Perspective: how to turn old photos into stories


Ken Burns, the filmmaker known for his historical documentaries, is a master at using stock footage and photos.

He talks about cinema through an online educational link called Master Class.

His job, he says, is to wake the dead and give them a voice through diaries and old still photos.

Old photos say a lot, he said, then offered this advice: look at old photos as if they were moving. Imagine what happened before… and after the shutter clicked.

Study the background. Listen to the voices and sounds around you. Turn your photo into a story.

I tried this with an old print from my grandfather when he was young. He braked two mules pulling a small cart.

I hear the big wooden wheels creak to a stop, his voice ordering the mules to stay, a clank of chains.

From his seat, he smiles at the photographer.

The mules are motionless but I hear the leather of the harness stretching. There is a smell of dust and leather and mule.

The family history is that he drove a mail car while in the military.

So I imagine a warm exchange with the photographer. Then a quick jump down, swelling street dirt. He goes in and out with the mailbags, thrown in the open back.

I see the wagon tilt and hear the wood bend as it climbs back on board. There’s the command again, snapping reins and tugging harnesses as the mules move away, dissolving my image.

A decade-old image, frozen in time…until it’s not.


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