Seven Years of Photo a Day

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On Sunday 6th March 2011, I stood on the end of the wooden pier in Sopot, northern Poland, and looked out over the ice covered Bay of Gdańsk. I was on the second of what would be many research trips to the Tricity for my PhD, and I was feeling quite lonely. I didn’t speak anywhere near enough Polish, having spent the previous year in formal Russian for Social Science lessons* rather than Polish, and although I had been introduced to a wonderful team at the University of Gdańsk who helped me to make contact with my research participants and conduct interviews out in the tiny villages surrounding Lake Żarnowiec, I was feeling pretty lost.

My Polish was technical and self-taught. With a dictionary beside me, I could translate news articles and technical reports about energy, geopolitics and anti-nuclear protests, but my everyday language didn’t stretch much beyond ordering a cup of tea or a train ticket on the SKM. In addition, my research felt pointless. I was hoping to explore attitudes to nuclear development in the region. The Polish government had just announced plans to revive attempts to develop a nuclear industry and construct the first of a series of nuclear power plants in Pomerania, at the same location where in the 1970s there had been significant protests. However, nobody wanted to talk. There were no protests to document, and nothing seemed to be happening. I was beginning to wonder if I needed to change my approach.

I took a quick photo of the ice, adjusted my scarf to try and keep out the bitter wind, and carried on back down the pier and up Bohaterów Monte Cassino to go to the little corner shop to pick up some food for dinner. Over the following few days I took photos of the yellow wooden fishing boats down on the sand, the boarded up amusement park on the beach at Jelitkowo, and my stack of journal articles, cups of tea and little red netbook as I studied. They were casual snaps taken with my first digital camera, a Nikon E3200 I had been using since 2004. I didn’t put much thought into them, and I certainly didn’t edit them.

After a few days of taking a picture each day on my walks to and from town and university, I thought about starting a Photo a Day project. Someone I knew on a forum I frequented at the time was in her second year of a Photo a Day project and it looked like fun. I thought it’d be a good way to document my research and an excuse to get out of my rented room each day for a walk, even if all of my interviews fell through. Back then I was still using Facebook and so I started an album and shared my daily photo with my friends each night.

On Friday 11th March 2011, everything changed. An earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami causing huge loss of life and the destruction of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Physically, the earthquake and tsunami bore no impact on Poland, but emotionally the accident had huge repercussions. Pomerania is a coastal region with beautiful forests, beaches, lots of agriculture, and a thriving tourism industry. The local population suddenly became deeply concerned about nuclear safety and how a similar accident in Poland would threaten their livelihoods and way of life. Around the world, nuclear development plans were put on hold and grassroots protest movements sprang into action. The change was almost immediate as people’s perception of risk was so heightened by the tragedy unfolding in Japan.

My research continued, and so did my daily photos. I documented the afternoons and evenings spent studying at home in Birmingham, my frustrations and “fuck it I’m going running” moments (there were many), and my trips back and forth to Poland. The ice melted, summer arrived, and I spent a few lovely weeks walking on the beach between Sopot and Gdynia, conducting interviews with local government and energy companies, attending anti-nuclear protests, visiting the abandoned site of the original plant at Żarnowiec and gathering visual materials demonstrating both perspectives, both for and against nuclear development.

By late summer I had switched my ageing point-and-shoot camera for Ed’s which was a much more recent model. My composition was still wonky and I had begun to edit my pictures using some very basic software on my computer. I favoured high contrast, high saturation images and had fallen in love with HDR because it looked so different to anything I’d seen before. Looking back, I cringe at some of my early photos, but it was all part of the process of teaching myself photography. I think most people explore different styles as they begin to show an interest in photography. It felt like magic, and I wanted to learn as many tricks as possible.

