It's the Easter weekend, and I've heard reports on the radio that the rest of the country/Europe is experiencing balmy spring weather. Here in Edinburgh, we're cloaked under what is apparently known locally as the Haar, haar being an icy cold fog that drifts in from the sea. As I sit here at my desk, I can see it literally billowing past the window. Outside it is grey, damp, and freezing. So much for Easter egg hunts. However, in Good Friday tradition, I am baking hot cross buns so at least the flat is warm and cosy and filled with the scent of baking spices.
While the buns cook, let me show you a photograph:
What does it make you think about? Who is the bikini-clad teen? Where is she? Why is she so big? What story does it tell you?
This photograph by Julia Fullerton-Batten is just one from a gallery sent out earlier this year to a batch of award-winning authors, requesting that they choose a photograph and write us a story. The stories have almost all come in now, and have been sent away, together with the original photograph, to a team of graphic designers who are busy at work marrying the text with the image to create what we have called a Photo Story. The finished works will be presented at an exhibition launching next month in London.
Photo Stories is a project I have been working on for a couple of years now, in collaboration with Notes From the Underground magazine and author Nicholas Hogg. The exhibition will be the culmination of a long-running series that has been in print, online, and presented at gallery reading events.
I am incredibly proud of it, not least because the whole series originated from an exercise I used to set for myself. I still use it now.
When I was living in Prague, I used to work sometimes in the library of the Academy of Sciences. A beautiful, grand, Art Nouveau building with mahogany desks and green-glass reading lamps. The books on the shelves were mostly in Czech and all rather serious-looking, but there was one incongruous shelf marked Photography. It became a habit each time I sat down, to take a book from that shelf and open it randomly to a photograph. I would then time myself for 5 or 10 minutes, and looking at the photograph I would write the first thing that came into my head. It was an exercise just to focus my attention away from the business of daily life and shift my brain into writing mode. Mostly what resulted was inconsequential, but occasionally in those brief flurries of fingers on keyboard what would emerge would have the makings of a tiny little story.
The thing was, I never knew quite what to do with these little exercises of mine. They were too small to be stories for the collection, so I used to just file them away on my computer and forget about them. That was until I received a story request from Notes From The Underground. I thought one of my photo stories might work well in the context of a literary magazine handed out free in London underground stations and cafes - something with an image that could be read in the time between two underground stops or over a cup of coffee. The NFTU editor loved the story I offered him, but even more I think he loved the history of how it had come about to be written. Thus was born the idea for the series.
That original story I gave NFTU was inspired by this photograph taken by Magnum photographer Inge Morath:
Next week I'll post the story itself, but for now I thought it would be fun to let you first imagine what story you might write, so that you can compare your thoughts with my own. I've used the Photo Stories technique in writing workshops with students of all ages, and one of the really fascinating elements of the exercise has been seeing how very differently people can be inspired by the same picture. It demonstrates how unique our minds are. That's why it's been thrilling to see the stories that have been coming in from our authors. Each one has been a surprise to read. We have some great talent on board, including Stella Duffy, Richard Milward, Adam Marek, and Tania Hershman. It's been exciting to be involved in a multi-disciplinary initiative such as this, one that aims to provide a new platform to present short stories to the world in a way that is vital, engaging, and provoking.
Nicholas and I also have stories in the show. Mine has been inspired by a photograph taken by the French photographer Gilles Roudiere. As soon as I saw Roudiere's beautiful, dreamy Balkastan series, taken during his travels in the Balkans, I knew I wanted to write stories for his pictures, and am intensely grateful that he's been so generous with his work. I've given you a peek of a small section of the photograph in the header picture to this post. If you'll be in London between May 27th and June 30th and want to see the rest of the picture and the story I wrote, please come take a look at the Photo Stories exhibition and you can see for yourself how myself and our authors have been inspired.
In the meantime, do please take a look at the Photo Stories microsite which will update regularly with news and developments, or follow on twitter @nftu. Do please spread the word. And if you're feeling creatively inspired, why not go away and write a Photo Story of your own? Find a photo book, take a look on a photo site such as Magnum Photos, or go hunt out a random found photograph in a flea market. Sit down, set a timer, and write a tiny story. Go on, try it.
p.s. the hot cross buns were delicious! Happy Easter everyone!