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February 01, 2006

Utilizing The Power of Photography in Writing-Intensive English Courses

Devil's Head Chimney Rock, North Carolina
Photograph: 'Rock Devil's Head' © 2006 Lee Hobbs

"I like being near the top of a mountain. One can't get lost here." ~ Wislawa Szymborska

Caption: A side of the Chimney Rock mountain - which resembles a face - looks gleefully over the valleys of North Carolina . . .

"A photograph is usually looked at - seldom looked into." ~ Ansel Adams

Have You Tried Using Photos as Prompt for Writing in Your English Courses? I had often been advised by my colleagues to use artworks as prompts for descriptive essays, etc. but when I began my search I thought, why not start with photographs. Like paintings, there is often more there than meets the eye. Recently, I began to try this technique, starting with selected photos from my own extended travels since my students are often interested in my life/career "before" teaching at their school. I decided this semester to share at least a few of these "memories" in the form of my own travel photography (this eliminates copyright infringement snags!) as a way to stimulate discussion and prompt in-class writing exercises.

For instance, take the "photoshopped" digital photograph above as a prime example:

Unlike in this entry, the title of the photograph, nor it's description or quotation/caption, were displayed in class. In the PowerPoint slide before, I had written:

On the following screen you will be shown a photograph. First study the photograph for a few seconds and then take a few minutes to write about your impressions in your journal:

1. What do you see? (or think you see?)
2. What activity is going on, if any? Or, what do you think might be going on (if you aren’t sure).
3. Does it remind you of anything? (if so, what?)
4. If you had to give this photograph a title, what would you call it?

I then turned the slide to this monochrome photo. After about sixty seconds, with PowerPoint magic, I added the words "Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? Imagine! Describe! Narrate!" (Note: we are presently working on the Descriptive-Narrative form of essay).

As you can see from some of their responses below (posted with their permission) many immediately saw a face and some had some rather interesting commentary. They didn't know that the name of this photo was "Devil's Head," nor did they know if this image was sculpted out of the rocks by human hands or by the forces of nature. In reality, this structure is HUGE; from what I can remember, several times the heighth of a normal person and nearly impossible to approach directly (it must be seen from an adjacent ledge).

The student comments were intriguing, as you might notice in the section below (I told them in a later class that this photo was not man-made). Rather than dissect the results of this activity here, I have decided to continue the discussion about photography in the English writing classroom on a new post HERE. I would like to add that these responses came in useful later for a secondary activity when I asked them to peer-review one another's responses for spelling and grammatical errors.

Also, the Szymborska quotation that accompanies the photo above was chosen first only as an accompanying caption for the blog. It wasn't shown to the class the day I used the photo, but I did use it in a following class, with good results, along with a Willa Silbert Cather quotation, that I discuss in a post HERE about using quotations as writing prompts.

Happy teaching,


*To see other entries with samples of Lee Hobbs's travel photography, please visit the compilation available HERE.


Note: In my photography projects, I presently use the following combinations of digital cameras: the FujiFilm FinePix S5000 3.1MP Digital Camera with 10x Optical Zoom, the LG VX9800 EV-DO Camera-Phone from Verizon Wireless, the Motorola Razr V3c from Verizon Wireless and - finally - the Intel Pocket PC Camera.

I also use Paint Shop Pro 8 from Jasc, Inc. on a Windows XP based-PC for digital re-touching and special effects.

Please leave comments for this photograph here.

Posted by lhobbs at February 1, 2006 11:50 PM

Readers' Comments:

In the picture, the image that I see is a large boulder on top of a huge mountain. The large boulder looks like and abstract figure of a face. The large face seems to be placed on such a tall mountain that it is watching everything that is going on below. I find it to be very interesting how the rock is carved and how it is resting on what seems to be the edge of the mountain. The boulder must be extremely strong and placed on the right angle for it not to be fallong of the side of the mountain.

Posted by: Liz L. at February 1, 2006 06:54 PM

In this picture I see a rock that resembles a man's face. This hard, stern looks like it is thinking or looking at something really hard. It looks like he may be looking over the mountainside covered in trees. The rock reminds me of Mount Rushmore with all of the president's faces. I do not see any action in this picture.

Posted by: Thoryn S. at February 1, 2006 07:39 PM

It looks as if a man, represented by the rock is looking over a mountain top. He is imagining all he can do in life. He is either a young man trying to figure out life or he is an elderly man reflecting on his life. Whatever the age, that place in the picture is the escape. It is where all the little problems disappear.

