Writing With Pictures
November 25th, 2017 by David LaBelle

Sometimes we can capture subtle emotions in a picture that we are unable to express with words. Every communication vessel has its strength. The emotion in this photograph of my 88-year-old father would be impossible to express with words. Too many conflicting emotions are gathered in this face. © Photo by David LaBelle

A dear friend asked if I would always make pictures. I paused.

“Yes, but probably not with a camera,” I said. “I will likely make most of my pictures with words.”

Early in life, speaking with a camera was a lot easier than trying to communicate orally or with the written word.

Photography was the perfect, magical voice for me to share what I saw and felt.

As I learned to write, I was encouraged by a friend to write like I photographed.

“You see environment, emotion and details, and you study relationships,” he observed. “Instead of using a camera, try making those same pictures with words.”

His advice was sage.

While the written word remains more challenging for me than communicating with images made in a camera, I have become a more comfortable and confident writer.

Through the years, I realized photography, writing—even public speaking—are more alike than different. Of the three, speaking to live audiences—the larger the better—is now my comfort zone.

This month’s challenge is to write with a camera what you feel comfortable doing with words. Instead of describing the person, their height, shape, walking canter or face in words, show those characteristics in a photograph.

To get started, here are a few tips to help unshackle your creative spirit and help you become a better photo writer.

Don’t let technical stuff discourage you. Just as grammar and punctuation can erode confidence and choke creativity for the writer, the technical “rules” of photography can tempt you to quit.

I took a beginners’ Italian class that focused on grammar, which just about killed my spirit to learn the language. As children, we learn to speak years before we learn about adjectives, verbs and nouns. If we were forced to learn grammar before we talked, many of us might never speak.

Most great storytelling photographers don’t fall in love with the technical side of photography first, but learn the workings of cameras and lenses later, as needs arise.

Just do it. My informal writing coaches—including my wife—continually remind me to quit thinking about grammar and punctuation, which clog the flow of feelings and ideas, and “just write.” This is good advice for those struggling with the technical side of photography, too.

Some of the best photojournalists have been dyslexic or would have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Many have little competence with artificial lighting or the technical side of photography. They hire experts to augment what they do not do well.

Few of us are good at everything. I never thought I’d say this, but there is a time to put your camera on an “auto” setting, which allows the camera to choose the aperture (lens opening), the shutter speed or both. If you leave the exposure to the camera, you are free to focus on the content—the “heart” things.

Choose visually interesting subjects. Consider Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.” His captivating character is the thread that carries us through the story. The same is true with documentary, narrative-driven photography. An interesting, visual subject is often the difference between success and failure. Some people, some faces, are more visually interesting than others.

Become a good visual reader. To become a good writer, you first need to be a good reader. Similarly, studying the work of other photographers will raise your visual intelligence and help put your work in context. Seeing how others handled light or subjects can be invaluable guides to strengthening your work.

Like any art form, photography is an acquired skill that requires practice. Some photographers are successful because they are masters at assimilating or gaining access to challenging environment or cultures. Others are gifted at seeing light and composition. Studio photographers excel in controlled environments. Others love gadgets and technical problem-solving.

One type of photography is not better than the other.

Like the right-handed batter who learns to hit left-handed, my natural side—my power side—is still the camera. But I have learned to make solid contact with words as well.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.