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Using Photographs To Inspire Writing IV
by Hank Kellner

Most students probably don’t realize that they exercise the mental process of contrast every day. For example, each morning they may contrast two choices of clothing. Or they may contrast two kinds of breakfast cereals. Or they may even contrast you to other people who influence their lives.

But when it comes to using contrast in their writing, students don’t seem to make the connections as easily as they do at other times. Fortunately, photographs can easily help students develop compositions using this pattern of organization.

Contrasting Two Women

Using the photographs similar to those shown here, students could develop papers that are organized in terms of the differences between the two women.
In their compositions, the students could discuss the differences in clothing, hairstyles, facial expressions, lighting, and even the jewelry the women are wearing. They could also speculate as to the period of time during which the photos were taken.

Contrasting Two Men

man man

The two photographs of the men looking at the camera with what appears to be hostility offer many opportunities for students to write papers in which they point out the differences between not only the men, but also their environments.

And that’s not all. Students could also use their imaginations to write about the men themselves: their backgrounds, their work, their hopes, aspirations, and dreams.

Of course, it’s possible to use photographs to inspire writing that isn’t based on a specific pattern of organization. You can use photographs to stimulate compositions based on example, process analysis, comparison, definition, classification, analysis, cause and effect, or any combination of these techniques. The following two photos illustrate this idea.

Writing About a Lonely Man


Is the man in this photograph frustrated? Is he disappointed? Is he waiting for someone to arrive? Unsure of the future? Recalling an unhappy event? Neglected by his friends and family? Wishing that he were somewhere else? Wishing that he had done something differently?

Those are just a few of the many questions that can help even the most hesitant students overcome their reluctance to write. What’s more, some students may choose to ignore the questions and create biographies of the man based on their imaginations. Others may write poems or stories from the point of view of the subject.

Can You Hear Me Now?

phone box

Farewell conventional telephone! Hail cell phone! Did you know that in 2006 there were an estimated 219 million cell phone users in the United States? That said, one can’t help speculating as to how many cell phones make their way into classrooms every day. And one can’t help wondering if traditional phones will soon go the way of 78 rpm records and vacuum tubes for radios.

Using a photo as simple as the one shown here, you can easily inspire students to express their thoughts about traditional phones and cell phones. They could, for example, discuss whether or not telephones help people become closer in their relationships. They could discuss some of the positive and negative effects cell phones have on their users. They could write about some ways in which using phones can be annoying to others or even dangerous. They could tell how many times they talk on the phone each day. And they could relate several of the most interesting telephone conversations they have had or overheard.

How Some Master Teachers Use Photographs

At the University of Mississippi Writing Project, Co-Director of Special Programs Allison Movitz’s students use their own photographs to spark various kinds of writings. The students also incorporate their photos into multi-genre presentations and portfolios. “Most recently,” writes Movitz, “we’ve used Microsoft’s Photostory™, a digital camera, and a microphone to recreate a ‘who done it’ from a mock trial in speech/debate classes.”

Mary Birky is an English teacher at the Papillion-LaVista High School, Papillion, Nebraska; a Nebraska Writing Project Advisory Board member, and a contributor to a forthcoming book on place-conscious education. Birky uses student-generated photos to stimulate writing assignments based on the content of the photos, the mood of the photos, and the imagery of the photos. “I tell my students to ‘paint the photographs with words,’” she writes, before she asks them to create free verse poetry based on the photos they have selected.”

Justin Van Kleeck’s very successful writing activity with students he tutors involves a seagull that simply can’t get enough Doritos. A former adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Piedmont Community College, Van Kleeck shows his students a video of a seagull that steals a bag of Doritos from a store in Scotland every day. In the first part of his assignment, he directs the students to become the thieving seagull and write process papers in which they tell their fellow seagulls how to steal, open, and eat the Doritos. In the second part of the assignment, he tells the students to write from the point of view of a shopkeeper who, in a creative, non-violent way, is telling other shopkeepers how to prevent the seagull from stealing Doritos. “The key to the exercises,” writes Van Kleeck, “is for students to use the process approach while also using their imaginations.”

Call for Submissions

Do you have a photo-related writing activity you’ve used successfully in the classroom? Would you like to share that activity with other teachers at many levels nationwide? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Please send approximately 100 words describing your activity to me at as a WORD attachment to your e-mail. Don’t forget to include your name, title, school or college, city, state, and a brief statement granting permission to use your submission in my articles. Thank you.

The Addison Gallery of American Art

The Addison Gallery of American Art is a department of Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. When you visit you’ll discover more about this organization’s Photography and Writing Program, which is “designed to enable and inspire students to express themselves in words and photographs.” Definitely worth a visit.

To part 1 of the series of articles
To part 2 of the series
To part 3 of the series


Hank Kellner is a retired educator and the author of WRITE WHAT YOU SEE: 99 PHOTOGRAPHS TO INSPIRE WRITING. Although the official publication date for the book is April 1, 2009, it should be available directly from Cottonwood Press earlier than that--most likely in late January, 2009. Visit the author’s blog at http://hank-
. Contact the author at Visit Cottonwood Press at Photo by the author. Poem by Jerry Kato. The author will contribute a portion of the royalties earned from the sale of this book to The Wounded Warriors Project.

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