Using Photos as Writing Prompts

“I find one image of Mom particularly arresting. She’s dressed almost entirely in white—white shorts that show off her long and graceful legs, a sleeveless white sweater pulled over a dark short-sleeved jersey that highlights the darker color of her long, wavy hair, which is pulled behind her so that what you see, at first glance, is the whiteness of her teeth and the radiance of her smile. She’s standing on a beach chair, her right leg ramrod straight to stay balanced., her left leg slightly bent, her white outfit even whiter than the foam of the waves gently splashing against the shoreline behind her. She is slim, even elegant, and looks exactly her age—twenty-six years old, youthful but not young, a woman who seems to know herself and her place in the world.

“I cannot see her as others might. I cannot separate this woman in white from the woman waving at me in the stuffy banquet hall at the St. Eugene Little League annual awards ceremony. Is she beautiful? I doubt that others would say so. Her chin is too long, her forehead too high, her cheeks too prominent, her mouth too wide. But Mom’s sum always added up to more than her parts. She created an impression that lingered long after she had left a room.”

–Steve Luxemberg, Annie’s Ghosts

8 Ways to Write Using Photos as Prompts:

Describe the photo exactly as you see it from the outside. You can do this as a physical description without any analysis or feelings. Just a straight description.

When I look at this photo now….

“I remember…”  What does the photo evoke in you in terms of time and place?

Write in the voice of a person in the photo at the time the photo was taken.

Describe the time, place, location or season when the photo was taken. In your memory, or your imagination, travel outside of the actual photograph and describe the setting beyond the confines of the picture.

Write a letter to the person in the picture, saying things that have been left unsaid.

Write about what happened right before or right after this picture was taken.

What this picture doesn’t show.


  1. Beverly Boyd says

    The little red snowsuit

    1961. Tommy. One-year-old.
    There he stands looking like a red suited moon walker. His toddler legs work valiantly to keep him upright as he prepares to launch the snowball he holds in both hands. Do the extra folds of his size two snowsuit lopping over his tiny red boots help or hinder his balancing act? He seems not to care. His eyes gleam with the confidence while his father, just barely out of the picture, waits ready to step forward if necessary so that the missile he has just provided the “enemy” will surely hit him.
    It was the third snowstorm in three weeks. The locals in New London Connecticut where the Long Island waters temper the New England weather are saying “It’s the worst winter I ever remember.”
    Savvy, careful, spender that I am I bought a size two so he could wear the suit the next year. When orders came for a June transfer it was to Hawaii! Once there, it stayed in a box of winter clothing until five years and four children later orders came for a return to New London. I shopped the thrift shops to outfit the family with enough warm clothing to be comfortable but the little red snowsuit was too small for Anne and too big for Donna! We could have used it. The locals were saying, “It’s the worst winter since 1961!
    Again the Navy moved us to warmer climates, this time California where we moved up the coast from Long Beach to Monterey and finally Mare Island, in Vallejo.
    The little red snowsuit took trips with grateful friends along with my prized fingertip Mouton coat to colder weather until all seven of my children had clearly outgrown the need for it and it found a new owner. My Mouton coat was not so lucky. No one in Berkeley or Santa Cruz was any more interested, than I, in becoming the target for the animal rights crowd. Finally, Tom’s neighbor in Branchport, New York, a tiny Russian woman who lived in an unheated apartment above her husband’s art gallery was thankful for the warm fifty-year-old wrap.
    So the little red snowsuit and the mouton coat found homes. Does anyone out there want a green cloth coat with a mink collar: vintage 1966?

  2. MaryAnne says

    By MaryAnne

    She stood in front of the classic window –six panes on top and six panes on bottom. The window belonged to the peeling white paint house which was over 200 years old, and which was, we were told, going to be represented in the Bennington museum.
    She wore red. She often wore red. Her arms were open in a gesture which seemed to say, “ Look at me. For God’s sake , Look at Me!!”

    Short white hair crowned her summer-tanned face, which seemed to say
    ” I’m here world, I’m here. Pay attention! I’m important. ”
    One hip jutted to the right as if she wanted to dance. Her body which had once been rake thin, had taken on the fullness of a mature woman. Full breasted, she had the narrow straight hips of the typical northern European.

    A little belly mound protruded from the fitted red pants she wore, suggesting perhaps , that she carried the mark of having had seven children…twin boys living only days, and five others, two boys and three girls.
    A broom rested against her shoulder which seemed out of place and paradoxical. There were times she was regal and times not.
    One of her favorites sayings as I recall it :

    “ Nancy O Grady and the Captain’s lady are sisters under the skin.”

    When I look at her photo now my heart aches. She was a complicated woman…a consummate extrovert, and at the same time, in that same untouchable flesh, there was an aloneness… a loneliness about her.

