How to Approach a Photobook with Words

29 September 2022

It goes without saying that creating a photobook with words is unlike creating a photobook without them. And it is also unlike creating a wordbook without photos. A book with words and images is its own beast. It is a chimera, a hybrid monster that you should respect and listen to if one confronts you.

Hi. I’m Jeremy Bassetti, and I’ve caught a chimera by its tail. Which is to say, I’m working on a photobook with words. And, let me tell you, it is a difficult thing. In the ramble that follows, I’ll share some early observations and reflections as I wrangle the beast and work on my own photobook with words.

First, some context

I traveled through Bolivia and Peru for the entire month of August 2022 to do fieldwork for a long-term research project on the idea of mountains. I had a hunch that my travels would yield something interesting photographically, so I sent daily images to subscribers of a “pop-up” photography newsletter I created called 30 Days in the Andes.

I originally thought that, if my photos were interesting, I’d cobble some of them together into a photobook, which I envisioned to be a photographic travelogue, and crowdfund a special edition. But when I returned stateside — and as I began processing my experiences, reviewing my images, and writing — I found myself pulled towards a very specific experience of my time in Bolivia. The images from this experience stood out like a sore thumb, and in the words I wrote I could feel the heart of a story beating.

I have some thoughts about writing memoirs and opening wounds, but this post will tread on less hallowed ground. It will instead deal with the process of working with words and images in book form.

What is a “photobook with words” anyway?

On its most basic level, a photobook is nothing more than a series of photographs arranged and presented within the formal constraints of a book.

But if that were all a photobook was, then any family photo album would be considered one. Critics of photobooks would balk at such an idea. For them, Le Photobook tends to be a formal construct, something conceptual and artistic. Meaning, a photographer performs a deliberate aesthetic act of photographing, selecting images, and/or arranging photographs into a book with a concept in mind.

Seldom do words hold a prominent position in traditional photobooks. If they are not captions to the images, they are relegated to the front matter or end matter as prefaces, forewords, afterwords, and introductions, etc. They are appendix-like: helpful but not essential.

Insert words into a photobook as an important component of the book and critics living in photobookland short circuit.

“What is this?” they say. “What are these weird scribbles? This can’t be a photobook. It is an art book.”

And if the books are labeled as photobooks, they are quick to question the book’s credentials or legitimacy as a photobook. Of Alan Huck’s text-heavy I Walk Toward the Sun which is Always Going Down, one critic said, “strictly speaking this isn’t even a photobook — it’s basically a form of literature that uses photography prominently.”1 It is unclear if the comment is praise or criticism; is this strange-photobook-thing elevated or degraded to a form of literature? The comment seems to suggest the photos are secondary to the words.

And even my terrible term “photobook with words” seems to imply the words are sidekicks to the stars of the show. Should the term be rather “wordbook with photos”? Or should it be something more balanced and equitable? Phowordtobook doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

Whatever you call it, I want to argue that in a true “photobook with words,” the words are equally as important as the images. The words inform the images, and the images inform the words. The words augment the images and the images augment the words. There is an essential dialog between the two elements, the absence of any one element rendering the book wholly incomprehensible. As the cliché goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts in a “photobook with words.” Of course, all of this supposes that the concept of the book doesn’t subordinate one component to the other.

It then follows that if this image or that word doesn’t help the “photobook with words” as a whole, it doesn’t belong in the book.

An approach to a “photobook with words”

One of the primary tasks in creating a “photobook with words” is thinking about how words interact with images and how images interact with words. It is writing with the images in mind, and selecting/sequencing photos with the words in mind.

But how does one approach such a complicated project? What comes first? The word or the image?

Based on my own project, the answer is: neither.

For me, what came first was a concept then the lived experience. From that came the photographs and the notes. And the concept of the book got refined from processing the experience through its products (the words and images).

My approach is an approach, not the approach. For this project, my workflow looks something like this:

Concept → Experience → Raw “Content” → Process “Content” → Refine Concept → Refine “Content” (Selection, Editing, Sequencing, Iteration, Etc.)

I am currently somewhere between Refine Concept and Refine “Content.”

An epistemological approach to photobooks

John Locke says that human understanding comes from experience, which he defines as both sensation and reflection. To summarize his ideas in very simple terms, human understanding is the product of thinking about or otherwise mentally processing our five sensory inputs (touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste). For those who rely on experiences in their creative workflows, this may be interesting framework for creating photobooks (or wordbooks for that matter). For if experiences beget creative expression, the key would be to have more of them.

Many authors of nonfiction books work in this way.

Take, for example, the travel writer. While a travel writer might have a plan or a quest in mind as a book idea or concept, he or she cannot know how the book will turn out without first having had the travel experience. In this example, a concept precedes the content.2 But it is an abstract concept that only becomes concrete after an experience. In other words, even when the concept precedes the content, the experience can give shape to (or change) the concept or idea.

Photographers who are struggling to find personal projects might consider taking this epistemological approach to creativity. To go out into the world, experience it, and see what comes up might be the creative spark an uninspired photographer needs. As Sergio Larrain alludes in his letter to his nephew, experience not just comes before expression, but it helps spark it.

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  2. Of course there are travel writers who have the idea to write a book, and do so, after the travel experience. ↩︎