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Writing to Photography/Photography to Writing

Steven Youra
University of Maine, Orono, Maine

Subject: English/Photography
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Marcel and Gaston: Students reviewed two photographic essays, one on a farmer and one on a woodcutter.
  5. "Looking at Photographs": Students read this introductory article by Bayer.
  6. 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.
  7. Project Planning: Students prepared shooting plans for their portrait of a class member. These plans were critiqued during class discussion.
  8. 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 work.

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.

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