On Visuals in Creative Nonfiction

April 17, 2019 § 24 Comments

Hanel_author photo_1_3x4

Rachael Hanel

By Rachael Hanel

One question I often ponder as I read creative nonfiction: Why don’t more books include visuals?

I’m a big fan of the ones that do, such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich, and Memory of Trees by Gayla Marty. I’m not talking about full-on graphic nonfiction, such as Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or March by John Lewis. I’m talking about primarily text-based books that use visuals to enhance and supplement the story.

My memoir includes a photograph to start each chapter. I was inspired by The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, where photos at the beginning of each chapter add to the book’s evocative mood. As I was writing my memoir, I had clear images in my head of family photos I had looked at for years, which had sparked my imagination about my family. I wanted my readers to experience a spark of imagination as well.

I had always heard that it’s expensive for publishers to include photos in books, so that’s why it’s not often done. When I sat down with my editor as we talked about getting the book ready for publication, I was shy in asking about the inclusion of photos. I wanted the photos so badly; I was afraid he’d turn me down. Much to my surprise, he said: “No problem. Sounds great. Let’s do it.” He said as long as photos are black and white and printed on the same page stock as the rest of the book, there’s no added cost.

I primarily teach media writing classes at my university job, but on occasion I also teach multimedia and design classes. In my first career as a newspaper reporter, I was taught to think visually—what photos or illustrations can pair with news stories? Can a portion of the text be better expressed through a photo or infographic? Twenty years later, that thought process still guides my work, and I often require my students to include multimedia alongside their written assignments.

When I read nonfiction and visuals aren’t provided, I find myself doing Internet searches for photos. I’m sure I’m not the only one. These people are real, and I want to know what they looked like. Susan Orlean’s description of John Laroche is one of the most perfect descriptions ever written: “John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth.”

Her description only provoked curiosity—I just had to find out what this strange-looking man really looked like.

In fiction, I don’t want illustrations. The point of making up people and places is to be imaginative, and part of the fun for me is to take a written description and try to imagine it for myself. I don’t want illustrations in Lord of the Rings or Pillars of the Earth. That’s also why I want to read a book before seeing the movie—the visuals of the movie will ruin my imagination.

But if people and places are real, readers don’t have to invent them for themselves. So why not be provided visual evidence of the real thing?

Rachael Hanel is an assistant professor of mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She’s working on a narrative biography of Camilla Hall, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who was killed by Los Angeles police in May 1974. Find her on Twitter at @Rachael18 or Instagram at @rachael_hanel.

§ 24 Responses to On Visuals in Creative Nonfiction

  • wiwin tania says:

    Sent from my iPhone


  • colbyjack5000 says:

    I completely agree that visuals can enhance a story – being worth a thousand words and all. I also presumed the lack of pictures was due to cost and space in shoestring-budgeted journals, and those that include visual art, do so as separate entities from the written word. Perhaps, I will continue to include art or photos with my stories as I create them, and if they are accepted for publication (fingers crossed) I will offer the visuals and see what happens. Thank you for this inspiration.

  • Thank you for this information, Rachael. I’ll check it out with my publisher as I work on an essay collection about the Salish Sea and my role as writer-in-residence on the Washington State ferries. I think a few black-and-white photos, maps, and drawings would add greatly to the words. Best to you in your words and images work.

  • Ann Turkle says:

    Excellent! I want to become more adept at including visuals even in my drafts. Thank you!

  • philipparees says:

    I am struggling with exactly this question. Would the black and white pictures of people featured in a memoir add or subtract to the (hopefully) word impressions built of them? I almost am inclined to offer them to any reader after they have read the book ( as a kind of thank you!) If I was a reader I could not resist the temptation to look first, and have my own ‘imaginative portrait’ over-written by the real one!

    I would like to know what other feel about this?

    • rachaelhanel says:

      So true. That’s a good point. I think offering photos somewhere — like a little chapbook, or on a blog — is a great idea if they aren’t included in the book itself.

  • Printing is only one form of cost. Permission must be obtained to use each image, and often the creator must be paid for that permission in addition to paying the person who requests the permission and archives the paperwork. Your publisher was willing to incur that cost, so they must have thought the increased sales warranted it. Congratulations. 😀

    • rachaelhanel says:

      Good point. The photos in my memoir were in my possession, or taken by me. Using visuals in my next project is going to be more complicated, as I will have to obtain permissions.

  • Any book with maps or diagrams, photos or drawings immediately gets my attention.

  • yorkshiremom says:

    This is really helpful – Beta readers of my memoir have asked for photos but I also thought that the price would be prohibitive

  • yorkshiremom says:

    Does anyone know the protocol for including photos of deceased characters? I didn’t think to get permissions from my former husband and one of our land partners before they passed.

    • rachaelhanel says:

      Good question. I think a lawyer familiar with copyright and publishing would be a great resource. If you are working with a publisher, your editor should also be able to help answer that question.

  • floatinggold says:

    It makes complete sense to attach pictures with non-fiction.
    Including them at the beginning our each chapter boosts the readers creativity and makes them more interested in how the content will link to it.

  • I was wondering the same recently! Photos and other breaks from the standard text, like document replication or a poem or whatever, have a huge potential to increase engagement and experience. And it’s fun for the artist, too!

    • rachaelhanel says:

      It’s so fun! As I work on my current project I’m having a good time thinking about the visual possibilities. Though sometimes that distracts me from the writing 🙂

  • Margaret says:

    When I see old photos in the thrift shop I always wonder who those people are and what their lives might have been like. I used to think that if ever I was teaching a creative writing class it would be fun to give each person a photo and ask them to make up a back story. I don’t imagine that this is a new idea, but I still thought it would be s fun exercise.
    I agree that visuals of the people in your memoir would only enhance the story.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Reblogged this on If You Have Five Seconds to Spare and commented:
    My recent post on the Brevity blog on the use of visuals in creative nonfiction.

  • Peter Yusuf Patrick, AWS/CWI says:

    What a fantastic idea… I’d like to adopt such style, with visuals…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading On Visuals in Creative Nonfiction at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


%d bloggers like this: