The Photograph Murderer & the Photograph Thief

My step-mother was sitting on the coach my dad had built. In front of her was the kitchen garbage can and beside was a box of photographs. She and my father had been married for for only a few weeks and I’d started public school. My step-mother wasn’t Catholic and didn’t want to send her daughter or my father’s money to priests and nuns.

my dad made the sofas, the footstool, the table, the lamp, the plant holder.  I'm reading a story to a neighbor girl.
my dad made the sofas, the footstool, the table, the lamp, the plant holder. I'm reading a story to a neighbor girl.

My step-mother picked up a photo and either tore it into pieces and dropped it in the garbage can, or she left it intact and set it back in the box.

“What are you doing?” I asked, my school bag still hanging from my shoulder.

“Getting rid of these pictures,” she said and pulled apart another one. “Nobody wants these. I’m not going to have anything of that woman in this house.”

“I’ll take them,” I said and saw her rip another image of my mother in two.

“Are you listening to me?” she said. “After what that woman did to your dad, you want to keep these?” She used both hands to shove the growing pile of shredded pictures deeper into the trash can.

“I’ll take them to my grandma’s house,” I said. I wondered what she would do if I bolted forward and grabbed the box.

“Don’t you want you daddy to be happy? I’m always telling he’s to easy on you. Let’s you do what you want–that’s why you’re so ungrateful and can’t even think what it’s like for him.” She waved a photograph at me. “You’re not going to run me around like that. That stops right here. You hear me?”

My mom had written my dad a note congratulating him on his new marriage. “Your father,” my mom had said to me when I told her dad was getting married again, “deserves to be happy. I hope she’s the right woman for him. And it will be nice for you to have a woman in the house.”

I watched my step-mother tear another picture and decided in go into the kitchen. I sat on the counter and ate Tang straight from the container, the sharp sweet powder clouding up my throat. I ate another heaping spoonful. A few minutes went by before my step-mother walked through the kitchen to go to the bathroom. I ran into the living room, grabbed a handful of pictures, and ran on to my room.

Whenever my step-mother wasn’t looking, I stole photographs. I took down the other box of photos in dad’s closet and stole the ones in danger, keeping them in my book bag, smuggling them to my grandma’s house.

And I’ve been a thief of endangered photographs ever since.

Visual images are important to me in my writing. While I don’t use photographs to inspire fiction, I do use pictures in my head. My first novel started with one image–marbles on the stairs. Why? The story grew from there. The second novel–a dragon falls from the sky and lands in a playground? Then what happened? The third–a girl is whispering to her younger sister in the middle of the night. What is happening between them? The fourth–a young woman is in the water under a bridge. Did she jump or was she pushed? The fifth–a girl is putting on red lipstick. Where is she going? And the most recent–there is a man who can’t sleep searching the attic for a book. Why?

I start writing and see where these images and their questions go. I’m always surprised.

What about you? Do you ever use art or photographs to jump start a story? Help you imagine a character? Create a mood?

And have you ever stolen a photograph?

9 thoughts on “The Photograph Murderer & the Photograph Thief

  1. A Picasso drawing of a cat gave me my favorite and most enduring character; the Goya Caprices provided inspiration for numerous early short stories, the Andrew Wyeth girl on the lawn was another inspiration. What did she want? I regularly stole pictures of me from my mother’s scrap book, replacing them slowly after I’d reach what I considered a respectable height, then replaced them all after I hit past 6’2″. I stole a picture of a girl whose boyfriend I wished to be, then discovered she’d stolen one of me.

  2. Well, Shelly, that is a hell of an ending for a comment. There must be a story there. And do you mean Christina’s World? At least, I think that is the title of that Wyeth painting. I do love that painting.

    Glad to know you’ve pilfered your share of photographs.

  3. So glad you called Shelly out on that cliffhanger!

    After my dad died, a few years later my mom re-married and moved out of the only house any of us kids had lived in while growing up — the house that Mom herself had lived in for over 40 years. By this time I was already in Florida and so I wasn’t there when the old house was emptied. I can remember sooooo many family photographs so clearly, yet actually have so few of them. Every now and then Mom or one of my siblings takes pity on me and gives me a little handful. (I’m pretty good at donning a mournful countenance without saying a word.)

    Like Shelly, I’ve used paintings as well as photos to kick-start a story. Amazing what the mind will cough up when you look at a picture long enough, every now and then just closing your eyes for a few seconds and letting it go where it wants.

    (LOVE the previous and this post together, btw.)

  4. I am a photo thief.

    My dad is a photographer/filmmaker/artist. And he’s crazy, to boot.

    Photos are very valuable in my house. When someone gets/finds one, they hoard it. I do, anyway.

    I’ve stolen a bunch from my sister, whom I don’t trust to keep them safe. That means I have to hide them, and can’t display them, or she might take them back.

    Images in my head serve as inspirations for my stories. Or on TV, even a commercial. Snippets of words. Conceptual questions. Totally multi media.

  5. JES, my photos tend to favor my mom’s family because my father distance himself so much from his own–and I’ve yet to get anyone to pass any on to me. Glad you liked this post connected with the last–I wasn’t sure about it at all.

    rowena, glad you’re part of this thieving group. If I had a sister, I’m sure I would steal photos from her as well. And being able to get idea from anywhere is a great thing.

    Sarah, you are absolutely right.

  6. loriaustex

    Oddly, I’m the opposite — if I find photos of me / family, I tend to lose them or I give them away. The only photo I can recall that I kept deliberately was so well-loved it faded from being exposed to air and light as it sat in my car next to me for a few years — a 35 mm slide of my friend Peter, which I stole from his house after he had died.

    And then I lost it as well.

  7. Wow, that’s quite a story. I admire you for sharing it, it must be hard to think of it.

    Images are always important to my stories. Many of my stories have been inspired/grown from dreams, and most of what I take from those are just images. I have images of scenes in my mind all throughout writing the story, and in fact, I still have images from scenes that didn’t even turn out that way still in mind for stories that are already finished.

  8. I am not particularly moved by photographs in my writing, but rather by movement, sound, and place. But I have to say I LOVE looking at the photos you put on the blog. Absolutley love them.

    I have very few photographs from my past.

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