Prompts and Photography

Paul Simonon by Shepard Fairey
Paul Simonon by Shepard Fairey

I’ve been writing far longer than I’ve been photographing (though I guess you’d never know that by this site). One thing that you’ll find in many creative writing guides are series of writing prompts meant to help writers break through creative blocks, and to help take their writing in different directions. Since writers are hardly the only ones who hit a wall from time to time (it happens to all creative types sooner or later), or who need a change of direction, I thought I’d take the subject up today.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve discussed this before, but really only obliquely, in a post about photo projects. The idea of a “project” can be intimidating, especially if you’re a hobbyist* (where, after all, will you find the time to commit to something like that, to say nothing of the motivation?), so it can be useful just to have a bite-sized moresel to ruminate over without having to worry about biting off more than you can chew. If we’re going to extend the writing/photography metaphor a bit further, this would be like freewriting, where you free associate for a page or so, usually on a particular subject or theme, versus trying to crank out a short story or novel.

Now, if you’re not a writer, it’d probably help if I explained what free writing was. What you’re doing is a stream of consciousness exercise, leaving aside any considerations of form, grammar, spelling, and even content. If it’s in your head, it goes on the paper, simple as that. It gets a bit more complicated for photographers (we can’t just visualize a muskrat and have it magically manifest in front of the camera), but that doesn’t mean it’s not still useful. What writers and photographers have in common, I think, is a tendency at times to mull something over to a degree that the thoughts get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish; in plain English, we overthink the damn thing (about which, more in the next post).

So where does that leave us? Well, for starters, give yourself a series of prompts. We’re not after sweeping ideas, or grand, arching themes here. The whole idea is to stay deliberately small and eminently manageable. Instead of thinking to yourself that you’re going to come up with a photo essay on the passage of the seasons in your favorite park, tell yourself you’re going to shoot something feathered, for instance.** Or set a particular small theme for the day, even if it’s something as simple as “red.”

The next thing is to just shoot. Take some time to let the rules go out the window. The results, same as they’d be for a writer, won’t be pretty, but then, pretty isn’t the point here. The point is to get your ass out there and make photos. The only rule? For whatever length of time you choose — a few minutes, an hour, or a day — if it catches your eye, it’s getting its photo taken. Once you’ve gotten to, or over, that bit (especially if you’re blocked), then you can engage your brain and start taking all of that raw material and following it in whatever direction it suggests to you.

Finally, a little something for any writers who may have come across this post accidentally (you didn’t think I’d leave you out, did you?): even — or maybe especially — if you’re not a photographer, find a camera (even if it’s just the one on your mobile phone), get yourself away from the computer, and take some photos. Once you get back home, you will have snapped enough writing prompts to last you a while. Repeat as necessary.

More photography prompts to follow… In the meantime, have any you’d like to share or suggest? Comment below!

*Or even a professional, since pros are prone to talking at great length about all the stuff they’d be shooting if they weren’t so busy making money off their craft.

**With your camera, of course.

The First 10,000 runs on passion (and an awful lot of caffeine). Buy me a coffee.