Help-U Haiku

Dear Bubbles,
Rumor has it you have your workshop participants write haiku’s. Is this true? If so, could you tell me how doing this would help my photography?

Dear Intrigued:

A haiku in response:

My cover is blown!
Words expand our connection
With ourselves, the world.

So do you remember learning haiku in elementary school? For those who may have wiped that knowledge out of their brains to make room for more practical information a long time ago, a haiku is a structured Japanese poetry form with severe constraints. Although the traditional Japanese form doesn’t translate perfectly into the English language, in Western culture, we’re taught that a haiku is just three lines long, and it only contains 17 syllables. Not words. Syllables. The first and third lines contain five syllables. The second line contains seven syllables.

The three lines present two seemingly disconnected ideas which is formally called a “kiru,” or “cutting,” in Japanese (which makes it loosely connected to the idea of conceptual blending–see Dear Bubbles’ post on “It Takes Two” for more on this concept). In doing so, the poet intentionally leaves a gap between the two, offering a space for a reader to interpret the meaning in their own way. The jump is meant to trigger wonder and provoke thought. The poem typically focus on nature subjects and often include seasonal references (called “kigo”), but haiku’s can be–and have been–written about anything.

As a writer with an interest in poetry in general, I’ve dabbled in haiku over the years. It hadn’t occurred to me, though, to use it as a photographic technique until a workshop student suggested it to me (and others) at the Moab Photography Symposium (MPS) in 2015. A gentleman indicated he used the first two lines to describe what he noticed in a scene. He used the last line to convey how he felt about it. He then made a photograph to express his sentiments visually. I became so entranced by this simple approach that I immediately tried it myself (with surprising success) and then encouraged my MPS students to try it as well. Because of its effectiveness, I’ve not only incorporated this approach into my own work, but I’ve taught it as an exercise on my photography workshops since then as well.

Our role as a photographer is to make order out of the chaos we experience in the world. Well, nature isn’t exactly orderly. Standing in front of an inspiring scene, whether it be an expansive view of a coastline or canyon or an intimate encounter with a dense forest, can feel overwhelming and confusing. In times like these, I find it important to define my visual message before I snap the shutter. Otherwise I end up with an overwhelming and confusing composition that ultimately gets deleted.

Because I received a substantial education in language arts and no more than a basic one beyond finger painting in visual arts growing up (per my own interests), using words to define what I’m responding to comes more easily to me than going from observation straight to visual execution. Simply put, sometimes I can’t make sense of what I’m experiencing without using words. Hence, I try to narrow my perceptions into a simple, short title. This act gives me direction in making both creative and technical choices including, but not limited to, what angle to shoot from, lens to use, and exposure settings to choose. My title isn’t always where I end up in the sense that I make a photograph that matches the words perfectly. Rather, it gives me a place from which to start and to get the creative juices flowing.

For example, I titled the photograph at the top of this post, which is from Little Long Pond in Acadia National Park in Maine, “Choose Wisely.” This title evolved from a string of words I had about this scene.

Sure it’s literally a photograph of three trees. It was about so much more than that to me, though. I had this whole narrative running in my head running once I saw the two deciduous trees. I saw them in two very different stages in their life cycle—one full of life, colorful and joyful, and one barren of it, stripped to a skeleton of branches. I didn’t notice the evergreen tree right away, not until I set my camera up to focus on the juxtaposition. The story expanded once I did, though. I thought about this young evergreen tree looking up at its mentors and seeing two choices, two paths in life. It would eventually need to decide which direction it would go. UNTIL! I recognized the little pine tree was different than the deciduous tree and could be anything it wanted to be. Instead of choosing between two known, existing paths, it should follow whatever path is right and true for itself, even if that path is different and unknown. Thus, “Choose Wisely.”

(Yeah, this is really the kind of stuff that goes on in my brain when photographing. Which may sound weird, but I’d argue it is WAY more fun than thinking about how well I’ve adhered to the Rule of Thirds.)

I intentionally arranged my mid-ground proximity such that the evergreen had space above it to grow into the trees above it. I also centered it between the two other trees to show an equal weight between the two life decisions. This showcased the juxtaposition and created visual tension. Whether my viewers understand the full story behind this image or the title is irrelevant. What’s more important is that it carried significant meaning for me and that meaning drove me to make a deliberate visual expression to share with the outside world.

Sometimes a clean title doesn’t come as easy as this, though. This is where haiku comes in. Even though it’s a tight poetry format, it still provides more room to explore swirling thoughts than a one-liner.

Here’s an example of how this works in the field: While exploring new terrain one early morning along Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park, I came upon a small cove where storm waves were pounding the cliffs with the incoming tide. The scene took my breath away.

(As an aside, this location, which sits in a larger cove is unnamed. Because it’s a cove within a cove, I decided to call it “Cove Cove” or “C-squared” which I thought was hilarious…)

I stopped to contemplate the essence of the scene and asked myself, “What am I responding to and why? Why did I feel more connected with this specific scene than any other coastline scene around it?” I also considered metaphorical associations, or what else is it, to tap into deeper personal meaning. After some consideration, I penned this haiku:

Each crashing wave writes
Words from the sea, lines on cliffs—
Poseidon’s haiku.

