Photographs As Writing Prompts

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R took this photo of me by the Bay of Bengal (that’s his finger in the top left corner), when we had a break of a couple of hours between taking part in rituals at various temples in Tamil Nadu with his parents. The flowers in my hair came from these ceremonies. Looking at the vibrant colors now cheers me. Seeing vast Lake Michigan yesterday also made this earlier by-the-shore photo feel resonant two months later.

I’m at the Ragdale Foundation for a few weeks on a fellowship:  it’s a beautiful place to write and work. Yesterday, I met up with a former resident here, Michele Morano, and we walked along the shores of Lake Michigan with her young son. Michele is also a writer, and asked me what I was working on. I mentioned that I had brought with me a couple of folders of essay drafts, but that I couldn’t bear to delve into the messy drafts.

Over tea we ended up talking about our recent (December) trips to India. Michele’s descriptions of Delhi and Varanasi and all the details she mentioned (the ghats, the carnation and rose petals, the getting sick) brought back some of my own memories of my time in Tamil Nadu. I got to thinking about photographs.

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A sculpture at a hotel where we had breakfast- showcasing modernity and planned obsolescence; an ancient culture and the Apple logo on a metal apple. The contradictions that are everywhere in India. That’s my mother-in-law off to the side, who always looks elegant in whatever sari she is wearing.

Before leaving for Ragdale, I had an appointment at the computer store to address the fact that I have four different photo libraries- it somehow happened from transferring what was on my previous computers to my current one. I had trouble even finding my recent photos from India. When I located the photos from our India trip, I glanced through most of the photos (I created an album), and it brought back some of my memories, too.

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My first overseas travel with R. Again, the colors! Flowers floating in a brass pot of water. I don’t know what those bright red flowers are called. Do you? This photograph reminds me that it took me a few months after our wedding to decide I did in fact want to wear a wedding ring (I never wore a traditional engagement ring), but I knew I wanted toe rings to wear on my second toes, which signify that you’re married.

Look through photos from any particular time in your life and wait for one that suggests a story or that rises from the desktop a bit, that calls to you, talks to you, that you want to spend time with a little more. What made you take the photo in the first place?  What’s the story behind the image and within the person who was moved to capture that image in the first place? If you’re feeling stuck, look at photos. Write about one or two. These three captured my imagination when I looked back at them. I am writing about them now.

4 thoughts on “Photographs As Writing Prompts

  1. Among other things, my heart leaps to see such color on this March morning. Thanks for the reminder to use photographs as prompts. Ekphrasis yielded the basis for the collection of poetry I’m working on now, and did so rather sneakily. In other words, I just started by writing impressions to little paintings by a friend, and did this over the course of three months, every day. It was an exercise. It felt easy and fun and quick. Only later did I realize that some of that work had merit beyond the moment of writing. Thanks for the post, Sejal.

  2. Thank you for this post, Sejal — helpful to me. I often write from images — actual and imagined — and more recently have been working from films. Images, such as yours above, are so enlivening and can inspire our work in multiple directions.

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