Finding inspiration in words and pictures

I feel like I’ve been adopting a slightly scattergun approach to reading recently but it’s been fun and unexpected. I did go on to re-read Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne Du Maurier as I sort of thought I might when I was last here, and I’m still reading Oriel Malet’s collection of letters from Menabilly in Portrait of a Friendship. But in the meantime I discovered some unspent money in my Amazon account (a bit like the happy heart skip you get when you find a tenner in a bag you haven’t used for a while) and of course this little lapse of memory meant that it was bonus money and therefore could immediately be spent on books. By and about Daphne Du Maurier in keeping with my current bent.

However, while they were winging their way my-wards, I found I couldn’t quite commit to anything else and, since collections of letters are often best dipped into rather than ploughed through, I picked up a couple of books that have been in my house for donkeys years but which I’ve never considered actually ‘reading’. They are: National Geographic’s The Photographers by Leah Bendavid-Val and Phaidon’s The Photo Book. My husband is the photographer/image man (by passion and by trade) and although an arresting image will make me stop and look, just like everybody else, I’ve never really studied photos or thought very much about them as pieces of art, composition or, indeed, narrative.

Words are still very much my thing – after a sometimes perfunctory glance at the image, my eye was always pulled to the lengthy captions to find out more – but I’ve been so interested by what’s happened to my perspective in the last few days of being immersed in this avalanche of images.

One of my great obsessions, in both reading and writing, is the way in which everyday things can be completely changed in an instant. Sometimes that’s whimsical or fantastical, which explains my love for books about magic, magic realism and stories like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which have the power to transform the mundane into the exotic. Other times it’s the touch of tragedy, where the shock of a life-altering event casts a transfiguring film over things that yesterday were so workaday as to be almost invisible.

Some years ago, I found out over the phone that one of the people I am closest to was potentially very, very ill. I don’t remember much about that phone call and I remember almost nothing else about what I did that day, but not long after I took a shower and I remember every single thing about that shower. It was an action that I performed thousands of times but this time it was as if someone took my shower and pulled it into another dimension. Like showering on Mars. Or inside someone else’s body. It was such a strange and alien experience despite taking place in a familiar room in my own flat. With a bit of distance, I think that’s fascinating. It’s entirely about a subtle shift in perspective and it’s something that I like exploring in the written word (alongside many other people who I think have done it just brilliantly).

And that – thank you for bearing with me – is what the photos have been doing for me over and over again. I think it was necessary to look at a few hundred for that to start happening. Unless it’s a particularly powerful and timely image, it’s a rare event when one picture can just stop you in your tracks. But after a few days of looking and reading, and sometimes looking again and again when an image resonated, I’ve started looking at the world around me a little differently. There’s so much unspoken story in the pictures, whether it’s what’s happening in the photo itself, the extra layers added by the context given in the caption, or the glimpses of what the photographer’s experience and commitment might look like on the other side of the lens.

About 50 photos in, I started making little scribbly notes and squirrelling away ideas. And I feel all fired up to explore some of them.

I am by no means the first person to discover that pictures can be inspirational, and I feel almost silly for writing it down as if it was some kind of revelation. But I think my personal lesson learned is that one of the reasons I love books so much, alongside my love for the shape and sound of language itself, is my passion for stories. And I could do with a reminder now and then that there’s more than one place to look for them.

[If you click on the pictures, which are credited to the National Geographic, the link will take you to their best pictures of 2016.]