Picture This (using photographs as writing prompts)


I recently visited the Idea of the North exhibition at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. My favourite display was Women by Women – a collection of photographs of women and girls in the North East taken by female photographers.

I came away in awe of how photographers can tell such compelling and complex stories through a single image. It also reminded me that photographs are excellent prompts for writing.

I use photographs all the time to inspire my writing and in my work as a tutor and facilitator. Partly because they suggest a story – think about how photographs in women’s magazine fiction work – but also because they’re an easy way to research unfamiliar or inaccessible places and people.

I’m always adding to my collection but some pictures have travelled with me for a while. I love that they’ve gathered all sorts of stories as different people have written about them.

Here are some suggestions about how to use photographs as prompts:

Creating a character? Choose a picture of a person and write some character notes about them. What’s their name? What do they do for a living? What did they eat for breakfast? What’s their darkest fear?

Writing dialogue? Pick two pictures of people and imagine what they might talk about. Would they get on?

Want to be original? Sometimes our initial ideas are the most obvious (and clichéd). Choose a picture of a place and write a list of 20 ways to write about it. You might find some of your later ideas are more original.

Looking to bring your writing to life? Find a picture of a place and write down what comes to mind under headings of the five senses. Write as much as you can under each heading (including things that you imagine would be there such as the smell of sun tan lotion at the beach) then write a piece set in that place.

Idea of the North is on until 30 September. You can read more about the Women by Women exhibition here.