How to Write Visually

As a lover of both the written word and photography, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend a session discussing how to blend these two means of communication and apply the skills of a photographer to the art of writing. Led by Joe Gisondi and Brian Poulter, both from Eastern Illinois University, the session delved into the hierarchy of photography and how the characteristics of each can be applied to successful writing. According to Gisondi, and Poulter, this hierarchy includes informational, graphically appealing, emotional and intimate photographs.

  • Informational
    Photographs: answers the five W’s (who, what, when, where, why); rarely memorable
    Writing: The only time the inverted pyramid should be used.
  • Graphically Appealing
    Photographs: needs to direct the eye of the audience; organize the space; clean up backgrounds; methodology dictates results; notice the details; take photographs daily
    Writing: include the details; show the reader what happened; use a variety of sentence structures; rely on observations
  • Emotional
    Photography: gauge the reaction of the audience; focus on feel, atmosphere, mood, energy; look for human subjects and humor/laughter
    Writing: cause the reader to feel something about your subject; add a dimension by capturing emotion; the final test should the reaction of the audience; don’t treat subjects as one-dimensional
  • Intimate
    Photography: find the unguarded moments, sometimes you have to wait; take reader to places they rarely go; establish relationships by spending time with subjects
    Cultivating: spend time with subjects; reveal thoughts of characters; use eyes, heart, mind, space; reader feels close to the situation; conflict should be inherent

What really stuck with me, as an audience member, was the use of examples to emphasize each category. I could literally see how an intimate photograph translated into an intimate profile, even though the subjects of each were not related. I viewed an image of Poulter’s 4-year old neighbor pouting for a camera stuck right in her face and then I read a story about a released convict teaching his daughter how to box – and they made me feel the same way. As a news editor, I often find myself sticking to hard news style, reporting only the facts and not letting the characters of the people I interview shine through. While in many cases, this emotional & intimate style of reporting is not appropriate for my section, I think there are certainly times when these more personal, subjective sides of reporting are necessary. The speakers suggested “humanizing” the story, especially – while a report about 50,000 deaths after a tsunami may come across as an arbitrary statistic, we, as readers, are going to gravitate toward the story of a women who survived the disaster and rebuilt her life amidst disaster. It’s human, we can relate. While we’ve not all survived a major natural disaster, we’ve all fallen down and had to pick ourselves back up. We share that emotion and are going to connect on a much more personal level to that story. My goal as a journalist should be to tell a story with my words, which is what I have always loved about it. And sometimes that means getting to the heard of an issue and making my audience not only understand, but feel as well.

-Caitlin O’Donnell


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