Writing to Photography/Photography to Writing
University of Maine, Orono, Maine
Grade: Higher Education
"Students' comments and actions reflected increased insight
as they began to see photography as rhetoric, as language, and
to see the analogies between photographic and verbal expression.
That understanding expanded their concept of literacy and encouraged
them to explore new possibilities in their writing."
Purpose and Description of Project
Steven Youra developed a writing and photography project for students
in his Introduction to Language and Literature course. He delineated
two goals for his project: (1) to improve students' writing by
incorporating photography into descriptive and narrative writing
exercises designed to inspire more varied and creative perspectives,
and (2) to enhance visual as well as verbal literacy.
Youra carefully designed a sequence of lessons and assignments
aimed at increasing complexity of task and active student participation
as well as increased verbal and visual satisfaction. Each activity
was preceded and followed by class discussion about:
- Advertisements: Youra explained to the students how words
and photos can cooperate rhetorically. Students divided into small
groups to discuss individual ads; then each group "taught"
its ad to the rest of the class. Next, each student selected an
ad and prepared an essay on his or her response to it, focusing
on visual and verbal elements.
- Old Snapshots: Pairs of students were each given an old snapshot
(C. 1910) and asked to write in the "voice" of the person
pictured, thus revealing personality, situation, and setting.
- What I Saw: Students viewed a series of photos, wrote a paragraph
describing what each showed, and then read on to discover others'
reactions as well as the "real" situation.
- Marcel and Gaston: Students reviewed two photographic essays,
one on a farmer and one on a woodcutter.
- "Looking at Photographs": Students read this introductory
article by Bayer.
- Portraits: Students viewed portrait collections by Arbus,
Avedon, and Karsh. Each student wrote a one-page essay on each
collection in which he or she commented on what appeared to be
"characteristic" of each photographer and analyzed one
photo in detail.
- Project Planning: Students prepared shooting plans for their
portrait of a class member. These plans were critiqued during
- Final Project: Students spent about three weeks writing and
photographing, reporting their progress and problems to classmates,
and offering suggestions and critical reactions to each other's
Materials, Resources, and Expenses
Youra provided old snapshots for the second writing activity;
the articles and portraits used in other activities were made
available through the university's library. Students supplied
a variety of cameras which were shared. Film was developed by
a university staff member and local commercial processors. Youra
estimated that each student took about 12 photos.
Outcomes and Adaptability
To judge the progress of his students, Youra compared work done
early in the term with the variety of descriptive and narrative
writing options completed during the project. He found their writing
significantly improved and "less advanced students made surprising
strides, as they became creatively engaged by the connections
between writing and photography."
According to Youra, "In carrying out this project, my students
and I have discovered what might, in fact, be a fundamental principle
of learning: creative, unconventional approaches to learning produce
initial anxiety but subsequent pleasure."
Youra thinks it important that students controlled the production
and use of the photographic subject matter in their final essays.
This "valuable and unusual situation for students" gave
them a strong sense of authority and responsibility which they
would not get from activities that put them in the position of
mere commentators on others' ideas.
Youra concludes that his project can be easily replicated and
adapted to a variety of settings because it is not dependent on
technical equipment and because the viewing materials used in
the early activities are very flexible.