Writing and the Human Face

This summer, as I was kneeling among a thousand other pairs of knees in a chapel nestled into the heart of a monastic community in the rolling hills of Eastern France, I gazed on the faces of each of the monks as they glided into prayer. Their white robes billowed, covering everything but their faces. Even the tips of their fingers were swallowed in the robes. Their wrinkles seemed to be etched deeper, their ears larger, their eyes so much more vivid, as if I was looking into a body of water for the first time: the deep green lake, the hazel mountain stream, the blue-green oasis of Caribbean water.

There truly is no end to the poetry residing within the art of the human face. Olivier Clément, a French theologian, once said: “Contemplation of the human face introduces us to a drama, in the light of our origins, then the night and waiting for an eternal sun. Every face, so worn as it might be, almost destroyed… as long as we see it with the eyes of the heart, it remains unique, unrepeatable, escapes any repetition.”

It was then I wanted to link this brilliant uniqueness to words. For it to become a challenge to writers anywhere: to portray the impossibility of repetition within a human face. In one of the brothers’ workshops at the monastic community, Taizé, he focused on the human face, showing slide after slide of human faces captured by ten of the top photographers in the last century. For anyone wanting something fresh to write about, something that pulls the poetry out of you, look up these photographers and write about the stories their faces tell.

Here are just a few: Dorothea Lange, a US photographer. She was a photographer during the Great Depression that I’m convinced captured the heart of people more than any other human could. Within this photo, “Migrant Mother,” how many images, stories, and emotions can be described? 

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Or take photographer Lalage Snow, for instance. He did a series of photos of several different people, mainly soldiers and some military nurses, that took place before, during, and after the war. 

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French photographer and solider for the French army, Marc Garanger, was required to take pictures of the  Algerian villagers for their new ID cards. Olivier Laurent, in the British Journal of Photography, wrote that “in less than a year later, Garanger’s images of shamed and angry Algerian women would become a symbol of French oppression over its Northern African colony.” 

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So, to all writers experiencing writer’s block or needing something fresh, you have a world of photography at hand. It’s a great tool for writing because it is often disconnected from our own memories, and the emotional and weighty personal baggage doesn’t weigh down the poem or story. Here are some other photographers: Marcel Imsand (Switzerland), Jean Dieuzaide (France), Josef Koudelka (Czech Republic), Roman Opalka (Polish-French), and Benoit Lange (Switzerland). Find images, faces, social situations that speak to you. Then start writing.

“…Sometimes the eyes are not only the vision of light but a donation. In the undefined prisons of this world, the face is a breach, it constitutes a gap of transcendence.” –Olivia Clément 

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