From Journal to Memoir: Putting Pen to Photo-Op

Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Signature and Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start – and keep – a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part twelve of this series, Dr. Jacobs moves on to a creative use for photographs. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.

We’ve all heard the cliche about a photograph being worth a thousand words, and many   writers might argue about the exact word count, but there’s no doubting the impact of an image. This came home to me a number of years ago when I was working with a filmmaker on a script. At one point, I told him that the lead character had to give voice to a sentiment and he shook his head and said, “No, you don’t have to have her say that –the camera can say it.” It was the beginning of my ongoing education about visuals, which led me to write captions for some stirring photographs in a series of books.

The real secret to writing from an image is that you never describe what is actually portrayed in the photograph. For example, take that snapshot of your parents in front of the Eiffel Tower. Anyone can see that they’re in Paris in front of the identifier for that city. What your job is, if you’re using that photograph as a focus for writing, is to set the scene that the image doesn’t show explicitly by establishing the history of the subjects and the situation. Maybe your parents had gotten married in Boston and their honeymoon was in Paris but your mother’s trunk had been lost so the new and chic Parisian outfit she is wearing is a world apart from her usual twinset and A-line skirt. She almost looks like Audrey Hepburn, her idol. And off you go. In other words, you situate the image so that the viewer, in reading what you’ve written, can see so much more than what is apparent in the photograph.

Of course, this leads us to consider the way photographs are used in memoirs.  As you browse through a memoir or autobiography section in a bookstore, you’ll often find that there are glossy signatures (groups of pages) on which photos are printed and they often feel very separate from the text itself. I’m always curious about those photos, and love to look at them but frequently see them as addenda to the text rather than essential to it. On the other hand, when photographs are included in a chapter, I find myself gazing at them for a much longer time. Those images feel more integral to the text.

Your task this week is to find a photograph that speaks to a certain period in your life – be it childhood, your teenage years, college, or young adulthood – or a photograph that speaks to an incident of particular importance, a wedding, birth, divorce or spectacular trip. We all have boxes filled with photos or photo albums or computer files. It will probably be more difficult to narrow your choice than to find a photo and that is perfect because it means there will be more writing opportunities for you.

Writing Exercise: Take your cue from the extraordinary photographer Ansel Adams who said, “A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.” Choose one photograph that speaks to you enough for you to look into it and beyond it. It might be wise to choose the kind of photograph that you might want to serve as a headline for a chapter in your memoir. Look hard at the photograph for a few minutes and let your mind or imagination wander back to that time. When you begin to write, set the scene and make the story behind the photograph come to life. It has a natural beginning, middle, and end – and the end might be the photograph itself or what happened afterward. Play with constructing a narrative around the photograph. You can actually build a memoir, photo by photo.