Photo-poems: visual art and poetry combinations for a high-tech age by Sarah Leavesley

Although my working and creative life has mostly been as a writer, I’ve always loved
photography. As a poet, the initial appeal for me in combining photos and poetry on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram was to try and reach new audiences – people who wouldn’t normally read poetry but did respond to visual art or photography.

Using art as inspiration for poetry has a long history. The word ekphrasis – from the Greek term for ‘description’ – is often used for such poems. The amount of interpretation, development and new ideas incorporated into an ekphrastic poem’s describing of a scene or work of art varies. The Poetry Foundation website summarises this as: ‘Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.’[i]

John Keats’s early 19th century poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn[ii] is a particularly famous example and the Poetry Foundation has links to others. Looking at the contemporary scene, the poems in Pascale Petit’s What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, 2010) mix elements of biography, close interpretation of the Mexican painter’s work and parallel or version homages.[iii] Another recent painter/painting inspired collection that I’ve enjoyed is Tamar Yoseloff’s The City with Horns (Salt Modern Poets, 2011) inspired by Jackson Pollock.[iv] (Yoseloff also founded Hercules Editions with designer and art editor Vici MacDonald in 2012, with the aim of bringing together new poems with visual imagery.)[v]

But, although examples may be found online, these are essentially print or pre-online ekphrastic poems about artworks and/or artists, rather than a merging of words and artwork specifically for sharing online.

In 2012, I held a combined-media ‘An Eyeful of Words’ exhibition in the gallery at Droitwich Library.[vi] The exhibition – with work inspired by life, nature and local Worcestershire surroundings – was aimed at using art and photography to open up poetry to wider audience. The project was part of my masters in creative writing with The Manchester Writing School at MMU. It included short seasonal haiku and longer more reflective poems, pairing poems with separate photos or artwork. The main idea behind this was to offer a visual route into the world of words for non-poetry readers, while providing long-standing poetry-lovers with an added dimension to my poems. My accompanying essay also explored the exhibition space as one that combines some elements of public poetry experience (such as spoken word) with aspects of private or lone reading from the page.

bird bath reflections
turn our world upside down, help
us swim in the sky

While I was preparing for my 2012 exhibition, I discovered the research project Poetry Beyond Text: Vision, Text + Cognition.[vii] The project looked at many things, including concrete poetry, digital poetry, text film and generally exploring how responses to poetry are affected by contact with visual art forms. For me, the whole website is full of inspiration.

Although many exhibits here are physical, the website extends the project’s reach, and points towards the way my thoughts would develop in thinking about future online possibilities. One piece that I was particularly struck by is ‘The Wren’s Egg’ by Deryn Rees-Jones and Alice Maher featuring a very large egg with an ink drawing upon its surface. The long cast shadow from this includes, very faintly, Rees-Jones’s 7-line poem.[viii] The resulting piece is a merging of art and poetry to create a completely new piece of art that is more than the sum of its parts.

Once I’d started trying to create photo and poetry combinations specifically for social media platforms rather than general website usage, I quickly realised that there were several important considerations, and restrictions, to this as a means of increasing poetry’s appeal and audience reach.

Firstly, this combination doesn’t suit all poetry. Beautiful poems that read wonderfully on the page may require the white space of the page, rather than a potentially distracting visual image. This may be because it’s a complex or multi-layered poem, or simply that it’s one which needs room to breathe and for quiet reader reflection. If circulated on social media in their entirety, these poems might be better served by a photoshoot of the printed or typed poem, perhaps, with a simple interesting but un-distracting shadow falling on or from the page.

Alternatively, I decided, short snippets might be combined with a photo to encourage people to look at the full piece in text form in an online journal or printed book…

Quote from ‘Facts of/for/against Survival’, How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, 2018)

But what about other poems that already naturally work well for photographic circulation on social media?

Trying to conclusively define Vispo (visual poetry) is a PhD level endeavour. It’s perhaps inherent in the visual element that such work is more likely to be shareable on social media platforms without much adaptation for the medium.  Examples that I’ve particularly enjoyed on Instagram include Tom Jenks’s sharing of work from his Flip Flop collaborations with Catherine Vidler, [ix] and similar work and postings from Hesterglock Press[x] and poet Rhys Trimble[xi].

Vispo is a good point for looking at differing ideas about what photo-poetry might be. One kind of photo-poem could be an image of beautiful typeface or writing – perhaps prioritising the art of the letter forms’ visual shapes over their meaning or other visual imagery. (A short piece on early ‘photo-texts’ – pictures of beautiful fonts, typefaces and textual layouts then photographed – can be found in Federica Chiocchetti’s The Photocaptionist Manifesto: ‘Phototexts: A History in Theoretical Perspective’.[xii])

But it’s possible to question whether photo-poetry needs any text or words at all. Instead, poetry principles – like appreciation of beauty, compression, the ambiguity, mystery and multiple connotations or interpretations offered by any space or artform allowing reading between the lines – might apply directly to the textless photo. A small sample of such pieces can be found in Nick Scammell’s ‘Photo-Poetics: An Anthology’ at Photocaptionist.[xiii]

As it turns out, photo-poetry has a longer history than I’d realised when I started thinking about combining poems and photos for transmission through social media networks.In a fascinating article ‘What is Photopoetry?’, Michael Nott records how the term ‘photopoem’ appears to have first been used in 1936 – pre-Internet, let alone social media.[xiv] Key words for me in this Photocaptionist article are reciprocity and tight-linking (of photo and poem).

