Using artwork and photos in memoir

Tonight I attended a talk by famous architect Gyo Obata whose artist/professor father was imprisoned in a U.S. internment camp along with his family during WWII. Gyo escaped by being allowed to attend Washington University in St. Louis, which agreed to accept about 22 Japanese students at that time. Photographer Ansel Adams’ son Dr. Michael Adams was also there to speak about their family’s friendship with the Obatas and how Ansel Adams was asked to document the Manzanar camp in photos.

After Chiura Obata’s death, his granddaughter wrote Topaz Moon, what amounts to an illustrated, historical memoir of the family’s internment time based on letters, stories from her grandmother, notes written by her grandfather about his sketches and paintings, and research about the internment. Obata’s art is mostly sumi black Chinese ink or pencil on white paper – often simple depictions of everyday camp life that serve as snapshots since cameras were not allowed inside. He may not have been a writer, but he captured the dust storms, the crowded living conditions, visitors meeting through barbed wire, as well as the beauty of the distant mountains.

My own mother used to be a talented artist and when telling me her childhood stories for Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, she often doodled to help explain her words. Fortunately I kept those sketches and was able to use many in the book – a picture is worth a thousand words, you know, and especially valuable as part of the essence of the person who created it.

Visuals in a memoir are a wonderful addition, from photos of artworks or craft pieces to the scanned handwriting from letters or recipe books to little scribblings or doodles. They illustrate more fully who the person is in ways that mere words cannot. Of course, photos of the memoir subject and their family are wonderful to see included. Most of us use the camera to document important events, but perhaps the most important events are the everyday ones. Those are the ones that really capture the personality and loves – a mother cooking, planting flowers, playing the piano or a father grilling a steak, sitting in a favorite car or kids sitting on the porch eating popsicles. Don’t forget the photos of a pet cat purring in a lap or a beloved dog getting his ears scratched. With a little extra thought, a memoir might expand into quite a three-dimensional picture.


About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
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