    The time was not so long ago, but in this country place there was less traffic than almost anywhere. Perhaps that is why, when I go there now, the traffic bothers me.
    Traffic only bothers me there because in my mind, this place is not supposed to have traffic. But it does…O yes, it does!
    Everything changes… traffic, building development, stores,…people. Lots of people. Noise.
    No one from her generation lives now in the peeling white painted house. She is alone in the photo. But if you look carefully, you can see her reflection in the window.
    There appears to be two of her, which is fitting, as we all have two sides to our personalities —the light and the dark. The kind and the not so kind.

    No blame dear Madam…no blame. I am forever grateful.

    I am standing behind the curtains in the window watching. Watching is what I do, what I have always done.
    Someone else was nicknamed the Watcher…I don’t think it was me. Perhaps my watching was my own secret. Perhaps no one knew.

    I love this place.

    Loved the laughter …the sound of ice cubes tinkling in glasses, served on a silver tray. The sound of labored notes on the dark, out of tune piano., and singing: ‘ May old acquaintants be forgot…

    O yes, I hear political discussions which didn’t make any sense to me then and, political discussions still don’t…. different characters, different time… same story. Hot air blowing through . . .

    O I know. . she waits somewhere for a letter. And, I will write it but not just now.

    What the photo does not show are the many, many scenes which make up this precious life which I have been privileged to know. and love.

  3. Tempered Ashes says

    A cute little baby sitting on a man’s shoulders. The man clutching each of the baby’s legs for stabilization and the baby’s hands clutching the man’s hair to keep from falling.

    Set in a pasture- beautiful trees, a wooden fence and a nice lawn. The baby looks a little scared; the man, almost cool looking but with shades, a bit of a belly and 1970s era gear clothing his body.

    Am I a fool? This is a picture of me on my father’s shoulders. This is the first time that I have written since I started writing regularly that I do not know what to say. This is the first time that I am perhaps looking at anyone in my family in a long, long time with something other than extreme hate, extreme hurt and extreme rage. This is the first time. Well, there’s a first for everything I suppose.

    Dear father,
    You did not molest me. I know that. You did not even hurt me– I know that. You did your best for your little girl–I know that. What I do not know is this: when I told you what did happen, how could you have been so selfish. When I reached out time and time again, how could you have rejected me the way you did. I know how much you love(d) me, so what I don’t know is this: how can a father who claimed to love his daughter as much as he did do nothing more than throw her to the wolves when she needed him the most?

    I guess I was wrong. I was wrong to think that supposed love alone could “heal all wounds.” I was wrong to think that supposed love all alone was enough to get me through the darkness–and you didn’t love me. The last 10 years of my life I feel as though you hated me. I feel as though the cast-iron bars that were on my soul were nailed shut by none other than you and yours. I feel that whatever love was supposedly there could not have been real because nobody that supposedly “loves” their daughter would allow her to be treated-much less– treat her yourself, in the way that you did.
    I guess so much for “love.”
    Here’s what I do know:
    you still love me
    in your own f***ed up way, you still love me.

    And that has to be enough. for now.
    But I want you to know this:
    even though you still “love me,” I do not still love you–at least not the way that I used to. I used to think that my parents would never intentionally hurt me. I used to think that my parents–even with all of their restrictions, limitations and issues, would never intentionally try to hurt me. I used to think that the fucked up reality that was my family was still my family and that I would go to the ends of the earth to help them and protect them.
    I no longer think that.
    I think now…well, I guess I’m not really sure..
    I just know this: if you ever hurt me again, it will end it–for me and for you. Right now, there may be a smidgen of hope–I’m not really sure but maybe.

    I guess I still can’t fathom it–or understand everything that I have learned these last few years. All I know is this: I know what you did in your past and I know that your sins are now my future. I was an innocent little girl that payed a hefty price for your second chance.
    I hope that someday I get mine.

    Love and all,
    your lovely daughter

    • says

      And I hope you get not just one more chance–but many–that the pain you suffered fades from the forefront of your life and becomes part of the fabric–something that shaped you, hurt you–and also strengthened you. And that new chapters have less to do with the harm that was done to you, and more to do with who you are as a separate, beautiful, spirit.

  4. Tempered Ashes says

    Another post “by me– (I couldn’t resist)”

    My father is a cool cad with his sunglasses and 1970s era clothing with me on his shoulders. (I’m not really sure why I’m writing about this again, but who knows of certainty anyways.)

    I guess I had more to say..

    hmmm, I guess I also want to say this:
    I am still really fucking angry and I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that my anger is real. I’ve been trying to repress it lately, and “get over it” as I feel like it has been such a long time now that I have been attempting to deal with this “issue” and it still has me more than perplexed (and alone.)
    I really don’t want to sound like a “whiner” but I know I am,, so now I think I’ll go back to poetry–at least people can enjoy that (make pain into art right?)

