The Photography Assignment

One of three lesson plans that accompany the essay "The Advanced Class."

This is one of three lesson plans that accompany the essay The Advanced Class.

I have always used photographs in writing classes. It seems obvious that writing about a photo you selected with a personal emotional connection would be a great inspiration. But I found that writing about a random photo with no personal connection also produces great results. 

Writers or teachers offering this assignment should also think about trying it with difficult photos. Writing about bliss and happiness doesn’t produce much in the way of great literature. We write best about what is most difficult. We write about conflicts of all kinds. The writer should let the writing take them where it will. They might start to write about the photo and then end up writing about their own experiences. That is fine. The photos are intended to inspire, not to restrict. 

This is how I would present the lesson to the group: 

I asked each of you to bring in a photo of a person – one with an emotional connection. How did you choose your photo? Go around and share your photo. 

This week, I want you to write about what was happening either outside the range of the camera and just before or just after the photo was taken. A photo is a moment frozen in time, but time itself is not frozen. What was happening right then outside the range of the camera? What happened to the person in the photo right before the photo was taken? Right after? What about the photographer? The point of this exercise is that we tend to think of our lives in segments frozen in time. But we don’t exist in a void… or in the lens of a camera. We are influenced by everything around us and by time itself. If you are writing a legacy memoir – one for your family – your grandkids won’t understand the time you lived in without knowing what was happening in the world at the time you are writing about. Without history nothing really makes much sense. So what happens outside the range of your life is similar to what happens outside the lens of the camera. 

I write on the board: 





Student Writing 

Barbara, a student in my workshop for seniors at Frasier Meadows in Boulder Colorado, brought in a beautiful studio photograph of her three-year-old self with this essay.

Barbara Fahrar at three years old


By Barbara Farhar 

On 7 December 1941—the historic day of infamy—the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The sneak attack came early on a vulnerable Sunday morning while sailors had crossed over on launches to go to church or were sleeping off Saturday night in their bunks. Of the millions whose lives would instantly change—or end—Cookie was oblivious. Safe in her parents’ bungalow on California’s west coast, or at least safe enough at that very moment, the platinum towhead napped in her big-girl maple bed under a light-blue daisy-strewn bedspread. The headboard of her bed had two cutouts in the shape of maple leaves, and Cookie loved to put her hands in them. 

Nearby, her mother lay, pins out of her pompadour, dark hair sprawled across her pillow, tears streaming and hands clenched in torment. Her husband was out to sea and she was alone but for the child. Her own family was in New York City. Frightened, even panicky, she would have to face this catastrophe on her own. Had he been at Pearl Harbor when the hammer blow fell? Would the one-line postcards continue to arrive telling her that he was alive? Would she still receive his pay? 

Awakening later, Cookie knew only that something terrible had happened, something that terrified her mother. Cookie was very afraid, but did not want her mother to know, so she did not cry. She hid her feelings. Her mother thought that she was just a baby and was unaware of what was happening. 

Soon after Pearl Harbor, the mother decided to send her father a special gift for Christmas. In mother-and-daughter black velvet dresses with white lace collars, she took herself and Cookie to a photographer. She carefully wrapped the hand-tinted photographs and mailed them to her husband in the Pacific. 

Sailing in convoy with five other ships, USS Langley was carrying 32 P-40 fighter aircraft on a voyage from Fremantle, Australia, to Tjilatjap, Java. On 27 February 1942, sixteen Imperial Japanese Naval pilots were flying Mitsubishi G4M bombers out of Den Pasar airfield on Bali, escorted by fifteen A6M Zero fighters with red suns on their wings and fuselages. Nine bombers attacked Langley and badly damaged her. She took five direct hits and three near misses, exploding in flames. She was dead in the water. Sixteen crewmen were killed instantly, and the topside burst into flames. At 13:32, the order to abandon ship was passed. 

The 700-strong Langley crew were subjected to explosion, fire, strafing in the water by the Japanese fighters, drowning, and sharks. 

Another member of the convoy, USS Whipple, picked up 308 survivors from Langley, and before 07:00 on 28 February, transferred them to USS Pecos. On 1 March, near Christmas Island, Japanese pilots sank Pecos. Once again, Whipple returned and rescued 231 men from Pecos, and left the area. Cookie’s father was not among the survivors. 