Posted by: Kelly J at February 1, 2006 07:42 PM

In the photograph presented, I see a massive rock sculpted into a profile of a man yelling. You can see his well-defined features in the big rock. It is easy to make out his closed eyes, somewhat straight nose and his wide open mouth. The man looks almost elfish with his wierdly shaped looking ears and oddly shaped head, almost like he is wearing a hat. It looks like the man is yelling out into the open air, and you could almost hear the echo of his voice with the mountain scene in the background. He is probably yelling out in frustration or anger to get his feelings out and pump up his adrenaline. If I were to give this picture a name, I would call it "Mouth Wide Open."

Posted by: Linda M. at February 1, 2006 08:12 PM

This rock, which is in the shape of a face, was most likely formed naturally. It could serve as a watcher of the people below, protecting them from harm. Although there is the slight possibility that it was carved by man, no one really does that anymore, unless some one wants to ruin a Native American landmark by carving dead presidents in to it.
If I were to name this photograph, I would probably name it something similar to 'The Watcher.' Even though it is not very original, that is what the rock does, it watches over the people that live below the mountain.

Posted by: Ali L. at February 2, 2006 11:11 AM

At first glance this just appears to be a normal looking rock with a green scenery behind it. But then as you take a closer look, you can clearly see the profile of a man. I'm not quite sure why, but the profile reminds me of that of George Washington. I can almost envision him wearing the white wig that was so fashionable at those times. It almost looks to me like whoever the cut out of the rock is fashioned after, he was a very wise man and was placed at the top of this mountain to over look the world. Or perhaps it was just a natural phenomenom that shaped it this way. The official name of this picture is 'Rock Devil's Head'. I think it's pretty funny because I didnt even think of it as being dark and evil. I almost saw it as god or a wise man looking over the world and nature.

Posted by: Emily S. at February 2, 2006 02:29 PM

I think the picture on the slide is a giant rock on the side of a cliff. The rock looks like an old man’s head. The old man seams to be looking across the valley. He reminds me of the old man that used to come into the restaurant that I worked at.
This man would come in with his wife at least once a week. They would always get there around four o’clock and share a sandwich. Then they would sit and drink coffee and talk. I will probably never see that old man again but I am reminded of him now.

Posted by: Cathy at February 2, 2006 03:36 PM

At first glance at the picture I see a man's face that is made out of stone. It looks like it might have been built for some type of worship or in memory of a prominent figure. Looking at it's facial features he looks tired and old. If I could give it a name I would name it "Stonehenge Man".

Posted by: Adrianne E at February 2, 2006 04:58 PM

Staring at this picture what I see at first glance is a person who is standing on a cliff. This person looks like a teenager who has a very distinct expression on there face. this person looks like thy are standing on the edge or the cliff thinking about what happened in there life or what exactly brought them to this cliff. This individual is thinking about his last thoughts. this is his last opportunity to talk himself out of what he is doing. Before, he does something that he truly may regret in the long run which would be taking his life. He has to think about how many people that this decision will affect and if it is worth doing. This is exactly what I got from looking at this particular picture.

Posted by: Jennifer G at February 2, 2006 05:04 PM

When I look at this picture, I see a huge rock that is shaped like an indian’s head. It look like the picture was taken in the summer, due to the deep green trees in the background. This rock seems to have been sculpted into a face. The eyes are slightly squinted, as if they were looking at the sun, the nose is large and has a bump in the middle of it. The mouth is a thin line and the chin is pointy. It appears to be a somewhat older man, and he has a stern look on his face. He reminds me a of an indian chief.

Posted by: Kelsey L. at February 2, 2006 06:33 PM

At a first glance, I see a sculpture of a man’s head in this photograph. It looks like the man is upset about something, or he may just be deep in thought. This photograph depicts an old piece of work which seemed to have been created in the early days. Whenever I see art like this, I think of the great ancient civilizations such as the Mayans and the Inca. I don’t think that it could have been created by Egyptians, because the background suggests that it is not desert-like terrain. I do believe that the sculpture is over a thousand years old though. The way it looks so plain yet sturdy makes me think that it is old. It contains attributes of western America and South America. The surrounding appears to be in a valley or canyon.
Another reason why this photo is intriguing is because it is strange how the boulder, or rock, is just sitting at the edge of the cliff. It looks like it could fall or should have fallen already. This may have significance. The boulder probably has not fallen because it is stuck to the cliff. Once things are next to something long enough, they become one with it. It is sort of like a metaphor of a habit. Once you stick with something long enough, it either turns into a habit or an addiction.
I still believe that it is a sculpture created in honor of a king or leader or even a god. The object seems like the head of a man who is concentrating on something. I find this photo very interesting because every time I look at it, I see something different. The detail isn’t very great so I can’t really tell if there is another picture hidden inside the big picture. The photo itself is a good one and should be viewed by everyone to get their take on it.

