The Stories Old Photos Tell: Visualizing Your Characters in Writing

Their Photo by Red Haircrow
Their Photo by Red Haircrow

Out wandering one Sunday morning, having promised to take my son to the traditional weekend institutions in Germany, namely flea markets, we returned to one of our favorites in Berlin at Rathaus Steglitz. It’s my favorite because there’s a vendor specializing in old books, postcards, letters and photos. I can literally take hours going through all boxes and boxes of material, but a 14 year old has little interest beyond the cursory. So, randomly choosing ONE box to go through, after considering to buy a number of postcards from the early 1900’s, and a newer one with the image of a kitten, I decided to go deeper, and I was lucky I did…for I found the perfect photo for my next project.

It was absolutely perfect.

It immediately drew my eye despite its small size and slightly out of focus nature: a tall dark-haired man walked besides three others in a nature landscape with trees on either side. They are casual in dress shirts and sweaters, two distinctly have jackets that look homemade, but its the positioning of the men, the way they look into the camera that is so arresting.

The time period could be anywhere from the late 50s to mid-70s, but I would guess it to be perhaps early 60’s. On the back of the photo there is a pencil written number but it could be interpreted as a quickly written “55” or flipped around “39”. It’s also stamped with a violet ink mark saying: “Foto-Boss 11/15 Trept, Puschkinallee1”.

Whatever the date, two of these individuals are my muse for a literary novel tentatively titled “Zero Hour”. If you don’t know that term, it’s suggestive of the base state many Germans, Jews and others who survived WW2 came to following the monumental slaughter of millions, violence and devastation, both personal and societal, greater than any experienced in recent history. They came to an absolute state where there was total nothingness, zero, and had to somehow rebuild their sanity, their lives, their world.

My story is based on a young person who never felt comfortable in their gender. Growing up during this time period, in a small village in Germany where anyone different could be considered dangerous, he lived a mentally and physically precarious life, yet maintained an odd friendship with another older children who was a mix of protector and challenger. Nearing the end of war, they, like the rest, were broken and forced apart until several years later they met in Berlin.

Despite being overjoyed to see one another again, the scars the war left on each are deep, with some still healing. New wounds are sustained as one needs to express his sexuality and desire for change, and the other is both repulsed and attracted by the courageous struggle of his friend, yet their tumultuous feelings for each other may cause the death each had previously escaped.

I’m a long time student and researcher of the Holocaust and world war two era Germany; the precendents which led up to the events and the various hardships that occurred during its rebuilding. This is a project I’ve planned for several years, wishing to incorporate my knowledge of the people and their times, as well as the unique, often deadly situation homosexuals and others, especially transgenders or intergenders found themselves in both before and after the war.

(Side note: I recently met and became friends with a young man here in Berlin who, among other things, volunteers at the Gay Museum in Mehringdamm, Berlin. As we discussed this project, his enthusiasm for the history he works with every day really fired my own for telling this story, and accurately portraying local and gay history in this way.)

It is a story in which my own struggles will be situationally included. Often considered a “bittersweet” author, this fits within some of my usual themes of internal battle, inexplicable love and heartbreak and healing.The nature of the photo conveyed this same mood for me.

We don’t know where they came from or where they’re going, or their relationship to each other, save they appear to be on quite familiar terms and are likely friends. The two central figures in the photo are the basis for my main characters. As soon as I saw them at the bottom of the cardboard box I knew they had to be mine. I could sink myself into the image and look out from their eyes:

I am the shorter figure, I could look left up to the taller form of my friend. I trail him just a bit, glad to be near but not obtrusively close. I feel a small shiver of excitement to be photoed this way next to him. I don’t want to smile too widely and appear forward, but my pleasure shows on my face and the relaxed set of my shoulders.

I am the taller figure. If I glance down to my right I can see him just in the corner of my eye. I am out front, the leader, the protector, one hand unencumbered to reach out and help if necessary, or hold him back with caution while I assess any coming situation. My head tilts just enough to show a mild exasperation with the photo taker. I can’t do anything but submit but I would have preferred not to be in the photo. We are only walking after all, so why take it?

I love old photos. I love the stories they can tell. I love to immerse myself into them, into other people, feel their feelings and express it through my writing. Sometimes I become them. With the old, old photos I have, I know the people are dead now, but I make them live again inside my head. Some of the characters in my stories are incarnations of myself, the situations based on actual events, while the two individuals from “Zero Hour” are, I believe, those who actually existed somewhere in time…and I found them again through their photo.