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A Writer On Writing: Using Old Photos As A Writing Prompt

Sally Jenkins suggests that looking at old photographs can set the literary creative juices flowing.

Have you ever tried using old photos as a writing prompt? That was the task we were set at my writers’ group last week but it’s something that could be done just as well at home to get the creative juices flowing.

Our session was broken down into the following steps (we spent 5 minutes on each one before going round the group and reading aloud) and these may help you to get going on your own as well:

Write from the point of view of one of the people in the picture – are they happy to be photographed or are they there under duress? Is their smile genuine or is it for the camera only and masking some personal tragedy?

Write from the point of view of the photographer who took the picture and try to include some of the senses e.g sounds, smells etc.

Write a piece of journalism about the scene in the picture – i.e. what newsworthy event could have affected these people or this place. Is one of them a murderer, a lottery winner or a kidnap victim? Was the building devastated by fire minutes after this picture was taken?

Imagine that the photograph has been lost for a number of years. You have found it, traced the original owner and are now handing it over to them. What is their reaction – are they happy, sad or angry to have this section of their past raked up again?

As a group we then discussed which of these exercises had been most inspirational and given us something to take away, work on and turn into a polished piece of work. My own preference was the last piece because it enabled past and present to be linked through back story, with the opportunity to create mystery for the reader by withholding selected information.

The picture prompts work best if you don’t know the people in the photographs and therefore don’t have any preconceived ideas or go off at a tangent writing your family history. Bundles of old photos can sometimes be picked up cheaply in junk shops or car boot sales. Alternatively, try swapping pictures with a friend - recent pictures would work just as well, so long as you don’t know the people.

For some immediate picture prompts have a look here and then get writing! http://tumblemoose.com/10-outstanding-picture-writing-prompts/


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