Posted by: Kashiff M. at February 2, 2006 08:31 PM

It looks like the face of an old man, it may be sculpted by human hands but it could be nature as well. Hard to tell from this view. As for activity I have no idea. Do rocks even do activities besides sit there and occasionally fall on people? It reminds me of the statue being made in honor of Crazy Horse actually, the old mans facial structure is oddly Native American. If I had to name this photo I'd call it "Orestes" which means mountain man. I'm so clever.

Posted by: Rachael T. at February 3, 2006 11:06 AM

This picture looks like it was taken by a person hiking. Stumbling upon a rock form that can be perceived as a human profile. It looks like the picture was taken at dusk or dawn-it is foggy. It seems like this picture would be hard to take, but maybe the person was standing on a far away cliff and zoomed in. The picture is interesting-it looks like a face towering over a valley. It has indentations of a cheek bone, hair line, eye ball, and chin. The dark coloration and the pointy curves make the face look almost evil.

Posted by: samantha v. at February 3, 2006 11:49 AM

The picture is of a rock on top of a cliff. Half of the rock hangs over the cliff. There are green mountains in the background. The rock looks like a human profile. It could be man with a boney cheekbone or maybe Yoda from Star Wars. It’s had to tell the size of the rock because there is a whole mountain in the background. It could be as small as my hand or as big as my body, but it’s hard to tell because the picture gives you no visual reference. Which I find kind of fascinating because usually there is grass or a flower or something so you can understand the scale of the object.

Posted by: Sam H. at February 3, 2006 12:17 PM

The picture appears to be a rock at the edge of a cliff. There is a mountain in the background. The rock appears to be shaped like a face. It could be a demon face or even looks like an elderly person, perhaps from an ancient tribe. It could be looking over the land, perhaps gaurding it. Either that or nature shaped it and it just happens to look like a face.

Posted by: Brendan at February 3, 2006 01:24 PM

This picture looks as though it’s just another rock on the side of a mountain that is until you take a closer look. In the rocks there appears to be a picture of an older mans’ facial profile.
This reminds me of a place in my hometown. There is a mountain top of huge, jagged rocks, called “The Tilbury Nob.” It has been said that a man riding a horse fell of that cliff many, many years ago. Now, supposedly, when you look at it closely, you’re able to see the image of the man and his horse.
This image looks so lifelike; it makes me wonder if someone may have carved this image. It really amazes me that there are such obscure objects that resemble human characteristics.

Posted by: Angela H. at February 3, 2006 01:55 PM

When I read Szymborska’s poem I recalled a time when I climbed to the top of a mountain. I didn’t think there was any path to the top so I started climbing straight up. I only had one goal in mind I wanted to reach the top. There were places where it became very steep and I had to hold on to the trees sticking out of the side of the mountain. As I reached the halfway point I looked back and couldn’t figure out where I had come from. I didn’t know how I was going to get back down without a path. I was lost, but I didn’t care I wanted to get to the top. I think this is what the poem means once you start something it’s easier to keep going than to go back down and start over again. Once I reached the peak I stumbled onto a path. This depressed me a little because I though I was one of the few people to ever be up here, but I also was happy because I had a path to guide me down.
Brendan read my interpretation and felt that I had more of an intellectual response, but it was hard for him to tell because when he read the response it wasn’t finished. His exact words were: “My thoughts about Sam’s response is it could be great if finished. I think it’s a good idea to use a real life example of climbing a mountain. He could go in descriptions of his journey and really draw a reader in.”
Brendan thought my emotional response is not there, but could be if it were completed. He wrote this: “My feelings about Sam’s [response] is it could show good emotion if it were completed. He could get into detail of the sight and feelings of being at the summit. The only feeling I got so far is determination to reach the goal.”
Brendan felt my response was primarily intellectual. He stated this: “It is hard to tell because it’s not quite finished yet. As of now, it is an intellectual response, but could turn emotional with more writing.”
After reading my own response and taking into account what Brendan wrote I feel that my response is primarily intellectual as well. I believe this because I wrote about a real experience so even though I used some metaphors it was mainly what really happened and how I really felt in an unemotional way. It’s hard for Brendan to tell where I was going with my story because when he read it I only had my first three sentences completed

Posted by: Sam H. at February 5, 2006 11:29 PM

Szymborska's thought made several ideas and pictures come to mind. One that stuck out was a memory of my childhood of when I was hiking. That quote made me picture myself standing at the top of that huge hill and looking out over the valley once again.