I ended up titling this photograph “Poseidon’s Poetry” from the haiku:

Structurally, the first two lines of my haiku describe what I noticed. The last line is how I felt about it–the meaning, the metaphor that came to my mind. The em dash after the second line represents the pause, the jump. I’d argue it’s not a huge leap between the two ideas, but I’m not trying to be a poet laureate here. I’m just trying to sort out my own little world and the moment in front of me.

Once I verbally expressed what I was responding to, I started identifying words and concepts that I could convey photographically. For instance, when you hear the word “crashing,” do you think calm or violent water? To me it sounds like an explosion. Using this as direction, I timed my exposure such that I captured a sense of dramatic motion, waiting wave after wave until I could record not just a crashing wave left of center, but also a series of waves coming in. (Note the word “each” in the haiku implies more than one wave.) What comes to mind when you hear the word “lines?” To me, it meant rendering streaks in the waterfalls dripping in the aftermath of the crash–not a cottony, featureless blur–which called for a slow enough, but not too slow, shutter speed to show structure in the water. All in all, I made the image at ISO 64, f/16 at 1/8th of a second. No filters.

When I lead this exercise in my workshop, I typically guide workshop participants through a methodical step-by-step process which includes:

  1. Being mindful and taking inventory of what you notice (using all of your senses).
  2. Constructing a haiku from a single concept identified in the inventory collection process and keying in on words you can express visually to guide your compositional decisions.
  3. Making as many photographs as possible to represent the notion of your haiku.
  4. Debriefing on how the haiku exercise helps create more expressive, meaningful photographs.

Some of you might recognize that these steps correspond exactly with the Wallas model of creativity I teach and how I translate its terminology into photography-speak (more about that on my earlier post, Keeping it Fresh):

  1. Preparation: Fill your brain with knowledge and ideas.
  2. Incubation: Visualize your picture before you make it.
  3. Illumination/Inspiration: Relax and encourage the “aha!” moment on location to create images.
  4. Verification: Critique your image and refine your vision.

The haiku exercise is just one the (sneaky) ways I enable my workshop attendees to experience the power of the Wallas model of creativity. That said, I torment amuse my participants with the haiku exercise for other reasons too, though. Tapping into poetry enables us to connect verbal language (which we all learned in school) and visual language (which some of us did not learn in school). This pokes a different part of the brain than photography does. Visual processing occurs in the occipital lobe. Formation of words and expressions of speech occurs in the temporal lobe (specifically Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas). This haiku exercise trains your brain to make these two parts work together, to bring verbal and visual language together. Contrary to the misguided societal beliefs that creativity comes solely from the right side of your brain, to make creative expressions requires multiple parts across your whole brain to fire.

The activity also forces us to pay attention to the present moment unraveling in front of our eyes. It encourages us to see the magic in the here and now–and it’s all around us all the time. It helps to connect our knowledge of and emotional response with the landscape we experience. It enables us to more deliberately express the meaning we define through our photographs.

Most, not all, of my students have not written a haiku since grade school, so when I introduce the activity, it’s often greeted with laughs, eye rolls, groans. All I ask of them is that they try it once. My job as a teacher is to introduce new ideas to you. Your job as a student is to explore new ways of doing things to find and establish an optimal approach for your work. If the technique is useful to your photographic process, keep it in your toolbox. If it’s not, ditch it. I must admit, I do smile when those who initially put up the most resistance to trying the haiku exercise are often the ones who connect with it the most in the end. I also smile when workshop alumni share with me their new haiku-photograph pairings they’ve created on their own long after the workshop.

As Christopher Frey wrote, “Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement.” As outdoor photographers, I hope we never cease to be amazed by the chaos, the wonder, and the beauty of it all. Writing haikus alongside our photography can expand our celebration of what we experience and deepen our appreciation of the world around us.

Be well, be wild,

Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at [email protected] to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.)


  • stephanie

    I love this post. My 9 year old granddaughter has become my ‘penpal’…even before our forced quarantine. Her writing and sharing has improved immensely the more she does it, which makes me happy. In one letter she shared the haiku she was working on. I must go back and see if she actually followed the strict guidelines of the art form (which I must admit I had forgotten if I ever actually knew, so thanks for reeducating me!) I had a wonderful time ‘matching’ a photo to her words in my return letter. I can see the benefit of doing this myself, although words for me usually follow the visual instead of the other way around.

    • Bubbles

      How fun, Stephanie! I love your story about your exchanges with your granddaughter! I wouldn’t worry too much about imposing rules and constraints at that age–or at any age. The important thing here is that you’re both finding ways to be creative and you’re finding ways to express yourself with each other. We need more of that, haiku or otherwise. Keep on keeping on!

  • Leslie

    I love this exercise! Thank you for sharing these upbeat ideas around haiku and photography! I am currently working on a photo essay with a friend about ways to get outdoors in nature and how good this is for our mental and physical health, so maybe we’ll build this in, for the future!

    – Leslie McCarthy