Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Value of a Good Photograph

When I was a kid, I loved National Geographic magazine. I won’t pretend I was the kind of precocious child who would actually read the articles. What I loved was the photographs.

I was drawn to their quality—the superb focus and clarity, the amazing composition—and studied them as works of art. I was drawn to their immediacy, how they placed me in a scene as no other photographs ever had.

Most of all, though, I was drawn to the way they let me peek into another way of life in another part of the world. I would pore over the photographs and wonder what it would be like to be that kid in front of me—the one tending cattle in Africa, or walking barefoot through a rainforest, or eating seal blubber in the frozen North.

Long before I ever thought of being a writer, I recognized the value of a good photograph.

Years later, after a stint in the Peace Corps, I began writing children’s books. I wanted to write about kids around the world—kids like the ones I’d seen in those photographs long ago. I was really excited when my first book about global awareness, A Cool Drink of Water, was accepted by National Geographic Children’s Books. I knew the photographs would be superb.

My love-affair with National Geographic photographs came full circle on a school visit in Norman, Oklahoma. The librarian there had asked children to choose a photograph in A Cool Drink of Water and imagine they were that person—collecting rainwater as it dripped from a roof in Nepal, or pulling down on a water pump handle in Thailand, or drinking from a melting glacier in the Canadian Rockies.

The kids in Oklahoma let the photographs take them to another part of the world. They imagined, and they wrote.

One boy imagined being a boy in Nepal, listening to the sound of the water dripping off the roof into his water jug. A girl imagined being a little girl in Thailand, so short she had to jump up to reach the pump handle and pull it down—and how good it would feel to stick her head under the pump and wet her hair on a hot day. A boy imagined hiking through the Rockies in Canada and realizing how precious water is to people around the world.

A good photograph had reached each of those kids—and made their world just a little bit bigger.


Deborah Heiligman said...

Barb, great post! In my writers group we once used old photographs as writing prompts. I'm so glad that kids are using the photographs in your books that way, too. And I agree with you about the quality of photos in National Geo books. In the holiday series I did the photographs jump off the page and extend the information in such a vivid, immediate way. For my books the photographs were found by a genius of a photo editor who works there. Did she find your photos, too, or did you find them? I know it works differently in different books.

Loreen Leedy said...

I didn’t read the articles either, but definitely the captions. What those wonderful photographs provided for this aspiring artist were models to draw. Animals and people were what interested me as a kid... though alas, I threw that juvenile artwork away.

Karen Romano Young said...

What a day for photography -- what with Irving Penn's obit appearing in the New York Times. Barbara, I've loved photographs -- the act of freezing a moment in time -- every since my first photo, taken at age 8: I took a picture of my feet. At its best, a photograph is a poem, and vice-versa. Thanks for sharing this!

Barbara Kerley said...

Deb -- Yes, the photo editors and book designers at NGS are amazing! (And my editor is pretty darn swell, too :)

Loreen -- I'm curious, did the insect photos freak you out, too? For some of those articles, I could barely stand to look cause I didn't want to discover that my finger was touching a huge hairy spider when I turned the page.

Karen -- yep, and NGS photos are truly some of the best!

April Pulley Sayre said...

I love photos, too. As many have said, National Geographic magazine captions are surely one of the highest forms of writing. I marvel at what they pack in those few lines. I use these in workshops as studies of compact writing. Back when I worked at National Geographic, there were writers who wrote captions as their entire job, I believe.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

I've worked with photo editor Lori Epstein--I hope it's OK to say her name while singing her praises--at National Geographic both as an editor (on Deb Heiligman's Holidays series!) and as a writer (HELEN'S EYES and EARTH IN THE HOT SEAT) and I agree that's she's a genius! And as Barb says, the designers and the rest of the staff there are amazingly talented, too. April's comments on the captions take me back to the late 1980s, when I cut my teeth as a writer drafting picture captions for Time-Life Books series, which also featured awesome photography. Several years later I wrote all the captions for a big, beautiful National Geographic book called "The Photographs: Then and Now"--an exhausting but exhilarating job that was great preparation for writing kids' books.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I hope Lori sees this!

Loreen Leedy said...

The creepy-crawlies didn’t bother me, but now that you mention it, I certainly wanted to draw them. The first artwork I ever sold at about age twelve was a drawing of a Tuareg girl with braided hair copied from a Nat Geo photo. I suppose the photog should get a cut of the price... must have been around $10-15, at the most.