“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
It’s a phrase we’re all familiar with.
But a picture can also produce a thousand words - if we choose the right one.
Never before have images enjoyed such ubiquity.
We capture life’s moments as they happen. And share them instantly with loved ones around the globe. Even our messages can feel incomplete without an emoji or three.
But behind every picture is an idea waiting for words.
A feeling. A memory. A realisation. Or a story.
What if we found those words? Gave the pictures we love a voice?
In this post, I’ll look at four ways you can use images to help you write (even if it’s not a thousand words!)
Expressing your thoughts
Every so often, we come across an image that stops us in our tracks.
Like the portrait at the top of this blog post. A girl in a gas mask poses for a selfie.
In case you’re curious, an Australian high school student painted it. It was her response to China's air pollution after a trip overseas. As she writes on the wall plaque:
“Fuelled by self-obsession with social media, we turn a blind eye to environmental problems. We would much rather adapt to a dystopian world than stand up and fight for action.”
That picture stayed with me long after I’d left the gallery. But that doesn’t mean it will have the same effect on you.
You’ve got to choose an image that moves you. When you react strongly to a picture, you’ll have plenty to write about.
Are you on Facebook or Instagram? If so, you’re exposed to dozens on images everyday. Most of the time, you scroll through and give your friends’ photos a quick like. But when something really grabs your attention, you comment.
You’re already using images as writing prompts to express your opinion. Save them so you can go deeper and write more later on.
When you’re writing, think about the response the picture triggered. Why did it move you?
Choose a compelling or provocative image, and try one of these:
Journal about the picture to explore your views.
Write a short piece of creative non-fiction inspired by the picture.
Write a blog post about the topic or issue it raises.
Express your opinion through a personal essay.
2. Telling stories
Think about the world’s most well-known paintings.
The Death of Socrates. The Last Supper. Guernica. The Rake’s Progress.
So many of them tell a story.
People have been using pictures to depict narratives for thousands of years. The Aborigines didn't have any written language until Europeans arrived in Australia. So they shared their cultural stories with the next generation through rock painting.
This works just as well in reverse. Pictures can also be a rich source of inspiration for stories.
Tracy Chevalier based her novel Girl with a Pearl Earring on the painting with the same name. Here’s how she described her initial idea:
“A poster of this painting has hung on the wall of my bedroom since I was nineteen and I often lie in bed and look at it and wonder about it. It's such an open painting. I'm never sure what the girl is thinking or what her expression is. Sometimes she seems sad, other times seductive. So, one morning a couple years ago I was lying in bed worrying about what I was going to write next, and I looked up at the painting and wondered what Vermeer did or said to the model to get her to look like that.” - Tracy Chevalier
Children’s writer Ransom Riggs is another example. Riggs had been collecting second hand photographs since he was a boy. As time went on, he noticed a common theme among his shots. In an interview with Writer’s Digest, he described them as “Edward Gorey-esque Victorian creepiness.” Eventually, they led to the creation of his popular fantasy novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
Wondering how to give this a go? Start with portraits or action scenes. When you look at the picture, imagine you’re out with a friend. You’re at an art gallery or looking through a photo album together. Ask your imaginary friend questions about the people in the picture. Who are they? What are they doing? What are they thinking? Why are they there? You can do this in your head, or on paper. Or if that sounds too weird, take a real friend to an exhibition and bounce ideas off each other!
Use a photograph to inspire of piece of flash fiction.
Write a letter from the point of view of a person in a portrait.
Write a short story based on a painting.
Choose a picture of a real event and write a diary entry from the perspective of someone involved.
3. Reflecting on your experiences
Have you been away recently?
Chances are that your camera is full of photos. Visual souvenirs of the things that caught your interest. Or encounters that moved you in some way.
Writing gives you the opportunity to process your experiences by recording more details. It forces you to slow down and consider your reaction.
Begin by zooming in on the moment in your photo. Where were you? You can already see how it looked. Now describe it in words. Next think about the other senses. How did it sound? Smell? Taste? Feel? How did you feel while you were there? Has your perspective changed?
Travel photos are my favourite type of writing prompt. The possibilities are endless. Here are a few to get you started:
Explore a new side of yourself through a personal journal.
Start a memoir of your expat life.
Set up a travel blog to share your adventures.
Write for travel publications to help others.
4. Exploring your creativity
Not all writing needs to have an end goal. You can also use images to stretch your creative writing muscles. If you’re new to writing, you can use them as training sessions. Even if you write regularly, picture prompts make great warm-up exercises. Use them before you get stuck into your other writing. They’ll keep you sharp and stop you getting bored.
And, as we’ve seen, they might give you ideas for future projects.
Recently I decided it was time to get out of my comfort zone and explore a genre I don’t usually write in: poetry. You can read about my haiku-writing experiment here. It challenged me to think about my travel photos in a different way and go back to a beginner’s mindset.
Here’s how you can play (or push yourself) with photo writing prompts:
Write a character sketch for a person in a photograph or portrait.
Select an interesting photo and write a one-sentence caption for it.
Write a paragraph describing a place in the photo, but choose an unusual perspective.
Find a photo and write about it in a style you don’t usually use.
So where can you find good images?
Instagram and Pinterest are good starting points. You can also use online photo libraries such as Pixabay and Unsplash.
Out in the real world, visit art galleries and museums for inspiration. If you’re waiting for an appointment, take advantage of coffee table books, magazines and wall posters. Even advertisements can stimulate ideas.
Images are everywhere. If you choose the ones that speak to you, you’ll never run out of things to say.
Want to delve deeper into this topic? Download my free writing guide. You’ll also get story samples showing how 4 different writers responded to the same photo prompt.