Photos and poetry
The author of ‘The Long Way Home’ and ‘The Lovers And The Leavers’ on how she makes words meet images
A few years ago, I was asked what I thought the difference was between photography and poetry. I didn’t know the answer then though I loved the question, and I still think about its manifold implications. What I honour about photography is how you can share a photograph with someone, a child perhaps, or a traveller from the other side of the world, and both of you can delight in it. I grew up in Nigeria, the child of Bangladeshi parents, so I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider. It’s a relief that in photography, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, only where you are and how you see it. The visual lives beyond language.
A photograph can evoke a mood, lay out a scene, imply backstory, capture motion, describe a character—and a million other narrative and non-narrative qualities. Of course, it’s also the case that reading and writing can teach you something different or deeper about a place or a person. Poetry was my first creative love, and nothing could presume to replace it, but I am beholden to the idea that our stories unfold in layers, bursts and flows, and I’ve been combining and interleaving genres for years now in an attempt to record that multiplicitousness in both content and form.
In 2013, after seven years of travelling, I published my first book, a monograph of travel photography and poems called The Long Way Home. Each of its 10 chapters is about a different photographic obsession of mine: cities at night, trees against the sky, dancers, windows, bodies of water, ruined beautiful things, repetitions and the open road. Using these themes allowed me to group very different geographies together. I find these juxtapositions joyful—a reminder of all the ways we are connected, and when I point my camera at yet another sodium-lamp-lit scene, I can see that I’ve taken this photo so many times before that it’s like a muscle memory.
My second book, The Lovers And The Leavers, in 2015, was a different mix of images and text—a collection of linked stories with poems interspersed throughout. I wanted a visual dimension to the book, a way to set the mood of the story or describe its spaces, so each chapter begins with an image from my photography portfolio. Because the stories in The Lovers And The Leavers are fiction and the photographs are of actual people or places, they can’t possibly match, but it was interesting how quickly I came to think of the photographs as intimately aligned with the stories. We look for patterns in the world, for sense and connection. We find them even when they don’t exist.
It’s important for me to remember that what I’m writing or photographing is just my version of it, and my own filter too might shift in the next click. The “truth” can be a point of contention when writing non-fiction, and for years, I struggled with chronology, privacy and integrity while working on a memoir. Emotional truth is just as important in poetry and fiction. While photography is perhaps the most realistic of the visual arts and the fact of an image is often incontrovertible, a photograph is still a translation of how the photographer sees the world or how she chooses to frame it. A photograph can freeze the surface of a scene, flatten the story into a punchline, or crop out the messy edges. And at its best, photography can reveal detail, nuance and grace, all in a single glance.
Abeer Hoque is a New York-based Bangladeshi author.
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