By Doug Wechsler
Well before Sir Isaac Newton got hit on the head by a falling apple, many great ideas originated from observing nature. The same holds true for writing nonfiction books.
Literature research is vital to any nonfiction book, but direct experience is more likely to lead to inspiration. Photography has been a great tool for me to experience my subjects in depth.
Whether you intend to illustrate books with your own photography or take pictures to document your subject, photography can be a great tool for writing nonfiction. Good photography, like good nonfiction writing, takes a subject and expresses a concise idea about it. The process of getting that photograph may teach you a great deal about your subject and inspire your writing.
The most obvious benefit of photography to the writer is as a memory aid. Having a picture can help you describe details you had forgotten or missed. The date and time stamp can help you keep events in sequence. Keeping track of places you visit and experts you meet can be greatly aided by well-labelled photographs.
My photography and writing revolve around nature, but if you are writing a book about a machine, an historical figure, or a scientific principal, photography can help you to understand your subject.
The important thing is the thought that goes into getting the shot and what you observe in the process. To capture the action on camera you must study your subject in the field and through literature. My work requires a great deal of patience to wait for an animal to perform a certain behavior. Meanwhile, I am observing everything that animal does, watching its behavior patterns, and looking to see how it relates to its environment. My observations, experiences, and emotions will not only be reflected in my photography, but also in my writing.
In the classic stereotype, the nature photographer travels for days to a cliff, hides in a blind for hours and in the end finally catches the perfect shot of the endangered foo bird. I have had analogous experiences, but I have also had eureka moments photographing in my own basement.
Firsthand observations while waiting for the shot have saved me from inadvertently creating alternate facts. My research and photography for The Hidden Life of a Toad included raising tadpoles. I wanted to describe and photograph all stages of metamorphosis from egg to tadpole to toadlet. Over the years, I had seen tadpoles in various stages of development. I had noticed how legs start out as stubs at the base of the tail, then grow toes and lengthen. I assumed the arms would do the same.
Researching the topic, I could not find a clear description of how the arms develop. One of my tadpole subjects was starting to bulge in front. The next day it had arms. This led me to photograph another bulging tadpole, lighting it from below. My x-ray-like photo showed a well-developed arm beneath the skin.
Another time I waited for hours to photograph a captive tadpole pop its arm through the skin. At one point it disappeared into the corner of the fish tank and emerged moments later with one arm out. With these observations and photographs, I was able describe and illustrate for kids something that had probably never been seen in a children’s book.
If you are not going to illustrate your books with your photography, you don’t have to go to the lengths that I do, but photography can still be an essential tool in writing nonfiction.
Imagine yourself writing a book about someone or something close to home. Take a photo of that someone or something and write down any observations you make while setting up the photo and arranging or waiting for the shot.
What did you learn about your subject in the process of getting the photo?
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