Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Documenting a Life, One Photo at a Time

I want to think about photos and the process of self-documentation. I want think about documenting a life, one photo at a time.

A couple months ago I added a new experiment to my list of habits and routines and part of my quest to track everything: take and share a photo from each and every day.

Homo Selfie: Modern Curse or Blessing?

Why take photos? Why share them? What’s the meaning in taking and creating?

Pictures feel like a blessing and a curse of the modern age. We are creating more photos than we have time to look at. We are inundated with photos everyday. Smart phones, photo sharing sites and social networks have made the act of taking and sharing a photo nearly seamless. Facebook and others have created online gathering places for sharing anything and everything.

Yet for all that we are capturing of moments in photos, have we even taken the time to build out the narrative for which the photo carries part of the meaning? What of memory when you have so much in the multitude?

I believe in story. You might use the word “culture” as a neutral anthropological concept for roughly the same thing. As humans we are storytellers and much of what we construct are narratives in words and meaning. Without story much of human society wouldn’t exist: law, novels, education and more.

Pictures are part of these stories, though I often feel like the ease of sharing has trumped the editorial process in constructing a poignant narrative. Our obsession to capture via our camera can also take us away from looking.

We have so many photos out there and so much is left unseen in some much taking and sharing.

Welcome Homo Selfie.

One Photo A Day

I track a lot of things: how many steps, how many heart beats, how many TV shows, how many books and many others. I’ve implemented a number of ways to track my life, and I’ve run a number of experiments like tracking my hydration, logging the food I eat, my song listening and even how often I poop.

This “share a photo a day” project started as an act of tracking.

data.markwk.com is my public data domain. I share much of my data-driven life there. Adding photos contributed a level of beauty and intimacy to the data points. The maps, steps and heart beats overlaid these daily photos to create a story. My moment in time in a past, a place and numbers.

Instead of trying to capture a day in dozens of photos and videos, I made a conscious choice to document each and every day with a single photo. I was aware of the photo I was choosing: its place, moment and beauty combined with the story of my day. I was trying to say something in sharing.

The measured and quantified self is about data points. But the photos are something else. It’s an open landscape where you attach your thoughts. Instead of nailing down a single data point, I can trace back memories and share an aspect of a story in a photo, picture or drawing.

Photos as Numbers? In Praise of a Quantified Self in Photos

Certain numbers are more easily quantified to a self than others: height, weight, heart rate, computer usage time, tasks completed, etc. These are the raw numbers. The simple measurements to a data-driven life. They are easily crafted into our personal data universes.

Photos are harder to mash into a quantified self’s data sets. There are the more abstract aspects of a life, the words and photos, the videos and passing thoughts. You can can try to find a number in these areas through statistics like number of photos taken, words written and total filmed time. But these fail to capture much.

“How many photos I took?” is a data point we can track. I’ll admit that it’s a number I track, especially on mobile. Using my life logger tool Reporter, I log my current activity and my energy level as well as capture some background info like location, who I’m with and the weather. This method lets me automatically log how many new photos I took.

Here are my photos per day on my iPhone from Sept 22 to Nov 20th (note this also include screenshots):

This “number of photos taken” is perhaps the most fixed measurement we might place on tracking our photos, but to me it feels hollow. It’s a number that doesn’t mean much when you think and look at the photos themselves nor the meaning photos strive to create.

Should the self-tracker limit their tracking to the numbers? Or maybe it’s better to simply exclude photos and other media from our pursuit of tracking everything?

There are so many areas that come with quantification and with numbers. But photos fail as a numerical expression alone. But if we expand the idea of a quantified self and think about these data points as part of a larger effort to paint a complete picture of one’s life, then the fuzziness of life, its words, photos and quiet patterns matter.

We can’t ignore photos. In fact, the photos we take and share are crucial aspect of creating and documenting a life. Photos, especially as an act of conscious creation and curation, are important expression of the meaningful and the beautiful.

The Photo Wall: Crafting Story-filled Data

I’m a pretty obsessive self-tracker. We often think about self-tracking as collecting and scrutinizing data. But there is also something in tracking about creation and curation. The self-tracker as creator and curator in life design. The data is just one other material we use to create with.

Photos can’t be counted like other data points. They are more abstract and, even the meta-data they carry, fail to fit in our databases of self tracking. Yet, photos matter if and when you are constructing a quantified self narrative. They are beautiful and so many artists and humans capture the beauty of our world and of ourselves through pictures.

Underlying this quest and question to track everything is the search for meaning. Our purpose is to bring more meaning. It’s about beauty too. We use the stray data we create via our digital and not-so-digital lives. We as humans are meaning beings. Everything that we do carries the intention of being understood. The universe itself is a thing of a beauty and it is something we are still discovering.

What started as a simple experiment in adding a photo to the collected data has grown into something else. It’s a daily habit where I “Document my day with a photo.”

But it’s more. Combined with other data points, my day’s weeks and months taken on a new perspective. I’m able to not only have the cold facts but have the abstract textures and colors of these past days. To borrow an idea from Harry Potter, these photos provide a kind of ansible for pulling back the threads of past moments and memories.

This habit of taking and crafting one picture a day has also turned into my daily dose of beauty and meaning. You can’t help but become more positive about life when you consciously choose to focus on it.

I generally distrust social media, though in order to document my life in photos, I elected to post to Instagram (and syndicated to Pinterest).

I’m still a bit of a newbie on the platform but, if you want to follow my travel and life logging journey, you can follow me on Instagram at @markwkor via my board (“Life Logging & Travel Photos”)[https://fr.pinterest.com/markwk/life-logging-travel-photos/] on Pinterest.

Whether it’s photos or not, hopeful this post helps you think about you next tracking and documentation experiment. For me, a photo a day habit is one of my best discoveries this past year. Good luck and happy tracking!

Here are a few more slices from my photo walls:

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