Writing on photography

In Praise of Writing

A few people have contacted me lately to ask for advice on getting started with writing and blogging, and I thought I might put a few thoughts together by way of response. It always surprises me how many people feel awkward, uncomfortable, and even excluded from writing, something I suspect lingers from the experience of being forced to put pen to paper at school. I want to offer some brief tips and ideas on how to restart writing if you have stopped, how to employ it as part of a creative practice, and also a small eulogy in praise of its amazing power to augment and develop your ideas.

I think the first and most important question to ask is why you want to write? This will shape so many other elements of what you do. For me it was first about escaping the tedium of a 9-5 job for a little while each day, it allowed me to think about the things I was more interested in, to engage in photography even when I was spending most of each day at a desk in a goldfish bowl of an office. Since then it has developed into a reflective process whereby I can sit down with ideas and issues that are occupying me, research them, question them, work through them, and hopefully come to some new understanding about them.

If you intend to publish (and you needn’t necessarily) another question is what your format will be. Blogging is preferable for a range of reasons (cost, distribution, potential audience) but equally has disadvantages in that the competition is similarly enormous, it’s a slow road to building an audience and it must be assumed that anything you write will be publicly accessible for the rest of time, so make sure they are not things that you might regret. Again with a blog the questions of why and how you write will help to shape the nature of what you post, the routine and myriad other factors. Even if you don’t intend to publish, it’s always worth showing what you produce to others to get feedback, identify what works and what doesn’t and incorporate this into future writing.

When it comes to actually writing, my recommendation would be to find a working space that suits you, and a soundtrack that does likewise. Again this is all very subjective, I find I often have my best ideas on public transport (so I always carry a notebook) and do my best writing first thing in the morning at my desk. In terms of background soundtrack I find perfect silence a bit of a nightmare, like standing in an anechoic chamber one is able to hear all one’s thoughts with a little too much clarity. Equally any sound with identifiable words can have the opposite effect, clouding and muddying thoughts and interfering with the process of writing. Instrumental music or the incoherent gabble of public spaces usually works best for me, see what does likewise for you.

The actual process of putting one word in front of another is again very much a matter of trial and error, a long term process of developing an authorial voice and a set of methods of inquiry that work for you and for your subject matter. Write for an audience real or imagined, tailor language and tone accordingly. Don’t be needlessly complex but equally don’t be afraid of using difficult language,  I’ve talked before about the danger of conflating needless pretentious, complex writing with writing which is legitimately difficult. Always be wary of the former, but never of the latter. Revel in words, get to know each of them and their unique shapes and nuances, read dictionaries, use theasarui, but equally remember a synonym is almost never a direct exchange for its apparent equal, and even functionally identical words often have different origins, associations, which play into how they are ultimately understood.

Reread and reread what you write, I’m terrible about this, but it’s the only way to pick up mistakes. In my experience writing rarely emerges fully formed, refine structure and generally try to improve a piece with each revisit. Similarly read and read, observe how other writers use language and construct arguments and allow their styles to influence you. Find writers who inspire you, who you can retreat to for confidence when times are difficult and inspiration is lacking. Reading what other writers have to say about writing can also be illuminating, for example Walter Benjamin’s thirtreen theses on writing are very much worth a read. They’re all brilliant and useful, for example number five ‘Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens’. But perhaps my favourite is the brilliant last one: ‘The work is the death mask of its conception.’

Most of all enjoy it. Writing should never be a chore, but as I said in the introduction I suspect the reason many people feel awkward about doing it is a husk of memory of having been forced to do so at school. I had a similar experience, and for a long time after I finished university I felt that I never wanted to write again, it was in fact part of the reason I decided I wanted to be a photographer. Gradually though the desire to write became unsuppressable, and in time it has become the invisible but vital skeleton that runs through all my practical work, informing and shaping the photographs I take long before I even reach for my camera. I hope you find it similarly useful.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography