Connect with us

Travel Writing

Picture Prompts and Inspired Travel Writing, Part 2: Add Historical Context

On the fourth day of our Saigon trip, we walked from our apartment to the War Remnants Museum. I saw tanks and took photos. Could a photo of tanks inspire a story?

Tanks at the War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Tanks at the War Remnants Museum, Saigon

I don’t think it’s a good photo. The colors are terrible, angle is awkward and the composition sucks. If you’re a photographer, that image would be useless. But, for purposes of travel writing and using it as a picture prompt, know that you don’t even need to include the photo in the final story. And you can even use the awkward angle to add depth to your storytelling.

How?

Again, let’s start by answering the basic what, where, when, why, who and how

What’s in the photo? Tanks.

When was the photo taken? In March 3, 2019, our fourth day in Saigon.

Where was it taken? Outside the War Remnants Museum building in Saigon.

Why? Why what? Why were we at the War Remnants Museum? Because we were on a trip and tourists go sightseeing. I suggested visiting the museum and my daughter, Alex, liked the idea.

Who? Who what? Who was with me on the trip? Alex.

How? How what? How did we get to the War Remnants Museum? We walked from our apartment. If it’s relevant at all, we thought it was going to be a leisurely walk but the heat and humidity took the leisure out of the walk.

Now, let’s put all those answers in one paragraph.

In March 2019, my daughter, Alex, and I visited Saigon. On the fourth day of our trip, I suggested adding the War Remnants Museum to our sightseeing itinerary. Alex liked the idea. We walked from our apartment all the way to the War Remnants Museum. We thought is was going to be a leisurely walk but the heat and humidity took the leisure out of the walk. Outside the War Remnants Museum building, I saw tanks and took photos.

Okay, that’s descriptive and it answers all the basic questions. But it’s also devoid of emotion and lacking in depth. Lame, in fact. How do we fix that? Either of two ways. Or both.

First, focus on a narrow subject.

In this case, the tanks. Let’s use the answers to the basic what, where, when, why, who and how as a starting point and add to that.

Let’s give the story a title.

Insensitive behavior of tourists at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon

In March 2019, my daughter, Alex, and I visited Saigon. On the fourth day of our trip, I suggested adding the War Remnants Museum to our sightseeing itinerary. Alex liked the idea. We walked from our apartment all the way to the War Remnants Museum. We thought is was going to be a leisurely walk but the heat and humidity took the leisure out of the walk. Outside the War Remnants Museum building, I saw tanks and took photos.

Yes, I am aware that it isn’t a good photo. The colors are dull, the angle is awkward and the composition seem to scream, “You don’t know how to use a camera!” The dull colors, I cannot fix. If I try to Photoshop the image to brighten it up, I might end up with gold-colored tanks and that would be destroying realism. With the angle and composition, I could have done better — if I had more time and there were fewer visitors to the museum.

It took me ten minutes to take that photo. Before I finally hit the camera button, all I could do was look — watch fellow tourists with their funny faces and contrived whacky poses in front of the tanks to have their photos taken by their companions.

The worst lot was a group of fully grown women — on tiptoe and with hands clasped around the main gun of the tank as though they were being dragged away by the tank. They laughed loudly as they took turns posing and having their photos taken.

It wrenched my heart. The War Remnants Museum exists to show the world what horrors Vietnam has gone through and those middle-aged women were treating a highly deadly war machine as an amusing backdrop for taking playful photos. They could have shown more respect.

It took the group of women quite a while to finally feel satisfied with the whacky posing. As they moved away, another group moved toward the tanks. A group with children. One boy who had been watching the women earlier tried to climb up the tank to imitate the “I’m being dragged away by the tank” pose. The adults in the group laughed and obligingly took photos of him.

I watched. And I waited. When I saw a small window to take photos without including those callous people in the frame, I started to shoot. I only had a few seconds before more groups approached the tanks. Sadly, the only usable photo I could take was snapped from a horrible angle.

None of that is fiction. That was exactly how it happened. So, you see, my tank photo may be bad and but the story behind it tells so much more. If you have a lousy photo with a good story behind it, write the story and ditch the photo.

