Michaeline: Photos and Memories as Writing Tools

Iris Gardens at Meiji Shrine on a sunny day. A photographer takes a picture of the painter capturing the flowers in full bloom.

The Iris Gardens at Meiji Shrine. We’re often driven to capture reality, whether it’s in pixels or oils or words. (©Michaeline Duskova, 2014)

I just got back from Tokyo last week, where I “walked the walk” of my characters in my 2013 NaNo, Little Affair in Greater Tokyo.

Going to Tokyo is a big deal for me because I live on the island of Hokkaido. But unusually, this was my third time in Tokyo in as many years, so I could ignore some of the first-time tourist distractions and go a bit deeper into my research.

When I was writing my NaNo in November, I got stuck in some of the half-remembered details. I looked at my pictures from my Tokyo trip, and they helped trigger my memories, but I remember thinking, “Man, these pictures suck. And there aren’t nearly enough of them!” I wound up going on the Internet and YouTube to fill in some of the blanks, and I vowed that I would take better pictures next time.

I took a photography class in college, and the one thing I remember from it is to not be afraid of taking lots of pictures. This was back in the day of film, and developing the pictures and all that jazz. Photography was a costly endeavor, especially for a poor college student who wasn’t very good at it.

These days, it’s terribly easy to just take a hundred pictures, and sort them out later. In one way, that’s great. But in another way, it can hamper your memory. You rely on the SD card to be your brain, and you wind up not paying as much attention as you should, hoping that quantity will make up for quality.

And sometimes it will. But if something really catches your eye, it’s important to take a minute to figure out what is going on, and properly frame the shot. You’ll remember the details better. (NPR’s All Things Considered has a great series on photography and memory.) In this digital age, though, it’s perfectly OK to take a bunch of random shots as well. Take pictures of textures and close-ups as well as the big picture shots and the too-big-to-be-art shots. You’ll get the best of both worlds if you take thoughtless pictures along with the thoughtful ones.

I still got home and thought, “I didn’t take enough pictures!” I got caught up in the excitement of being there, and simply forgot. But, I did better than last year, and photography is just a small part of the writing process. Capturing those experiences in words will be where the real work is.

I know several of you guys have taken research trips. Is there anything you really wish you’d taken a picture of? I know next time I need to include more super-big-picture shots that help me remember how, say, the rose arbor related to the benches around the fountain — stuff that will help me paint a lovely walking break that may end up in a kiss under the roses in Yoyogi Park.

5 thoughts on “Michaeline: Photos and Memories as Writing Tools

  1. Glad to hear you had a successful research trip, Michaeline!

    I gave up taking photographs years ago. I went to some amazing places and felt I was spending precious time looking for photo-opportunities and setting up pictures (with very average results) instead of soaking up the experience, so I stopped. Now I buy lots of postcards, and guide-books, and photo-souvenir books. Often they’re taken by really good photographers, with great equipment, after waiting days or months for the perfect conditions. Sometimes I buy fabrics, or paintings, or nick-nacks (I have a fantastic thangka from Bhutan, and a wonderful Peter Coad panting of the Kimberley). T-shirts (today my husband’s wearing one with hummingbirds on it, from Guango Lodge in Ecuador, http://www.guangolodge.com, which brings back great memories). I keep a trip diary too, which is no use for sharing with other people (except my husband) but perfect for taking me right back to a place.

    • I think that’s a real danger — letting the picture taking take the place of an experience. (-: And it’s definitely true that pictures by real photographers will often capture a place better than I and my smartphone can.

      I think these are all great ways of capturing the feel of the place — sometimes that painting or souvenir will even have a smell or a texture that takes you right back to the day you bought it.

      • For me there’s a balance. Some things can’t be captured by photographs in a book, but to Jilly’s point, I don’t like living life through a camera lens either. I find it takes me out of the experience and inhibits my impressions and feelings

  2. I got home from AZ in April and was disappointed in the quantity of pictures I took. At the top of my, “I shoulda taken a pic of that!” list:

    A wonderful Navajo lady, Anita Yellowhair (as well as her daughter), who graciously spent time with me and answered my questions on Navajo culture and family structure.

    Monument Valley (the road to and from) on the Navajo reservation, as well as the small town (Tuba City) where I spent the night.

    All of the small towns I passed through on my way to and from the Navajo Nation, particularly Williams (where I made a pit stop).

    When I go back (and I will), I’ll do so many things differently, but foremost, I’ll take more photographs.

    • This really is, as you mentioned, a balance thing. The more you are in the moment, the better — and stopping to take a photo make distance you from what you are really doing.

      I think maybe asking at the end of a convo may be a nice way to end an “interview” — and then if you can send the pics to the person, you 1) get their e-mail address and can also ask follow-up questions, and 2) it’s a nice way to say thank-you. In return, they get your e-mail, and can add anything they wanted to add later.

      But, yeah, photos are a powerful memory trigger, so I do think they are important. And they need to be a reminder of the moment — not necessarily the moment itself.

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