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Using Photographs To Inspire Writing VII
by Hank Kellner

“Sometimes dreams alter the course of an entire life.”
Judith Duerk, American psychotherapist-author

If you’re like me, you probably have a love-hate relationship with your computer. On the one hand, it can sometimes drive you crazy. On the other hand, it allows you to do things you couldn’t easily do otherwise. For example, in less than a second you can convert a positive image to a negative one. And after you’ve done that, you’ll be able to use your negative image in many different ways to help students overcome their reluctance to write.

For example, you could combine your image(s) with a poem to stimulate group discussion that will lead to written assignments. You could ask your students to write about one or more of the dreams they may have had. You could encourage them to speculate as to the meaning of dreams. Or you could simply show them a “dream” photo linked to an appropriate poem and allow them to write whatever comes to mind.


A Dream

A dream slipped into my room
The other night while I slept.

“Who are you, dream?”
  I asked softly.

“I am you,” she said.
“I am who you are,
And who you were,
And who you want to be.”

“Then stay with me,”
I whispered.
“For if it’s true
That you are me,
Then surely I am you.”   

Jerry Kato


How To Connect Seeing with Writing
Valerie Reimers is a Professor of English in the Department of Language and Literature at Southern Oklahoma State University. Reimers has developed an assignment that asks her students to discover convergences between visual images and verbal texts as they create both. First, she directs them to create photographs and, without looking at them, immediately write journal entries describing what they saw and hoped to capture in the photos. “In this way,” she writes, “the students connect seeing with writing.”
A few days later, Reimers directs the students to view printed versions of their photos, describe in writing what they see in their images, and compare/contrast their descriptions with the journal entries they had written earlier.

Bench scene

For the third and final part of the assignment, Reimers requires the students to submit a portfolio consisting of three sets of photos and written entries for evaluation and to share with their classmates. “Doing well on this assignment,” she concludes, “doesn’t depend on photographic skills. Rather, it depends on the careful choosing of subjects and the effort put into writing about them.”
To receive a more complete description of this assignment, contact Dr. Reimers at

Using Iconic Photos

In the Humanities Division at Fullerton College, Fullerton, California, Bruce Henderson uses iconic photos created by photojournalists during the Vietnam War to stimulate students’ thinking and writing. “One of the images I present is the image of a Buddhist monk who has set himself on fire at a Saigon intersection,” he writes. “This leads to a discussion about the nature and effectiveness of protest, as well as to an inquiry into the situation(s) about which the monks were protesting.”
Henderson also uses the iconic photo of the national police chief of South Vietnam executing a bound “suspect” during the Tet offensive, as well as the unforgettable photo of a naked girl fleeing her napalmed village to stimulate discussion and writing in his classes.

Photos from Magazines
Mary Lang is an Instructor in the English and Humanities Division at Wharton County Junior College, Richmond, Texas. Lang directs her students to bring in 3-5 photographs from magazines. Then she asks them to choose a photo and use it to write a narrative or a series of narratives based on the image they have chosen. Occasionally, instead of asking the students to choose a photo, Lang creates a lottery in which the students “win” photos other than those they have selected themselves. “This has worked very well,” she writes. Lang indicates that she uses this technique to encourage students to write not only narratives, but also other forms of writing. “For example,” she concludes, “I’ve found that it works very well as a journal assignment.”

Photos of Ancestors portrait

In her classes at California State University at Monterey Bay and at Cabrillo College, Barbara Raney directs her students to read Richard Rodriguez’ essay about a photo display in San Francisco. “In this essay,” she writes, “Rodriguez asserts that anyone with a camera can create meaningful images.” Then Raney shows the students photos of her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives and asks them to write memoirs based on photos of their own relatives. “The students do a good job of speculating about how/why their subjects changed since the photographs were taken,” she reports.

You Don’t Always Need a Written Prompt
Sometimes you don’t need a written prompt to trigger ideas that lead to written compositions. Here’s an example of how a member of a senior citizen’s writers’ group responded to the photo shown here.

Beach scene

“This photo took me back to the days when my kids and I would spend hours searching for sharks’ teeth along the sandy shores of Jacksonville Beach in Florida, or back to any number of beach memories that are strung throughout my early years. How well I remember other days in Atlantic City when they had a horse that jumped off the Steel Pier. But that was years ago.”

Free! Free! Free! Mystery Photo
Marketing experts tell us that one of the most powerful words in the English language is Free. That’s why I’ve used it three times in the subhead (above).
“Balderdash!” you exclaim. “Nothing’s free. You pay for everything.”
“Not so,” I respond, secure in the knowledge that the Free Mystery Photo I want to send you is really, truly, without-a-doubt, undeniably free. All you have to do to receive my Free Mystery Photo is to send me an e-mail at with the words Free Mystery Photo in the subject line.
Are you still unconvinced? Do you want to know more about the photo before you send for it…even though it’s free? Okay. (1) This photo has been in my files for more than twenty years. (2) During that time, it appeared on the cover of The Reading Journal and in many other publications. (3) Most recently it appeared in Write What You See. (4) Its center of interest is a teenager. (5) Before I retired, I used it to inspire writing time and time again with great success.
By the way, the Free Mystery Photo will arrive in your electronic mailbox with permission to reproduce it for use in your classroom. Send today!

To part 1 of the series of articles
To part 2 of the series
To part 3 of the series
To part 4 of the series
To part 5 of the series

To part 6 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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