Stephen's son, Fred

Street photography is tricky enough without having to attempt it while pushing a baby along in a buggy. Or while physically strapped to a baby in a harness. Or chasing after the aforementioned baby once he’s grown in to a reckless toddler. So when I became a father six years ago, I had to slightly ease up on my street photography. I knew I should really concentrate a bit more on stopping my son, Fred, from running in to the road, but I also had an enormous archive of images that I wanted to try and edit into a book.

My problem was that I didn’t think I had a theme, they were just the random sights that had caught my eye over the past 20 years. Then I had the idea to invent stories around some of the photographs, to create my own narratives and contexts for these pictures. I started editing and writing.

What I’m interested in are not so much decisive moments as suggestive ones. The photographs that I choose to match with a story are all images that hint at a wider narrative or mystery, I’m trying to fill in the blanks

So a few years later and what I’ve come up with is a book of around 60 photographs each with a story attached. Most of these are entirely fictional but there’s a couple of ‘real’ ones about Fred and other autobiographical elements of my life –my late Hungarian grandmother, my paranoia about going bald…

However what’s also happened, totally unexpectedly, is that many of the fictional stories have turned out to be about parenting and fatherhood. This is entirely unintentional and something I’ve only noticed in retrospect. Worryingly, most of the fathers in the stories seem to be fairly bad, or they’re trying to atone for past mistakes. I have unwittingly transplanted my own anxieties in to other fictional lives.

What I’m interested in are not so much decisive moments as suggestive ones. The photographs that I choose to match with a story are all images that hint at a wider narrative or mystery, I’m trying to fill in the blanks and what better area to focus on than children and relationships? Where the reality can often be so different to what is assumed purely from appearance.

I’ve called the book Sparks, because each story has been sparked by a photograph, but as I write this now, I realise I could just as easily have called it Children, as each story is like a child born out of the image.

Here Stephen shares one of the stories from his book, Sparks. 

Stuck, by Stephen Leslie

My father is a liar. First of all he is pretending to be writing important work emails on his phone but I know that, actually, he is just checking a live blog of the football scores as there was an early kick-off today but my Mother forced him to come out and walk with us so we can spend more valuable family time together. Secondly, he promised me an ice-cream if I tidied up my room this morning and I did tidy up my room but then Hannah, my younger sister, went and mucked it up again and so I quite reasonably refused to re-tidy it but he, as ever, sided with her so, technically, I deserve an ice-cream but he won’t buy me one. My Mother doesn’t lie as much as my Father but she is often extremely annoying and always on her phone too, not checking the internet or football results but constantly talking to her friend, Linda. She is also always preoccupied with Hannah and telling me I’m big enough to look after myself, which I am but that’s not the point.

Approximately forty two minutes ago I got sick of being ignored and not bought an ice-cream and so I climbed up this tree to get away from everyone and think. Now I’m higher than I’ve ever been before and although I’m not actually, properly stuck I’m not going to get down. They didn’t even notice that I’d gone until about twelve minutes ago. Mum realised first and made Dad put his ‘bloody phone’ away and help look for me. They’ve been shouting my name and running back and forth across the green like headless chickens ever since. I’ve never seen a real, live headless chicken but it’s a phrase my Granny uses and I think it fits the way my parents are moving around beneath me right now perfectly. Although Dad is still sneaking peeks at his phone and a headless chicken could not do this of course. They haven’t even thought of looking up once and neither have any of the strangers they’ve started asking for help.

A few moments ago Hannah started crying and I thought about coming down but then I remembered her mucking up my room and the ice-cream I never got and so I changed my mind. I’m quite happy up here. The view is amazing and it’s surprisingly comfortable. I’ve also got half a packet of Munchies and an apple in my pocket so I won’t go hungry. I know that I’m going to be in big trouble but I also hope they’ll be so upset that they’ll think about why I did it and realise how I feel. Sometimes, to get people to pay attention, you have to disappear and then, when they notice you’ve gone and miss you they want you back really, really badly and so when they do find you they’re too relived to be angry. That’s my theory at least. I hope I’m right.  

Sparks is currently crowdfunding through Unbound. Please take a look and maybe help speed up its labour

For more visit 

More in Features

By , 6th November 2023
My new literary suspense THE END OF SUMMER announced in The Bookseller

From book to screen

By , 28th February 2023
Free resources and tips for would be screenwriters, from a complete novice - and some professionals - as I navigate the process of adapting my novels for TV and film

Observer New Review Q&A

By , 22nd March 2022
An interview with Stephanie Merritt about Edith and Kim, the perils of writing about family, and why female spies often get overlooked

Researching Edith and Kim

By , 17th November 2021
From a compendium of stories about life at the Bauhaus to a Modernist memoir by the founder of the iconic Isokon, here are some of the books that inspired my forthcoming novel

Book festivals 2021

By , 19th August 2021
From a celebration of the life of John le Carré at Cheltenham to an exploration of women and crime in Chiswick, please join me at one of the following events, across the country (and the internet!)