Hands up here, as a poet, when I initially started sharing photo-poem snippets on Twitter and Instagram, I was completely missing an important point. I was placing emphasis on getting poetry texts to visually orientated audiences without fully processing what ‘visually orientated audiences’ might actually mean. In other words, I was overlooking the full relevance of the fact that such viewers (and hopefully then converted readers) respond to the visual before the poetry – so the photo shouldn’t be secondary to the text. Together, they should form something greater, that’s also complete in itself. It’s this latter observation which makes me want to mark photo-poems as a form. (My thoughts here as similar to I view ‘poetry pamphlets’ when used as a form. For me, such poetry pamphlets are more than just a selection of the best poems, there’s something extra that comes from reading them placed together in this way.)

What does this mean in terms of my creative practice? It varies, as arguably all use of form should, from photo-poem to photo-poem. Some photos combine better with one kind of poem, others with another. Whether I start with the poem or the photo first, or both in the same moment, once I start combining them, both image and words often have to shape-shift to complement each other.

With my own photo-poems I usually tend towards haiku-inspired lines: short, accessible but including a potentially resonating observation or epiphany. I like my combined image and words to be immediately impactful, with a haunting or thought-provoking wake that lodges in the mind, memory and/or emotions, so that the effects are still felt long after the brief moment of seeing and reading. (Yes, arguably, all poems should do this; it’s just that the material and tools available in any particular form bring both particular opportunities and certain constraints.)

Extended examples of my nature-inspired photo-poems include my photo and poetry slideshow essay ‘photo syn thesis: an eco exploration of future light earth water’ on Molly Bloom.[xv] But, like social media itself, my photo-poems can also be snapshot pauses in a busy home or urban lifestyle, whether that’s outdoors in a city, in the office or even on the way out for partying.

As I tend to take my photos with a compact camera or DSLR and then use software to combine words and image, my own photo-poems rarely have the full true instantaneous element of Instagram-created poetry using images or video taken and edited there and then on a mobile phone. ‘Instagram poetry’ is perhaps one particular example of a potentially broader internet/social media-shared photo-poetry form.

My work tends towards trying to open up a restful or uplifting space in reader-viewers’ busy or stressful days. But, as a reader-viewer myself, I also enjoy other styles of visual and text combinations shared on social media. These include vispo, collage and subversive combinations like the Harry Man (and his robots) ‘autogenerated #instapoem’.[xvi]

A National Poetry Library podcast with Jess Atkinson and Chris McCabe about ‘instapoets’ and ‘Instagram poetry’ in particular highlights that these lines often have melancholic or confessional element, with themes including relationships, the political and found text within city spaces.[xvii] In terms of how this is presented, approaches include photographing handwritten notes, erasure of found text, collage, and using marker to write on perspex then photographing this with a particular landscape or scene behind this.

I joined Instagram in 2016.[xviii] The same year I also did an online Graphic Design Specialization with CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), which included looking at typefaces as well as many other aspects relevant to using images and words together in photo-poems. After playing with all these thoughts and possibilities, and trying things out with my own poetry, I decided in 2018 to set up LitWorld2 – an online journal combining photos with others’ poems (Pic Pocket a Poem) or very short fiction (Snap Up a Flash).[xix]

Can photo-poems in the virtual sphere change the way people see the poetry/photography/real-life world in the 21st century? I’d certainly like to think they might – and at very least enjoy the artistic aspects of exploring the possibility!

[i] <> [Accessed 21 September 2018]
[ii] <> [Accessed 21 September 2018]
[iii] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[iv] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[v] <>[Accessed 20 October 2018]
[vi] ‘An Eyeful of Words’ online gallery: <> [Accessed 21 September 2018]
[vii] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[viii] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[ix] Tom Jenks is @zapnuby on Instagram <>. Flip Flop at <> [Accessed 21 September 2018]
[x] Hesterglock Press is @hesterglock_press <> [Accessed 21 September 2018]
[xi] Rhys Trimble is @rhystrimble <> [Accessed 21 September 2018]
[xii] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[xiii] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[xiv] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[xv] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[xvi] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[xvii] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[xviii] <> [Accessed 20 October 2018]
[xix] LitWorld2 journal is at <>. It’s on Instagram as LitWorld 2 on Instagram at <>, on Twitter as @LitWorld2 at: <> and on Facebook at <”>. [Accessed 21 September 2018]

If you enjoyed this article by Sarah Leavesley, you should read Patrick Wright 

See Sarah Leavesley’s latest book

About the contributor

Sarah Leavesley's latest published books include a poetry pamphlet How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press) shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards 2018 and a novella Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, 2018). This is a sequel or companion novella to her novella Kaleidoscope, published by Mantle Lane Press in March 2017.

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Sarah Leavesley's latest published books include a poetry pamphlet How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press) shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards 2018 and a novella Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, 2018). This is a sequel or companion novella to her novella Kaleidoscope, published by Mantle Lane Press in March 2017.

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