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Using Photography To Inspire Writing
by Hank Kellner
- 2

How creative can you get with photographs of bridges? Ask Diane Sekeres, who conducted a workshop for teachers at the University of Alabama’s Longleaf Writing Project Summer Institue for Teachers. “I found about 20 pictures of different kinds of bridges: rope, draw, suspension, destroyed, over gorges, over highways, over water,” she writes. “Then I asked the teachers to study the photos and select one that was a metaphor for their teaching.” At the conclusion to the exercise, the teacher-students wrote about their choices and their reasons for making them.

Another outstanding example of how a teacher uses photographs to inspire writing comes from Iowa Writing Project Director James Davis. First, Davis asks his students to recall a photograph of some significance to them. Then he directs them to describe the photograph as they remember it. “Who is in the photograph?” he asks. “What are their expressions and stances? What are the important details of the setting?” To conclude this assignment, Davis asks the students to find the photograph they described and study it carefully before writing about any discrepancies between the photo as it exists and their memories of it. “Why might these discrepancies exist?” he asks. “Which version has more to do with truth?”

When he’s not busy editing Star Teaching— — Frank Holes, Jr. teaches at Inland Lakes Middle School, Indian River, Michigan. Holes shows his students photographs of children performing daily activities and asks them such questions as Who is the child? What is his/her name? What is the subject’s family like? How old is the subject? What is he or she feeling? “I also ask the students to give a full description of the setting that includes sense impressions,” writes Holes. Then he asks questions related to a possible plot before he directs the students to write a story that places the child in the setting.

“To spur on students who are afraid to write, or intimidated by the writing process,” writes Derri Scarlett, “I have them take pictures (or bring in pictures) that they like. An English instructor at Bismarck (N. D.) State College and a columnist for The Bismarck Tribune, Scarlett then encourages those students to talk about why they like the photos, or what the photos mean to them. Then she directs the students to “brainstorm” on paper. That’s when they jot down the words they first spoke of when they discussed the photographs. From that exercise come sentences, then an essay. “Because the students have invested themselves in the subject matter,” concludes Scarlett, “this is a great way of easing into the writing process.”

Often maligned but never out of sight, visual images surround and captivate us without letup. Show a photograph to a child, and the youngster will point to it, trace its image, and respond with a variety of emotions. Show another to an adult, and you get a frown, a smile, or a gesture—rarely will you draw a blank. Show a photograph, or a series of photographs, to students at any level, and you’ll generate more responses than you can handle. Soon your students will be creating stories, poems, and essays that will make you wonder why you hadn’t used this simple and obvious technique years earlier for stimulating the creative process.

To part 2 in the series of articles


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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