Photos from “American Edge”

Often, the most difficult aspect of writing is where to begin: What should I write about? Who should I write about? What’ll be my first sentence? My first word? These are questions that even experienced writers several books into their careers struggle with. And they’re questions this blog aims to address each Monday (beginning today) when I’ll be posting an original writing prompt you can use while writing on your own or in a group. My hope is that these prompts — made up of text, audio, photography, or video (or a combination of these) — will inspire you to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. And so, without hesitation, let’s begin …

Since today is Martin Luther King Day, as well as my birthday, I thought I’d highlight a prompt I’ve used over the years that comes from American Edge, a book of black-and-white photography taken during the African-American civil rights movement I was given as a birthday present more than a decade ago. Edge, by Steve Schapiro, captures several famous figures of the 1960s, including John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, James Baldwin, Mohammed Ali, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Tina Turner, Allen Ginsberg, Chuck Berry, and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, the bulk of the book’s photos (and its most compelling) depict lesser known folks: children on stage at the Apollo Theater, a man at an East Harlem diner, girls under the Coney Island boardwalk, hippie couples in Haight-Ashbury, migrant workers in Arkansas, war protestors in New York, marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery, and teenagers singing and holding hands in Clarksdale, Mississippi (pictured above).

The good thing is you don’t have to purchase Schapiro’s book in order to use his photographs as a prompt; they’re available online. (Still, if you can swing the $30 for a new copy or $6 for a used one — via Amazon — I highly recommend getting your hands on one; it’s a beautiful book and would be a lovely addition to any coffee table; it’s also a great gift, of course, and one that keeps on giving). In any case, if you visit this Public Radio web site or this photography web site, you’ll find numerous photos from Edge. And here’s how the prompt works: Once you’ve arrived at one of these two sites, take a few minutes to peruse Schapiro’s images, then choose one that peaks your interest or you find compelling. Once you’ve chosen, use one of the following ideas as a place from which to begin writing: Describe what’s going on in the photo. Write about one of the people in the photos. Write from the point of view of a person in the photo. Or write about anything the photo has sparked in your imagination or memory.

Now, if you’d like to use the images in a group setting, I recommend doing the following: From one of the two web sites mentioned above, copy and paste into a Word document at least as many photos as there are members in your group (right clicking your mouse over each photo and choosing “copy image” is easiest). Resize each photo so they measure about four inches by two-and-a-half inches on the page (by clicking on each image and dragging a corner). Hit “print” and cut out each photo with a pair of scissors. And, finally, once you’re in your group and ready to use the prompt, spread the photos on a table or desk, repeating what was mentioned above about perusing them, choosing one, and using it as a place to begin.

Either way — on your own or in a group — if you do end up using the prompt, I’d love to hear how it went. You can reach me, anytime, at


  1. Deborah Clearman says

    I’ve used these photos several times with the women in jail on Rikers Island. They get great responses, and amazing stories come out! Thanks for turning me on to them, Derek.

  2. What an excellent prompt. This would be especially good for the kiddies considering they tend to be more visual.

  3. mary ellen sanger says

    Love photo prompts, Derek. Great stuff here. thanks!

  4. Erin Hopkins says

    I am excited you are doing this! I loved your prompt from a workshop you lead at the retreat a few years ago from a David Foster Wallace piece and am excited to see what else you share!

  5. Aaron Zimmerman says

    Happy Birthday Derek! Great prompt.

  6. Nancy Weber says

    Great photos derek. And happy birthday!


  1. […] the stories they tell of the lives folks led away from the lunch counters and after the boycotts. Derek’s post on photos from American Edge did its job on my day off: It inspired me to write down a few of these […]