When autumn came around I had been taking a photo a day for six months. My point-and-shoot struggled indoors and in low light, and I lacked inspiration as a lot of my time was spent indoors at university reading and writing, or at the gym when it all became too much and I needed to zone out on the treadmill. I no longer made the regular trips to Poland, but I took photos of gig tickets, of the cakes I made and books I read, and of interesting scenes I came across in my everyday life. It was during this time that I realised how much photography had changed my view of the world. I looked up more when I was walking and I was always on the lookout for an interesting scene to take a photo of. I noticed the seasons changing, and I knew when sunrise and sunset would be each day. These were things which I hadn’t given much thought to before I became interested in photography.

On 5th March 2012, I took the last photo for my Project 365, a terrible long-exposure of two prominent tower blocks in my city – I was going through a night photography phase – and then the next day I continued. Day 366. Day 367. On and on I went. Today is Day 2559, and I have missed just one day in seven years of daily picture taking. The day I missed fell two or three days before I submitted my PhD in March 2014 and I was a sleep deprived, anxious mess. I was in the throes of writing up, and my days were a blur from writing by night and sleeping through the days, getting up to go for a walk at 4pm each day before eating dinner and starting all over again. This was a tactic I adopted as I had become addicted to exercise as a coping mechanism and if I tried to write during the day I found myself lacing up my shoes and sloping off for a run instead. Those were dark days.

I have just celebrated seven years of my Photo a Day, and I’m so glad that I picked up a camera all those years ago. I have a visual record of all but six months of my marriage. I have documented Ed’s running, my photography, my PhD from fieldwork to submission and one of my favourite days, Day 1376, the day I graduated. I have taken photos of the changing seasons, our holidays, and a photo of the two of us together each anniversary. There have also been lots of “what am I going to take a photo of today?” days where I gather my now 14 year old cat, Minou, for a quick snap or take a photo of whatever I’m reading or the headlines that day. I’ve documented closing the door on academia and starting my own business; my attempts (and many failures) at growing vegetables on our balcony and my fascination with the way light falls on the walls at different times of the year. I am obsessed with the minute details of my every day, because it is the little details and the ordinary moments that make up our days and our lives. I’m sentimental and I’m nostalgic. Taking photos helps me to hold on, to slow down, and to make time stop when it feels like it’s falling through my hands.

I love being able to chart the different phases of my photography too. From the crunchy, over-saturated early days to my bleached-white, low-contrast phase in 2013, through a few different cameras and lots of different photographic subjects. I have learned that I like a 50mm lens best of all, and that I enjoy both film and digital photography. I have learned that I don’t particularly enjoy landscape photography, but that I love making photos of everyday scenes. I quite enjoy portraits too. I have taken hundreds of photos of Ed and Minou, but there are very few photos of me in the collection on my own, as I am still not comfortable in front of the camera.

My ability to commit to taking a photo every single day has been a surprise to me, too. I was never able to keep a written diary and have destroyed every analogue or digital attempt at a diary via formatting or fire. I think it’s probably because my formal education involved a lot of writing, analysis, and scrutiny. That’s the nature of a PhD in the social sciences. I overthink and overanalyse every single word I say and write, but with photography and with filmmaking I am free. I have no formal training in either as I am entirely self-taught, so I don’t feel bound to rulebooks as I never opened one. It’s liberating, and I feel like I’ve finally found my voice.

I am so glad that I started a photo diary all those years ago as whatever format you choose, it’s wonderful to be able to look back at a collection of the mostly ordinary and occasionally magical days that make up your life. I love looking back and seeing the years go by, recalling who I was, how I felt, and what I was doing at any given moment in time. There’s beauty in the mundane and the everyday, but I’d miss it if it weren’t for the discipline of taking a moment to pause each day, pick up my camera, and capture the fleeting and ever-changing details of my life.

* The Russian lessons were part of my grant. They didn’t help me much with my Polish other than the odd word which is similar, but they have been helpful in other areas of life. Namely finding my way around the internet as search terms/results that are banned/blocked/restricted in English often turn up the goods when translated into Russian. Helpful when I want to watch the latest episode of a cartoon or TV drama and can’t find it on the English internet.