Childhood Photograph: Stepping Inside a Memory

Who are these people? What is their story? What happened before the picture was taken? What happened afterward?

Another great writing activity for the beginning of the year is one that involves a childhood photograph. (Side Note: At some point, I will not be able to use this  exercise because no one has actual photographs anymore.  Weep. Even this year, my students said they didn’t have anything from their mid-childhood, only from their earliest years.)

The purpose of this exercise is dual: to build community and to develop students’ powers of observation. This lesson also helps students develop those “dig deeper” skills, mining a universal theme, which is discovered in this single moment in time.  This lesson may also translate into the beginning of a personal essay, memoir, or short story.

A couple of days before the assignment,I ask students to bring a childhood photograph to class. The photo should be an actual snapshot, not a studio or school picture, and it shouldn’t be merely a landscape or blank back yard or a wooded area, but a picture that has people or animals or some kind of dynamic personal element.  A picture with story or conflict or emotion is the best.

At the beginning of class, each student attaches his or her picture to a large sheet of blank paper with a paperclip, and I collect the pictures and redistribute them, so that no one has his or her own picture.  The activity is as follows:

  • Study the photo closely. What do you see in the background and foreground? What type of plants, people, animals, landscape, or structural features in the picture?  Is this a rural or urban setting?
  • On the paper, write a  paragraph as if you are describing the photo for a newspaper article. You are not interpreting the story of the photo, but only what you objectively observe.  Be as specific and clinical as possible.  No interpretation, no editorialization.
  • Next, step into the picture and list 10-12 sensory details that might exist inside the picture. What smells or sounds would you encounter in this photo? What would you taste or feel in this picture?
  • Now look at the animals or people in this picture and start interpreting the “story” of the photo.  Write a paragraph or two. What is the relationship between the people in this picture? If this picture were a short story, who is the protagonist, the antagonist? If this picture were a novel, what is the plot, the sub-plot? If this picture were a movie, what is the genre?
  • Now think about dialogue. If there was a conversation going, what are the people or animals saying? Write a conversation between the people/animals in the picture, or if there is only one person present, write an interior monologue about what the person is thinking.
  • Now think about context.  Write a paragraph that answers this question: What do you imagine is happening just outside the frame of the picture, either physically or chronologically? What happened right before this photo was snapped? What happened right after it?  Who is taking the photo?

After writing the above observations, students return the photograph to its original owner.  The original owners are amazed at the small details their “viewer” has discovered in their picture. Also, students are often surprised by the interpretation of the picture.

After they’ve had time to process the observations, I ask students to write a short vignette about their own photograph or use the observations of their peer to develop a longer personal essay or memoir.  Here is an example from my student, Nathan:

It was the first time I ever entered the home I would grow up in.  Small, hairless, swaddled in a thick mesh blanket, and carried through the brisk October air. There was no big celebration, not yet at least, only my parents, my dearest aunt, and my grandparents would crowd around me in curiosity that early morning. Though I had no consciousness of the world or any of its wonders yet, I was being prepared from that very moment, for the trials that would come in only a few short years.  

     If I’m being completely honest, it was one of the best moments of my childhood. Of course there is no way that I could remember this exact moment, but I know that everything was simple, everything was easy, everyone got along, and to some small extent, the world was at rest.  I find this particular picture a bit funny, because the other two men in this picture, my father and my grandfather, would go on to be among the most influential men that I would have the pleasure of interacting with. I find it incredible that a single picture managed to capture a moment of such approval and joy. I find it incredible that even from the moment I was born, these two incredible men looked at me like a bar of gold. The first few times I looked at this picture, I wouldn’t see it, but now I see that I might as well have taken a picture with Superman and Batman.  

     I was far too young in this picture to remember anything that happened that morning, so there is no way that I could write a memoir of that moment. But I can tell you what this picture means to me just as easily as I can walk on two feet. This picture means everything to me, growing up I had very inconsistent maternal role models in my life, but my dad and my grandpa were two men who were always there for me, this picture captures my life’s inspirations and inspirations, it shows what I once was as well as what I am destined to become. But most of all, it shows me that no matter what happens, I will always have my father and my grandfather to look to, and I hold more dearly to that than any memory I can pull from the depths of my brain. 

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