Better ways than 365 days?

If you’re serious about improving as a photographer, there are better ways of accomplishing it than taking a photo of yourself e

If you can keep your self portraits interesting, it's worth continuing to experiement.

I think that the statement I’m about to make could unleash something of a furore. (Give me a moment: I’m going to batten down the hatches and take a deep breath.)

I have a loathing for 365 self-portrait projects.

I can’t bear them. They irritate me. Sometimes they even bore me. They don’t quite make me want to scratch out my eyeballs, although occasionally some of the pictures might. There, I’ve said it. Admission made. Given that the 365 Days group on Flickr has 19,175 members, I suppose I ought to qualify this statement, because there are a whole host of people prepared to disagree with me.

There are two predominant reasons that 365 self-portrait projects give me a shudder of discomfort. First, I don’t think that they necessarily encourage good photography; second, I think that they do encourage some sort of egotism and narcissism. Want me to unpick this a bit more? I thought that you might. Here goes.

Yes, it does seem counter-intuitive to say that a project that demands you take a photo every day doesn’t encourage good photography. If you’re shooting every day, surely it can only help you to improve. (This does seem to be one of the major driving factors in embarking on a 365 Days project.) But I’m not convinced that deliberately setting out to take a photograph of yourself every single day of the week for an entire year does that. Instead, I think that the combination of obligation to take a photo and limited subject matter stifles creativity. Having to take a photo of myself, a photo that I’m willing to present to the world, a photo that conveys my story, every day for a year sounds more like an exercise in endurance. And that does not good photography make.

So not only am I concerned by the potential for uninspiring, leaden self-portraits, but I can just see how the necessity to take said daily self-portrait becomes all-consuming and and obliterates the opportunity or the desire to take other photos. Don’t forget about landscape and macro and street and architectural photography.

What’s more, there are some days when you really don’t want to be photographed. Or is that just me? How on earth is that sense of being camera-shy, of feeling miserable and unphotogenic, of being tired or drunk or ill, ever going to make for a well-composed, intriguing photo? I’m not sure how many images of my feet, or any other sufficiently abstract body-part, people would be able to take, even if I did succeed in posing them creatively, using a thought-provoking depth-of-field, and arranging moody lighting.

Looking beyond portraiture

If you can keep your self portraits interesting, it's worth continuing to experiement.

Becoming a better photographer isn’t just about portraiture. Or self-portraiture. Or going off and getting yourself a Photography Masters Degree.

And this leads me into my second point of pique. If it is all about documenting my life (another key reason for starting the project), who the bloody hell is really that interested to know the minutiae of my day-to-day existence? I’m not that thrilling. Yes, there are things that I do from time-to-time that might ignite a frisson of excitement, but they’re relatively limited in the grand scheme of things. Keeping a pictorial diary could well be an unusual take on a journal, but my desire to lay myself that bare in public is supremely limited. You can tell me that we live in the age of social media and that I just need to get on and accept it all that you want, but the concept makes me itchy. My entire life isn’t for public consumption and I doubt that every Tom, Dick, and Harry, and Emma, Jo, and Kate need, or even want, to know what I ate for breakfast (Homemade spelt bread toast with blackcurrant jam, seeing as you asked. It was tasty).

If you know me well enough and you know that I’ve written about how photos are an incredibly valuable historical resource, especially those that tell the narrative of the mundane, you might find that statement a little perverse. But I’m talking about making sure that people in the future know about our unextraordinary lives so that they will enjoy a better understanding of how our society functioned. (And indeed the social media phenomenon will be something that future historians will pick apart and examine and debate and turn into theses.) Someone living in 3010 who uses my writings and my photographs in an attempt to build a picture of life in 2010 is a bit different to me contriving a shot for uploading to Flickr.

Widening the horizons

Documenting your life is about a great deal more than just taking self-portraits.

I’m not saying that there are no good 365 self-portrait photographers out there, I’m not saying that people won’t learn from the experience, and I’m not saying that they aren’t valuable in some sense. I’d have to be blindingly ignorant to think anything of the sort. And if you want to commit to taking a picture of yourself every day for a year, go ahead. But let me give you something to think about first.

If you’re serious about improving as a photographer, there are better ways of accomplishing it than taking a photo of yourself every day. In fact, I most definitely endorse taking a photo every day. But just make sure that you expand your subject matter and your technical repertoire beyond pictures of yourself. Borrow your friend’s macro lens and have a go at photographing teeny-tiny things. Drag your tripod out from beneath your bed (what’s it doing there, anyway?) and try your hand at some long exposures. Pick up some filters and mess around with their different effects on your images. Play around with reflectors and diffusers, artificial and natural light. Hell, try shooting on film or build yourself a pinhole camera.

These seem like real challenges to me, challenges that will help you to develop your craft as a photographer.

Now, if you want to document your life in pictures, remember that the picture doesn’t have to be about you. The things that you see, the places that you go, the people whom you meet; all of these contribute to your life and would be worthy of photographing. I bet that you’ve a camera-phone that would do that job pretty well, although I’d recommend shopping around for a compact camera to keep in a sock in your bag. This will tell a much richer story of your life, for you and for anyone else who stumbles on some cache of a fragment of this weird photo-sharing website that seemed be called Flickr in 1,000 years’ time.

For sure you’re going to end up with very different types of photographs if you adopt either of these two approaches, but the results – whether you’re aiming to improve your photography skills or record your life – will be something altogether better than 365 days of self-portraits.

This post was written by Daniela Bowker, who usually is the boss over at Small Aperture.

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