken? Where was this? What time of the year? What was the temperature like? The wind? The light? What had to be manipulated to get the shot?
4. Historical/cultural context: What is the historical context of this photo? What year was it? What were the big stories in the news at the time? What cultural/social changes were taking place in the world? What relationship might any of these have to the subject of the photo?
5. Sound: Is there a voice that speaks to you across the years as you consider the photograph? Whose is it? Or do you hear a piece of music or a song? Is there a soundtrack, so to speak, to his memory? Write about it. Discuss its connection to your photograph. See where that goes.
6. Smell/taste: What does this photograph smell like? What is its taste? (Think both literally about the photograph as an artifact and about the situation in which the photograph was taken – what were the smell and taste of that moment?)
7. Tension/exclusion: What story does this picture not tell? What was excluded from the frame? Considering what you’ve written already, begin to describe what’s not there, the story which your picture cannot touch. This is where your job as writer begins. What is the tension or irony you’ve discovered in this photograph? What is its lie? Is the subject smiling the day before a divorce, a breakup or an injury? Who is conspicuously absent from this picture — a relative off to war, a parent no longer living with the family? Is the subject of the photograph engaged in an activity that is characteristic? Uncharacteristic? Perhaps two lovers hold one another insincerely. Appeal to this interest, this voyeurism.
8. Caption & title: Given all of the above, give your photo a title and a 1-paragraph caption.
I would love to see the photos, captions and titles that people come up with from doing this exercise, so please feel free to post them below.
For another writing exercise on photography and text, please see here.