The Writing Craft: The Photograph as a Trigger

Photographs have a special triggering power for me as a writer. For as long as I can remember, I have used photos to either remember what was going on when the photo was taken or imagine what might have been going on from the moment of the photograph forward.


In fact, I can honestly say that good photos and art images have always led me to new work. When I was the director of a six-woman poetry troupe called Infinity: The Collective, the Ackland Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina invited our group to respond to an exhibition called Transatlantic Dialogue: Contemporary Art In and Out of Africa. It featured paintings, drawings and sculpture by black artists across the diaspora. To make the presentation easier, we each selected a piece from the exhibit that resonated with us and spent time with it to craft a poem.


Art from Transatlantic Dialogue.

“The Dutchman” by Moyo Okediji, 1995.


One thing I realized during this process was that I see a piece of art with a very different lenses if I become more than a spectator. Knowing that I was going to write a poem made me not only pay attention to subtle details, but it also made me process how all the details worked together to make a statement.


Almost three years ago, a poet friend posted an article that still has not let me go. The article was about photographs taken by Jon Crispin of suitcases left in New York’s Willard Asylum for the Insane by patients who were locked away for the rest of their lives. The photos of their belongings were haunting. I felt like I had to give each suitcase a history and meaning, attached to the first name-last initial labels that have been given to each based on registration at the time of asylum entry. There were 400 suitcases found in an attic in 1995, with belongings dating from 1910 to 1960. The patients who died there were buried in graves marked with numbers. When I was first exposed to the story, Crispin has only photographed 80 of the suitcases. He finished the remaining of the 400 in November.


It seems photographing these suitcases has taken on another life for Jon Crispin. He has cultivated a community of backers doing crowdfunding campaigns to both complete the photographing phase and find the best option for publishing a book. Just knowing the context of the photos was enough to move my fingers to start writing. These were people who lived in our world and were at some point discarded. That alone was enough to give me something to say on the page. These people could be any of us and the only way we as humans have to connect with them now is through these suitcases. While I don’t anticipate writing a book like Crispin, the stories of these people have moved me enough to want to write something. I have a family member who very easily could have been any one of these people, so their stories resonate with me even more.


Negro Boys on Easter Morning

“Negro Boys on Easter Morning,” Russell Lee, 1941.


One of the most powerful photos that has snatched my attention is the iconic Russell Lee photograph, “Negro Boys on Easter Morning.” The photograph was taken Easter Sunday 1941 across from Regal Theater in Bronzeville, Chicago. As long as I’ve seen this photo circulating, I’ve never seen anyone identify the young men in the photo until someone addressed it on an Ask Geoffrey (Geoffrey Baer) segment on Chicago Tonight. The show’s producer Erica Gunderson was able to track down info to identify the central figure in the photo as Spencer Lee Readus, Jr., who had died two years before this segment aired. Here are pictures they located of him in military uniform and of him as an older man.



The producer learned from his obituary program and his daughter that Readus had a full life, spending time in the military, marrying and having children. So, the creative me is now poised to write about this photo until I can imagine the lives that the other young men in this photo have lived.


As a prompting agent, the photograph pushes a writer to see beyond what is right in front of her very eyes. You take the facts of the photo, the things you can see – facial expressions, clothing, scenery, gestures, photo dates – and you spin them into a resonant truth for a reader. The truth is: You know you weren’t there when the photo was taken, but if you pay careful attention and write the scene well enough, everyone who reads your words will believe that you were. And what’s more, you’ll make them believe that they were, too.


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