That feeling I experienced up there was phenomenal, I felt like I was invincible, that I could never get lost because all the world was under me and I could see all. Just remembering all this makes me want to hike once more, just to feel that rush again.

When Kelly read my thoughts she felt I was more emotional than intellectual in this writing. She said, "She wrote more of an emotional response. She involved a part of her past when reflecting on the quote."

I agree with her one hundred percent. When I write I tend to put my emotions into it first and think intelluctually later. Only when I am asked specifically to write intellectually and leave emotions out would I ever do that.

Posted by: Rachael T. at February 6, 2006 11:21 AM

After reading the quote, “I like being at the top of a mountain. One can’t get lost here.,” by Wislawa Szymborska, I was able to relate to what Szymborska was saying. At the top of a mountain, you are located at one of the highest places on earth. You can look down and around, seeing the would beneath you. It is one of the most liberating experiences because you are able to soak up what is all around you. For a moment you feel found; the earth knows where you are. One may feel different when they respond to this quote, but as for my response, I believe people can relate.

When I shared my response to Cathy Robinson, she understood the response and could also relate to it. “This response reminds me of how I felt standing there, looking around at all the tiny houses below me and trees in the in the distance.” Cathy also feels that this in an emotional response, through my thoughts about nature and the world. “It explained how she would feel on top of a mountain.”

Feeling so above everyone on the world and seeing everything from afar you are reminded of how many people live on this earth. However, in that same instance, you are the only person recognizing this fact, and visualizing it as well. You are left with an Understanding about your place in the world, and with this you find yourself.

Posted by: Samantha V. at February 6, 2006 12:11 PM

When I read quote, “I like being near the top of a mountain. One can’t get lost here.” in class I immediately looked at my friend Samantha and laughed. The word mountain always stands out to me and makes me laugh. That sounds strange but it is true. Samantha and I have an inside joke about the word mountain. When I reread the quote I realized that it is true about friendship. I like to be near Samantha because I never feel lost without her.

Samantha is one of my closest friends. We have many strange qualities about us in common that some people do not understand. When we together we laugh so much. No matter what is happening, I never feel lost with her.

Samantha read my response in class. She thinks I write emotionally. This is true in most of my writings. Samantha came up with a response to what I wrote. She also had an emotional response. I think it is because topic took us in that direction. Samantha commented, “It was much easier to write an emotional response. How I think about this response is really how I feel. It is very personal to both of us.”

I agree that I am an emotional writer. When I have to respond to a picture or quote, I usually relate into my life somehow. Hearing the quote made me think about my friend Samantha. Then I thought about friendship. That became an emotional topic.

Posted by: Cathy at February 6, 2006 01:45 PM

An author named Wislawa Szymborska once said, “I like being near the top of a mountain. One can’t get lost here.” I believe this quote, because I think that it is true. If you are near the top of a mountain, you can see all that surrounds you so you know where you are going. You can travel in all sorts of directions, but since you are limited to a certain amount of space on top of a mountain, you could probably feel a sense of control. I feel this way, because you can control where you are going on top of a mountain and it is nearly impossible to get lost up there.

Emily, however, did not think the same way that I did. She thinks exactly the opposite and instead of being in control of the situation, she said that she would feel lost. Specifically, she stated, “I think that being near the top of a mountain leaves me feeling lost and defenseless, because at the top of a mountain, details are blurred and you can’t see everything as it really is.” Emily also goes on to say that though she wants control over what is occurring around her, she would feel more lost than anything, because of the fact that space is so limited on top of the mountain.

My partner feels as though I was responding from my perspective and that I am the one who wants control on my surroundings. She said, “Through my partner’s response, I was able to get the feeling that she wants control over what is going on around her and not feel as though she is at lost of what to do.” I slightly disagree with this, because even though sometimes I do wish I had more control over what is happening in my life, I am not usually lost in how I am feeling. I believe when I do not have control, I do what is best to attempt to adapt to the situation.

Emily believes that I was trying to respond to the quote more intellectually, but did end up responding emotionally also. She believes that my style of writing is to reveal a little bit about myself on how I feel about the subject to get the reader to also relate to the subject. She particularly said, “I believe that my partner tried to write more of an intellectual response, but she ended up revealing more about herself than she originally intended. However, perhaps this is her style of writing. She writes just enough personal stuff to draw in the reader, but still keep them from knowing too much.”

I somewhat agree to what my partner responded. I never intentionally planned to bring an emotional reaction to the quote, but now I see where she is coming from. When I first responded to the quote, I tried to intellectually respond, because I thought that was what the reader wanted to read. I am usually the type of person who responds to assigned topics in an intellectual manner, but I do believe that I do tend to have emotional reactions to things that I feel strongly about.