Second, explore a broader subject.

The tanks are only a part of the museum display. The War Remnants Museum is a repository of everything related to the Vietnam War. That means history. And you could explore that episode in history to write a story. Not a textbook kind of writing though. An illustration — again, using the answers to the basic what, where, when, why, who and how, with modification, as a starting point.

Again, the story needs a title.

At the War Remnants Museum, the “Vietnam War” through the eyes of the Vietnamese

In March 2019, my daughter, Alex, and I visited Saigon. On the fourth day of our trip, I suggested adding the War Remnants Museum to our sightseeing itinerary. Alex liked the idea. We walked from our apartment all the way to the War Remnants Museum. We thought is was going to be a leisurely walk but the heat and humidity took the leisure out of the walk. But once in the museum, the discomfort of the walk dissipated. There was a reason I wanted to visit the War Remnants Museum. And there was a reason why I wanted to bring Alex there.

I was born two decades after the end of the American colonial period but the American presence remained strong long after the Philippine flag was raised as a symbol of independence. I grew up watching American movies. My parents were particularly fond of John Wayne. As a grade schooler, what I knew about the Vietnam War was gleaned mostly from watching “The Green Berets”. I wouldn’t know better until I set foot in college.

My daughters, both born in the 1990s, knew just as little about the Vietnam War as students. While they hadn’t heard of “The Green Berets”, they grew up a decade or so after Oliver Stone’s films about the Vietnam War — “Platoon”, Born on the Fourth of July” and “Heaven and Earth” — were released and became bywords in cinema talk. Thankfully, their idea of a proper war movie was “Mulan”.

Their father, a teenager in the 1970s, had a summer job as a waiter at the Pagsanjan Hotel where the cast and crew of “Apocalypse Now” were billeted for the duration of the shoot for the scenes at the Pagsanjan Falls. He told us stories about the insane amount of alcohol that accompanied the cast and crew.

In others words, we all grew up with American propaganda about the Vietnam War. I managed to shake most of it in college but I was hungry for a better perspective. And I thought that with the opportunity staring right at us, it would be good for Alex, who had never experienced learning about the Vietnam War in school except in passing and always with an American bias, to know what it was about.

I thought I knew a lot about the Vietnam War. Then, I viewed the exhibits and realized that there was even more that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that, for years, a huge part of the world had been pressuring America to pull out of its unjust intervention in what was essentially a civil war. Still, America continued to hold on until withdrawal became inevitable and “loss” had become synonymous with close to 60,000 American deaths — in a war America had no business being involved in.

Alex experienced some kind of emotional shock. Until then, she did not realize how her expensive education had betrayed her and cheated her out of real history lessons. In one afternoon, the phrase “Vietnam War” became an endless parade of widespread carnage, and political documents and newspaper reports that belied American propaganda. What she didn’t understand, she asked about. And there we were, while walking between exhibits from floor to floor, discussing Agent Orange and how landmines killed and maimed unsuspecting civilians. Two million Vietnamese civilians died in that war.

By the time we reached the room where drawings and paintings by young children, who were maimed, orphaned or displaced by the war, were displayed, I was ready to cry.

In the end, a good travel story tells about your personal experience

So, you see, there is more than one way to utilize a photo as a prompt to write a story. You can zoom in or you can zoom out. Whichever perspective you decide to use, the result will always depend on how much you observed and how much you have assimilated from the experience.

Updated on August 30, 2019

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

Don't Miss These!

Carrot cupcake at The Yellow Chair Cafe, Saigon Carrot cupcake at The Yellow Chair Cafe, Saigon

Picture Prompts and Inspired Travel Writing, Part 3: Associate the Image with Previous Experiences

Travel Writing

Okra Flower at the HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm, Cu Chi, Saigon Okra Flower at the HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm, Cu Chi, Saigon

Picture Prompts and Inspired Travel Writing, Part 1: How to Describe an Image

Travel Writing

Connie Veneracion used to shoot travel photos with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II Connie Veneracion used to shoot travel photos with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

I Used to Travel With a dSLR. Not Anymore.

Travel Stories