Hidden Stories Lurk In Photograph Albums

Photographs are an abundant resource for writers, but their value is easy to overlook.

We’ve all experienced the memory flash that hits us when we flick through a photo album and our eyes rest on a particular photograph. We might pause, and perhaps even show the snap to someone else, before moving on.

If we slow down and look at each photo as we go, we take a virtual stroll through our lives – an emotional journey of one kind or another, depending on the content of the photos. All these stirred memories are good fodder for any writing muse, regardless of the preferred genre.

Then there is another level of experience when we go deeper. I remember how surprised I was some years ago when I scanned my father’s photos and found I made connections about his life, our upbringing and other unexpected discoveries. These insights came to me as a result of working so closely with each photograph.

I’d already experienced the benefits of going deeper into individual photos, both personally and as a writer, but scanning and making sense of hundreds of images was like the difference between looking down on a country and painstakingly trekking it.

I was forced to take in every detail, traverse the landscape of each subject and make decisions about how to get the best out of every snapshot. In some cases, I had to put names to faces I didn’t recognise from prior knowledge… calling on information embedded in, or written on the back of, other photos. Approximate dates and locations were deduced by comparison with snaps that had clear details on them or within their content; and also by using fashion, hairstyles, spectacles and the like as guidelines for deciding the likely time-frame.

Through this process, I learned the contours of peoples’ faces, recognised my father’s features in a cameo of my great-great-grandmother, saw characters develop over the decades and emerge from the pages of the albums. Stories I’d heard from years gone by came alive and made more sense in the context of the images that related to them.

The same experience is created when we put together a slide-show as a tribute to someone who has passed away. I’ve had this experience before, but most recently when my sister died. When selecting photographs of her from our childhood collection, I came across an old black and white snap of her and a cousin as small children sitting in the edge of the water at the beach. I’d seen that photo hundreds of times when I flicked through the family albums, and had always seen it as a picture of the two of them playing in the wet sand. This time, however, I realised there were three children. Another of my sisters was tucked in close and in the grey tones of the old snap has always been mistaken for a shadow. Other family members have since told me they experienced this photograph in the same way… completely missing the little girl in the background.

Once identified, the third child is clear to the observer and her presence adds layers to the scene. It quickly changes from two cousins playing at the water’s edge to two sisters and their cousin on the beach. Three children, not two. The little sister positioned next to her older sibling for protection… but facing the cousin who is about her age… The big sister smiling from the fresh open face that defined her throughout her life, the younger sister and cousin both serious and concentrating on something. The previously assumed dynamics have changed and this one small picture could tell many stories.

This is a clear example of how we see what we expect to see unless we pay closer attention to detail… and how a deeper awareness can open the door to an abundance of writing ideas. Imagine what could happen if you were to pay close attention to each of your photographs, one by one, taking in every detail, exploring previously unnoticed aspects of each image and asking questions this process inevitably raises.

Sometimes there is a need to go past what’s going on in the photograph and explore what’s really going on behind the scene. In other words, what’s the real story this image is camouflaging?

Questions of yourself will make you look further for answers. Questions of others can uncover pertinent information and sometimes untold family secrets.

There is a snap in my album, which appears to be a posed family shot. I’m holding my daughter and my then husband is holding our little boy’s hand, and between us are three older boys. A family of seven? No, a family of four, with three city boys who stayed with us as part of Legacy’s program to provide country holidays for the children of Australians who died as the result of war.

This photo stirs many memories for me… of all the years those boys and others stayed with us… the places we took them… the fun we had together… the challenges of having three teenage boys suddenly added to our little family, when I was only twenty-three… the stories they told us… meeting some of their mothers and not being able to meet others.

Many stories and poems beg to be written when I look at this and other photos taken at that time, as they do when I consider any of the photographs in my albums and on my computer.

Photos are treasures, memories are gold, and the emotions and interest they stir are the impetus that feeds the writing muse.

Photographs = memories = emotions/interest = writing opportunities.

Let us not ignore the gift of abundance between the pages of our albums.


This Blog relates to Writing Tip #16 and Writing Exercise #16~ Journey Into A Photograph.                                                                              

Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below…

A Telling Example

My last four Blogs were on the subject of Writer’s Block. Then I moved on to the use of photographs as inspiration for writing, beginning with Writing Tip #16 and Writing Exercise #16, both posted on 2nd June and the latter promising a Blog to follow soon on the relationship between photography and writing.

Six weeks later and I’m lining up to post this Blog, which precedes the promised one about photos and writing. What went wrong? you may ask… Did I fall foul to that terrible fiend Writer’s Block? Have I lost interest in my website? Given up writing? Gone crazy? Lost my creative muse? Gone overseas and left my computer behind?

None of these possibilities neatly fits what has happened. I am not blocked, nor disinterested. I haven’t given up or gone crazy. My muse still hovers, pushing me to get words on the page, and my computer has gone everywhere I’ve ventured.

What then?

The truth is that my family has been rocked by seven deaths since the end of last September, five within the past two months. Five family members and two friends are gone and we are shattered. Of these deaths, two were suicides, one was murder and another was an aggressive illness that took my sister within weeks.

The impact on the family, the grief, input into proceedings, travelling to funerals and time away from home, have all been distracting. They were also time-consuming and exhausting.

Have I wanted to write during this time? Yes…

Have I written anything at all in the last six weeks? Yes… Tributes to my sister for her funeral and on social media, Family History research summaries, Letters, Emails and a little re-writing on my manuscript.

Have I kept up with my writing commitments? No… I’ve fallen behind in the major re-write of my memoir and will not meet my desired deadline, my Blogs have been delayed, and planned updates and additions to my website have been put on hold, as has the production of my poetry discs.

And now? I’ve lost some time, but am eager to get back to work… post this Blog, followed by the next one and new Writing Tips and Exercises, and ultimately add to my website and finish the poetry recordings. The draft of my memoir is on the desk, where I will return to working on it tomorrow.

What I have been through is a perfect example of the situation I wrote about in my Blog Writer’s Block – Part C. There I spoke of the difference between making excuses not to write by saying conditions were not right to create, and having to face the reality of life’s challenges.

The terrible events that descended on my family have been out of our control, they had a devastating impact and have ripped us from our usual routines – both personally and professionally.

When this happens, there is no choice but to take the time to deal with the circumstances that surround us. The time I haven’t spent writing is akin to the compassionate leave I would have taken had I worked in some other industry.

What is important is that I didn’t totally disappear, and I am back with my muse intact and waiting for me.


My next Blog will explore the relationship between photographs and writing.                                                                               

Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below…