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Writing Like a Good Photographer

“This is the story of ______?” my writing teacher prompted, expecting students to fill in the blank. “I thought you would never ask! Do I ever have a story to tell,” I said to myself as I proudly glanced down at my ten-page treatise. “Well,” I said brightly, “my piece is about women in developing countries, and how the international aid community is working to address women’s issues and maximize the “girl effect” in fragile post-conflict societies in Africa. I explore the impact of policies and programs designed to empower women, and reflect on some best practices that have emerged within this promising development trend.”
The teacher looked outright unimpressed, even disappointed. “This is the story of ________?” she repeated, a little more firmly this time.

photo by Nancy Farese in Liberia
Quizzically, I tried again. “It’s a piece I wrote after I spent time in Liberia after I had written an extensive report about women in the developing world; and it’s about the women (and men) I met, and how the experience led to me to see the complexities and nuances I, and much of world, had overlooked when thinking about this critical issue from a desk-research perspective. It’s about what I found out that I believe challenges the conventional wisdom on the subject, and illuminates some interesting incongruities between theory and practice, idealism and reality.”
The teacher shook her head and let out an exasperated sigh, “This is the story of ________?”
Was she deaf? Hadn’t I just told her what my piece was about? Why wasn’t she beaming at the good intentions, the scope, the ambition, the richness of my material? Why wasn’t she hanging on my every word, bursting with curiosity about my experience and observations? Why wasn’t she begging me to go on and enlighten her about this fascinating subject?
“Not the theme, but the story,” she probed with a nonplused stare.
“This is the story of _______”. I had run up against a conundrum faced by writers and photographers alike as we seek to bring complex social issues to life in evocative ways — to enlighten and educate the audience without the audience necessarily realizing up-front that we intend to enlighten and educate.
Writers call this narrative nonfiction, as opposed to conventional (sometimes dry, wonky) reporting. A genre employing the literary techniques of fiction, including detailed characters, scene-setting, dramatic recreations to tell true stories, it is, quite simply, the difference between telling and showing. Like a good photograph, a well-executed narrative nonfiction piece draws the audience in, engages their emotions, senses, and appetite for drama. And slips them some knowledge and wisdom along the way. It was clearly eluding me.
After many futile attempts, I started to get close. It required going back to the elements of the narrative that had enlightened and educated me in the first place; going back to my notes and tapes, to the characters, the smells, the voices — revisiting and dramatically reassembling the footsteps of my own journey as it dawned on me that everything was not as I thought it would be.

“This is a story of a group of women living in Monrovia, Liberia, a bustling, broken city where hundreds of international organizations have converged to harness the “girl effect” in order to improve the prospects of this war-ravaged, and economically devastated country in West Africa. It is the story of their experience living in what has been called a “laboratory” for women’s empowerment, led by the continent’s only female Head of State, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In Monrovia, as in many developing countries around the world, aid workers focus on improving the health, education, economic potential, and political power of women and girls – in their homes, in their communities, in the public sphere. However, resulting experiences of these women has been decidedly mixed. Their ups and downs illustrate the complexity and unintended consequences that come with any silver bullet (in this case, pink bullet) “solution” to anti-poverty and development. Their struggles illuminate the difficulties associated with translating good ideas into practice in the arena of human affairs.”
Getting closer, and, as I think about the narrative, it occurs to me that I need to write more like a good photographer. In November, Nancy Farese and I will continue to explore how our two media can best be used together to tell the story of…
See blogs and photo essays from last year’s trip at here and find new blogs from Ghana and Liberia on this site in mid November.

By Cate Biggs