    I H-A-T-E- you
    I do not understand why you are here
    I am a master manipulater with no soul
    I crave little girls
    I love to rub their p***y
    I hate to be told “no”
    I am the master of your universe

    Here’s another one:
    Fuck me
    I deserved it
    I do nothing but whine about being fucked–over and over (by my brother)
    I was told to shut up and I will not
    This is my life now and I refuse to do anything but be heard

    And, finally, one more:

    Fuck everyone
    I’m so pissed off
    I wish the world would end so that I don’t have to

    And, finally, yet another one:

    I am now the Captain of my Soul
    You may no longer reign over me
    I have your grips in my power, now
    And you will not hurt me–or anyone else–lest you face the demon self as he be’s

    Goodbye for now, and thanks for listening..

  5. Jean West says

    A black and white photograph taken with a Brownie camera, the type where you had to carefully thread the film into the take-up reel, making sure you didn’t expose too much film. I didn’t because I was only nine years old so my Dad loaded the film. It’s a touch out of focus, but it doesn’t really matter. A Colorado stream gushes over boulders, boiling white around them, sending sparkling droplets when it crashes into them. A few fallen pines lie on the far bank, trunks pale, all the needles long gone, yet surrounded by lushly leaved trees and bushes. It was a moment on a trip that has become my screensaver. The water, wood, and leaves are gone after nearly half a century, yet the boulders no doubt endure, if a bit rounder. I seem to have a lot in common with those boulders!

  6. Beverly Boyd says

    Not just four lines in a book
    I sit studying the picture in my hand: a woman seated with her daughters standing around her; hair pulled back covering her ears and secured in an unseen bun and the nape of her neck. She’s pleasant enough looking, neither smiling nor dour…no real beauty: the extra pounds in her frame, left behind, I suppose, by her eleven children, each one so anxious to join the rest that she had no time in between to recover a slimmer figure. Her daughters are equally inscrutable: pleasant but unsmiling. This is the only known picture of my great grandmother, who died at fifty-four, long before the family started having reunions. A companion picture of her husband surrounded by their six sons shows only slightly more expression. Even in their clothes made of homespun and slightly rumpled; shoes dusty from the prairie soil that surrounds their home, they appear to have dressed in their Sunday best for this obviously posed picture. I doubt that the men would have worn these clothes to the fields or the barn. The women are wearing clothes made from the same fabric, with no ruffles or lace. Laced up shoes coming above their ankles look a little scruffy and their hair looks hastily combed. Nothing in the pictures give away the prosperous life my great grandmother left behind when she journeyed with her new husband to the Nebraska Territory to join a wagon train headed for California.
    Who are these people? What was their daily life like? Was one more responsible than the others? Were any of them inclined to be a tease or trouble maker?
    In our genealogy Matilda Watkins, my great grandma Gramlich has four lines: her name, date of birth, death and marriage. From that I know that she was three years younger than my great grandfather. Looking down the page I can see that her youngest, my grandfather, was nine when she died. In the family history she is mentioned in one sentence. My great-grandfather married her in Illinois two years before they headed west for California. For many years that was all the family know about her. My grandfather was a family legend. He and his brother left Germany as young men because in German society a boy from a large family had little hope of supporting himself except to join the military. He was one of the first white settlers in Nebraska. As he got older he and his sons were frequently written up in history articles in the local paper; Sam, the oldest son, was the first white baby born in Sarpy County; the women were footnotes, although, family members interested in establishing a link to the American Revolution made the effort to find out enough about Matilda to find an ancestor who served in the North Carolina Militia in 1777.
    They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’m hard pressed to write a hundred without drawing on what little I know from other sources. What I know, or think I know, is more than likely from the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder about the same place and time in American History.
    I have four lines in the genealogy, near the end. My mother, the younger daughter of the youngest son had fifty-two first cousins. Her branch of the family at the time of printing was in its sixth generation in America; two or three generations behind those of her cousins and claims about sixty of the over nine hundred separate listings.
    I had three lines in the first edition, published before I graduated from high school. One line is simply “d.” waiting for someone else to write in the date of my death. Now I have a fourth line, added when I married when I married.
    Recently in looking for a picture of our grandfather that my sister was interested in finding, I opened a box passed on to me by our father filled with family pictures, genealogy and history information from both our parents’ families. Pouring over the envelope of notes and clippings I found a letter written by my father’s grandfather (my great-great grandfather). He is writing to tell his children that their youngest brother, twenty-three-year-old Robert has died: killed when the horse he was riding tripped in a hole and threw him. He is a man taking on the task of passing on important family information at the same time he struggles with his own grief knowing that in time he will heal. He is concerned about…”your dear Mother. She can’t stop grieving and cries continuously. Will she be able to overcome her sorrow?” Suddenly this man, who a few moments before, was just four lines in another genealogy, has a life, with dimension and meaning.
    So I set about the process of sharing with you who come after me, who have never had a chance to see me or possibly even see my picture, who this person was who took up four lines in a book, who had an event filled life, thoughts and feelings, triumphs and disappointments, and give meaning to the four lines that even a picture that is worth a thousand words could not tell.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *