Writing Like a Camera


By Donal Harris

During the Spring 2019 semester at the University of Memphis, I led the course “Writing Like a Camera,” which studied the forking paths of literature and photography since the end of the nineteenth century.

My students and I discussed the impact of flash photography on Stephen Crane’s novels, Ralph Ellison’s indebtedness to Gordon Parks’s work for Life, and how Instagram has turned us all into published photographers and writers. More generally, we marveled over the range of ways that writing and image-making have come together over the last 150 years to express perspectives that had never been seen, but also to create new visions of what the world could be.

Inspired by the confluence of the course material and the city’s bicentennial, the final project asked students to share a story about Memphis and its history that, in their estimate, more Memphians should know. With help from several endlessly knowledgeable and generous librarians, they dug through several archives of historical photographs, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera at the University of Memphis Special Collections, in McWerther Library.

They chose, among other topics, a now-empty mansion on Beale Street, a South Memphis neighborhood repeatedly neglected by the county and city, a hotly contested patch of grass in Overton Park, and the three buildings that a single health center has called home.

The topics and approach to the material reflect the diversity of the classroom, the university, and the city. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them. <>

Working in partnership with the University of Memphis’ Department of English, StoryBoard is proud to publish this special series of works by UofM students, researched and written in the spring of 2019. Donal Harris is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities at the University of Memphis.

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