Posted by: Linda M. at February 6, 2006 01:47 PM

The first feeling that came to me when I read Wislawa Szymborska’s quote was, that I could relate to it. I saw that the quote was actually a metaphor to life. The way that I interpreted the quote was, being near the top of a mountain, you can’t get lost, because you can see everything. On the other hand, when you are down low, it is easy to get lost because you can’t see far in one direction. Reading Szymborska’s quote has shed light on the fact that being at the top is better than being at the bottom. I think that I used my emotional side more than my rational one, but Thoryn seemed to disagree.
Thoryn responded to my reactions by saying, “I believe his response was more intellectual than emotional.” He also said that I described my thoughts clearly and honestly. I wanted to respond to the quote using my heart before thinking logically. Thoryn’s feelings towards my reactions were very interesting.
Apparently, my response was very deep, according to Thoryn. He said, “I would rate his response very high in tone and emotion…” Thoryn thought that my response made him think more than he would have normally. My reaction to the quote made Thoryn think similarly to his feelings.
According to Thoryn, my comeback to Szymborska’s quote showed wisdom. He said, “I has no idea what the quote meant when I first read it, but now it is clearer.” I also think that my response made the quote easier to understand. This quote sparked me a lot at first glance. Seeing a response by Thoryn helped me notice a few things.
Whenever I respond to a quote, my first action is to think logically. I usually try to find the underlying meaning then I proceed to use my imagination. My personality is one that uses much logic, but at the same time I include emotion. Seeing a response from another person has shown me that I can be intellectual and emotional at the same time.

Posted by: Kashiff M. at February 6, 2006 03:28 PM

When I read the quote, "There are some things you learn best in calm, and some others in storm" by Willa Silbert Cather, it really made me reflect. I think it is an interesting quote. It is true that you can learn a lot about yourself and others in calm situations, as well as times of panic.

When things are calm, you can learn a lot of things. You can tell your motivation and work ethic. If you are in a group, you can tell who has leadership qualities.

If an event is stormy, you can tell who is brave. True leaders stop up while others panic. It shows who doesn't have qualities that show leadership and points out the weak personalities.

Sam felt my response was more intellectual then emotional because I didn't look for my own situations.

"I thought it was interesting that Brendan interprated the quote on a more social level than I would have. I would have interpretated it as a personal poem dealing with inner conflicts."

"My feelings about Brendan's response made me wonder if I would be a leader in a time of panic or follow everyone else."

No matter if you look at this quote emotionally or intellectualy, it is still a great quote that everyone can relate to.

Posted by: Brendan at February 8, 2006 12:41 PM

Professor Hobbs,

At first glance of this picture I got a scary, dark feeling from the face I thought I saw. Then I really looked again and realized it was no more than a rock on a cliff. The positioning of the rock along with the color scheme of the picture makes it very abstract. someone could mistake this picture for anything their imagination will let them.


Posted by: P.Beckles at February 10, 2006 10:41 AM

Note from Lee:

P.Beckles, this is all very true. Let your imagination run wild!

Posted by: Lee at February 12, 2006 02:09 PM

Professor Hobbs,

To me, this picture is of a formation of a large rock on the side of a mountain. This "form" looks to me like the profile of an old man.

Many people look to such formations in rocks as something of wisdom. Some could believe that these formations could occur on purpose and they should be valued in a sense.

This formation could have miraculously formed due to weathering and whatnot, but it is very possible that it could have been carved out of the mountain. In earlier days, it is quite possible that the rock could have been carved for symbolic purposes.

Missy Z.

Posted by: Missy Z at April 3, 2006 08:02 PM

Professor Hobbs,

"There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm."

I believe this to be very true. I think that sometimes, you need to have a controlled, calm environment to learn some things a specific way. At the same time, I believe that you learn more, and sometimes a lot faster if you are forced into something and made to learn things at a more rapid pace. I once heard someone say "experience is the name we give out mistakes". When we are basically thrown into something rather than spoonfed favorable outcomes, we learn the skills we need to overcome future obstacles.

Missy Z.

Posted by: Missy Z at April 3, 2006 08:26 PM

Professor Hobbs,

This photo looks like a rock that could have been carved or is just naturally in this shape of the face a wise man peering off into the distance. This photograph makes me think about the time I spent in California. It looks like a rock formation I could have seen traveling through California. Especially with the background of the green covered mountains/hills. It could be from Central America. It does seem reminiscent of something cultural from a tribe.

Holden J.

Posted by: Holden B. Jones at April 17, 2006 10:26 PM

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