Learning to Look: a Year in the Life in Photos

We were sitting at a table in a small restaurant. My friend Joan had just received a high-end digital camera as a gift. She’d decided to chronicle her life by taking a picture each day and posting it to her social network. I wondered how anyone short of National Geographic’s Jim Brandenburg had the discipline to not only take a photo every day but make it an interesting one.

Back at work, I thought about following Joan’s lead. Would the project be worth the effort? Could I sustain it? Would anyone view the work?

We never know until we try. So I downloaded the Instagram app to a smartphone, linked it to my accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr and started to shoot. I wanted the first image in the series to reflect reality, not aesthetics, and chose to photograph the highway through the windshield during the morning commute—not something I’d recommend doing on a regular basis, given the problem of distracted driving. And since online privacy is also an issue, I avoided photographing family members.

During the year I’ve taken photos on vacation, at concerts and in the office, shooting from airplanes, sailboats and cars. The subjects range from kayaks to cats, from people in line at Wal-Mart to flowers to Ferris wheels. The images are straight or processed. They chronicle a life in transition, capturing the changes in families, careers and seasons.

Some days I knew what I wanted to shoot—the current activity, the dramatic change in weather, the empty road that captured the sense of isolation we sometimes feel. Other days I left things to chance. I vowed to shy from the overly familiar subjects on the Internet—pets, food and sunsets—and never to take a photo of something just to fulfill the daily requirement. But on busy days I had to bend those rules.

In reviewing the year, I find I enjoy the images that look artfully composed, like the still life of silver frost edging green leaves. The impromptu images seem more interesting, like the elderly couple falling asleep at the gate while they wait for their plane. I also enjoy social commentary—the bored faces of fellow workers during meetings, the pre-school girl using a $600 smartphone some adults can barely afford, the empty chair outside a classroom in a district that just dismissed dozens of teachers.

But my favorites are the unexpected images—the delighted look on a woman’s face as she wins a prize at Bingo, the college mascot flexing his muscles during graduation, the couple photographing themselves at a baseball game. Each carries an emotional impact as well as an aesthetic appeal.

While I’m pleased with the images—you can view the collections at the Year in the Life board on Pinterest or the two YITL sets on Flickr—I’m amazed at the response. Almost every picture posted to Facebook receives more “likes” than anything I’ve written.

That enthusiasm is contagious. After a year of collecting snapshots I find myself as fascinated with the process as the product. Photography is a great teacher. It urges us to act boldly, to stand in the rain, to get close to noise and dirt and smiles. It helps us to focus, to crop the distractions. It teaches us to see.

What better way to spend the year.

Jeff Widmer is a writer, editor and photographer. He is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

A Year in the Life collage