How Photography Inspires Writing

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How Photography Inspires My Writing

By Simona Carini

On January 18, 2016, walking around North Berkeley, I was brought to a halt by the look of a house: the right and left side were painted in different colors and the overall effect was that of a line bisecting the façade. I took a photo and resumed my walk but kept thinking about the house. At home, I wrote down what I had seen and the musings the sight had stirred, then distilled the material into my first poem “The Divorced House” which was published in the journal, Star 82 Review, together with the photo.

At the time, I had been writing for almost 10 years, mostly about food and more recently memoir. Poetry was a new endeavor. As I developed my style and voice, I continued using my photos as writing prompts. I still do.

I start by describing the image, not only the visual details, but smells, sounds, things I touched or that touched me, and/or the situation that led to the photo being taken. While I free-write I may remember something I felt or thought when the image was taken, or a story may emerge. Ultimately, the poem needs to transcend the description to a deeper theme, a shared emotion. What is the story? Why am I telling it? The process may remain a writing exercise, still useful as it helps me focus on sensory details.  

I usually don’t know where writing about an image will lead me. The bisected house in Berkeley made me think about my parents’ divisions which affected my early life.

Taking photographs for me is a way of taking notes. A photo helps me remember what I saw and what I felt. As writer I am a hoarder: of sights, sounds, smells, flavors, textures. I gather sensory details and musings and store them for immediate or future use.

A bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean photographed on a foggy day (so that it appears to overlook nothingness) led me to think about refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea not being allowed to rest when they arrive wherever the waves pushed them. “The Bench” was published with the inspiring photo in Star 82 Review.

The cover of my recently published poetry collection, Survival Time, features the photo that inspired the opening poem: It shows the inside of Lærdal Tunnel, in Norway. The poem references the experience of driving through that tunnel and weaves into it the experience of my husband’s cancer diagnosis. At some point the poem describes what the photo shows but in the broader context of the life event for which it is a metaphor.

“December 31” (originally published in Italian Americana) is about the time I spent the last afternoon of 2018 on the beach of Pismo Beach, CA, bathed in glorious sunset colors, watching surfers ride the last waves of the year, and observing shorebirds. The poem describes them and meditates on breathing and death, as the year is about to die:

The end

arrives with our last breath. A long sigh the last

sound we make. We carry nothing with us,

not even a gulp of air. Will I, on the final

exhale, remember kindness in your gaze?

Simona Carini was born in Perugia, Italy. She writes poetry and nonfiction and has been published in various venues, in print and online.

Her first poetry collection, Survival Time ,  was published in 2022 by Sheila-Na-Gig Editions. She lives in Northern California with her husband, loves to spend time outdoors, and works as an academic researcher.

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