Like all three-year olds, Cookie was thinking magically. Had she done something to cause this catastrophe? She must have done, but what was it? She did not know. Her mother seemed instantly gone from her. In her grief, she was profoundly alone. No one knew that she could feel and smell the terror. No one put comforting arms around her. No one looked into her face and acknowledged that even a three-year old could know, and could be overwhelmed by the knowing. Devastated, Cookie curled into a small ball inside herself, and vowed to be quiet and take care of her mother. 

Shame, guilt, and fear were threads of that ball deep inside the abandoned child. But Cookie loved her mother. Out of compassion for her mother’s pain, she chose to be compliant. The mother wanted obedience above all things, and this is how Cookie took care of her mother. She was a good little girl. 

Weeks later, the photographs were returned. Her father had never seen them.

Photo: In the side yard of Grandma’s and Grandpa’s home in Granville, OH in the 1950s 

Grandma and Grandpa 

By Jane Crabtree 

Three young girls are standing outside by their grandparent’s living room window. The oldest, Marty, then me, Jane, then Sarah. If you look carefully in the living room window, there is our Mother holding the youngest, brother Eddy. 

We lived in Downers Grove, Illinois. Each summer, and sometimes for Easter and maybe Christmas, Mother drove us to visit our grandparents in Granville, Ohio. Dad stayed in Illinois to work at the telephone company. There weren’t any expressways or tollways then. It was a long drive with four children and a dog. Mom made sure we had things to play with and games like “I spy” to keep us busy. Fort Wayne, IN was about halfway. There was an all-day sucker shop where the road turned left. Mom would NEVER buy us all-day suckers, but on such a long drive, they kept our mouths busy. We always mentioned that John Chapman’s (Johnny Appleseed) grave is in Fort Wayne, but we never visited his grave. 

Mother was always a strong alto singing hymns in church. She was also a kindergarten teacher, so she knew lots of songs to entertain children – and to keep them from fighting. We would sing Mom’s old favorites like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” and Down in the Valley.” We would choose our favorites. Eddy (the youngest) usually chose “Jesus Loves Me.” Even as 

children, we could sing harmony to some of the songs. As we got close to Granville, there was a hill in the road which Mother, never a speed demon, would speed over. We called it the roller coaster and giggled as we felt the slight elevation and drop of our bodies on the seat. 

Granville, OH is a college town, home to Denison University. My grandparents, mother, aunt, uncle, older sister, and cousins all went to Denison University. That is why I went to Monmouth College in Illinois. From Grandma’s bedroom, we could see the lights of the University’s Swasey Chapel, the tallest point on the university hill. When we visited our grandparents in the summer, we went to the student plays “under the tent.” I was stage struck! 

Our grandparent’s home was Greek revival, white with green shutters. There was a fireplace in the living room. Grandpa would smoke a pipe and listen to baseball games on the radio. A chest by the side window had games for grandchildren and a stereoscope and would look at 3-D photos of far off places. The living room had large French doors leading out to the outdoor patio and the steep backyard. The small kitchen is to the left, Grandma made candies from the skins of lemons and oranges. At least once per our visit, Grandpa would make huge batches of waffles for lunch. 

Often, our parents would coordinate our visit to Granville with our Uncle and Aunt’s families. There were ten grandchildren! We would sit on the wooden swing on the side porch next to Grandma’s bedroom and sing, laugh, catch up on our different adventures. We would swing the swing so hard that one of the adults would yell at us for “crashing” the swing into the side of the house. We liked to walk downtown to go to Taylor’s Drugstore for phosphates. My favorite phosphate was vanilla. Sometimes all ten of us would agree on just one phosphate flavor and sometimes we would each order a different flavor. I overheard a woman say, “Some people’s children!!!” Since it was a small town and our Grandfather was a Baptist minister and the University’ Registrar, they knew whose grandchildren we were. 

There was a sorority house across from our Grandparents home. We would play games and do Double Dutch jump rope. Sometimes the college women would join us.

One response to “The Photography Assignment”

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    Chris Brandt

    Thank you for posting these exercises! They will be a welcome addition to the memoir workshop I’ll be teaching starting next month!