The Fallacy of Photo-a-day Projects

The Fallacy of Photo-a-day Projects

At the turn of the millenium, veteran photojournalist David Hume Kennerly embarked on a project using a single camera outfitted with a single lens – a medium format Mamiya 7II with a 43mm f/4.5 lens. As he crisscrossed the country, he committed to taking a photo each day which culminated in his book Photo du Jour. Although he spent much of the year covering the 2000 Presidential campaigns, the “self-inflicted” project was a personal endeavor to extend the way he saw his world. In an interview at the Modernbook/Gallery 494, he said:

“I had shot so much on assignment. I tended to lose sight of anything en route, on the way to the job. (So) in 2000, I decided to slow down and pay more attention to my surroundings while covering the campaign.”

Kennerly had already spent over 20 years as a working photojournalist before tackling the project which consumed over 900 rolls of film.

***

From September 2005 to September 2006, musician Jonathan Coulton recorded a new song every week and released them for free via podcast. Coulton wrote:

“ It was an attempt to keep the creative juices flowing as freely as possible, and a way for me to push myself to take risks, work quickly and trust in the creative process. It was also a stunt designed to get people to notice me. It worked, suckers!”

The “Thing a Week” project yielded such viral hits as his acoustic cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” which was subsequently ripped off by the TV show “Glee” without attribution (which generated significant press coverage). Coulton now regularly appears on NPR’s Ask Me Another, headlines his eponymous fan boat cruise, and even has a fan-contributed wiki called “JoCopedia.”

***

As a classically trained musician, I can attest that you wouldn’t want to hear me practice everyday. The process of improvement is slow. Technical improvement can vary enormously by individual (some are more talented, some simply know how to practice more efficiently), but learning how to “say” something through music takes time. And that time isn’t limited to just practicing. It includes listening to other music, reading about other musicians and composers, and allocating time to think. 

Photo by Allen Murabayashi

While not necessarily household names, Kennerly and Coulton represent outliers in their respective niches. The regular publication of their creative output worked because they had already developed much of their skill, and equally as important, they knew how to develop an idea into a polished product. Kennerly photographed daily, but he didn’t publish work until he had time to contemplate the entire year’s worth of photos. Coulton had an aggressive weekly deadline, but he still had seven days to contemplate and develop an idea before publication.

The process of creative discipline through “photo a day” or “thing a week” projects can be immensely rewarding. The “self-inflicted” exercise provides an obvious structure for creative output, and is particularly compelling around the new year. And while I have the greatest respect for photographers who undertake and successfully complete such a project, I think it’s a fallacy to believe that you need to publicly show your work as proof of your commitment. 

If you get annoyed when your friends share every workout, if you impugn millenials for “participation stars,” then perhaps you’ll understand why I believe the motivation to improve creative expression can’t require external validation. Photo-a-day projects provide predictable repetition, but they don’t necessarily address skill gaps. You won’t become a better portraitist by simply taking a photo every day. Addressing knowledge gaps in lighting, posing, or putting your subject at ease are competency-based milestones that provide more tangible benefit than taking a daily portrait without self-critique.

The real goal of a photo-a-day shouldn’t be a photo a day, but rather a tangible improvement at the end of a prescribed period of time. So shoot and Instagram all you want, just don’t expect your audience to share your enthusiasm.

Next Post:
Previous Post:
This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Dennis at 6:04 pm

    This sound pretty salty. have you taken it on to be able to talk about it?

    It should be encouraged to practice daily to get better. That’s stand on its own and doesn’t necessarily imply making the work public. Although posting it to social media can put some healthy pressure on learning to finish work; good or bad. This is a procrastination-killer.

    But at doing so requires e certain degree of dedication and commitment. This will improve your skills if you do the whole year. No matter how you take it on. Or have you grown up as a baby telling yourself when to practice speech or walking?

    It’s a self-driven project. The fact of documenting it online puts pressure on the individual to better himself; and that may not always be the craft itself. Maybe the person only wants a little pressure to work on being disciplined.

