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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Positions and Practice – Photography and Literature

Part of my role as a secondary school teacher involves me visiting primary schools to consider what provisions might be needed to be put in place before the next year’s cohort makes the transition to my school. On one such visit, a literacy lesson was underway when I walked into the year 6 class. The students were in the early stages of writing a story. I noticed a saying on the wall – ‘show, not tell’. The class teacher referred to this when instructing the students to use vocabulary to show the reader the scene were the story was taking place rather than explicitly explain it. It was at that point that it struck me how effectively the written word can provide us with a visual depiction of a scene. Both photography and literature are striving to achieve the same goal – depiction and visualisation of a scene or perspective. Both mediums are concerned with the aesthetics end emotions of the subject. They tell a story; they make us feel like we can visualise and understand the events they are laying out in front of us. How they portray this is determined by the tools and methods available to them. Authors cleverly use words that encourage our imagination to view the scene the author had in mind. Photographs can instantly distil the scene to the viewer from the photographer’s point of view. In both mediums the narrative, framing and composition of the subject are all important to the reader or viewer’s interpretation and visualisation. Both the author and the photographer can choose to manipulate the scene they want us to view. They present the event from their perspective. Both can emphasize features or purposely withhold important concepts or truths. Often it is left for the readers or viewers to interpret the true meaning of the scene, using their own life experiences to inform their visualisation and understanding. This is a key similarity of literature and photography. In many ways, neither will completely answer all the questions about the meaning of a subject, but will open up a dialogue about it.

‘Literature especially has an interesting relationship to photography – to observation, to description, to fiction: taking something that you see and elaborating, jamming, and I think, staging…. taking that moment of observation and letting it go, giving it some wings, following it, rather than nailing it. You’re riffing off of reality.’

– Larry Sultan


Sultan, L. From A-Z Quotes. 2016. Larry Sultan quote: Literature especially has an interesting relationship to photography – to…. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 October 2016].

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