    So please do not demonise this daily challenge. It is rewarding And I encourage mostly beginners to do so. To go through such a period and develop. You will see results and things to improve at the end.

  2. David L Crooks at 7:13 pm

    I agree with Dennis. I have a photography meetup that started a 365/366 project and many folks do not complete. So, I came up with a monthly project and have about 10 folks doing that every month. I do suggest to pick a subject or read the manual and pick something new as part of the project. It has been scientifically proven that the repetition does help and I think if it just the whole process from taking the photo to process and posting the best image for the day.

  3. David Roddis at 8:16 pm

    Well said. In my humble, old-guy opinion, we do not need to work faster or create more quantity. We need to slow down, think, and work with clear intention. Digital photography rewires our brains into thinking we can just spray and pray in the hope that “one of them will turn out.” But the point is not so much whether “one turns out,” it’s will you know why it turned out (or didn’t) and learn/improve from the knowledge. I totally agree that learners should set clear goals for improvement and spend time working on those specific skills. In that sense, a “photo a day” could be focused on better lighting, sharper pictures, better composition…

    In early days I was guilty of posting work too soon, and it’s an understandable though cringe-making enthusiasm, but the more one learns, the more difficult the work becomes, right? It’s best to hold back. The world is not always waiting breathlessly for another picture of the sunset…

  4. Dennis at 10:24 pm

    Getting work done is more important than sitting on it till perfection. That’s a myth.

    The emphasis of a 356 days challenge is on having a finished piece of work at the end of the day that is good enough to be delivered to the public. Doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to not suck.
    In this regard the Kennerly’s example is a bit skewed. He curated the work after the year.

    If you produce and post daily, you may fail once and deliver crap. But do you want to do that again and again? That’s where you get kicked in the behind to get better or lose the challenge.

    You need to set goals before the challenge. E.g. Only buy that new L-glass after completing the challenge. And have someone to be accountable to (not someone very kind to you). If you fail, you have to agree to give the money to e.g. that mean cousin. Make it hard to fail. So you are motivated to work on progress and get the rewards.

    Having a challenge that pushes you to have a deliverable every day is tough. You have to improve to be able to complete the challenge. There is no two way about that.

    A huge problem with most photographers is that they do not practice (methodically). Procrastination then sets in. “My cam this and that. If I had more time. The light this and that” and so on. All bunch of excuses for why they failed to complete the work.

    Committing to a 356 days challenge will put the emphasis on creating a deliverable every day. So you have to finish it. Just like your homework in school. You need to get it done and graded.

    I encourage everybody that is serious about any craft to take such a challenge. It is particularly great for people without the financial means to get courses and workshops to advance, but wants to get better. Just practice on delivery. There is only that much technique you need to become good. Believe me, you will encounter them all with enough practice.

    And before anybody wants to disagree, take a look at BEEPLE; Mike Winkelmann and get back to me.

  5. Mike at 11:10 am

    I totally encourage the one-a-day photo challenge. As a professional industrial photographer on large public works projects I was used to shooting every day, some 10,000 images in 6 years. The shots were prescribed and readily available. So, not very challenging. Not much creativity needed.

    Then, after that 6-year assignment, in 2010, I challenged myself with a one-a-day task. Wow. It was a huge challenge and huge reward. I traveled the state looking for a shot unlike any I had done. March was miserable. 17 days straight of heavy fog. That made the self-assignment difficult. I learned to shoot lights, silhouettes, and macro just to get my one-a-day shot. Very helpful. I asked friends if I could shoot them, their families, their homes.

    All in all, it taught me to see, not just look. I saw the region in a whole different way. I shot flowers, people, street scenes, rodeos, powwows, parades, fairs in new ways.

    I didn’t know what to do with the hundreds of images I collected. So, there was a second benefit. I started my first blog. I knew nothing about blogging and am humorously embarrassed by that first attempt at blogging, https://northdakota365.wordpress.com. It was a start and it got me to where I am today as a destination writer/photographer, travel blogger.

    So, all in all, I recommend

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *