One Year Later...
Hello blog folks, it's been a while. One year to be exact... one long crazy year. This time last year, I announced my project called The Big Picture
, hoping, of course, that it would do well. It has really blown me away how well it has done. I will happily take some of the credit, but much of the success belongs to the photographers who consistently deliver amazing imagery that makes choosing and editing both a pleasure and a difficult task.
Now, it's been a year, so I'll take some time to look at the good and the bad. (Warning, this is a bit long). I'll start out with some of the bad, just to get it out of the way.
It's a cliche, but be careful what you wish for. If The Big Picture had flopped as a blog, it would have been much easier to walk away from or take a lax attitude towards things. The more popular it got and more it was praised, I felt that much more need to keep it as good and consistent as I could... That's stressful (first world problems, I know). Add to the mix another fulltime job (my web developer position with the Boston Globe, which is still my primary job), some deadline-driven projects, exponential growth in comment moderation (I approve all the blog comments myself, 91,000 in all so far), a full email inbox, and the constant need to be thinking ahead two or three entries, plus the whole "NY Times threatens to close down the Globe" storyline, and, well, I had a bit of a stress freakout a few weeks ago.
I took some steps to fix certain aspects, let go of some unnecessary baggage, and have been getting a lot of help and support, and things feel a whole lot more manageable now. I especially needed to step back and get my life back into balance (I swung way too far in one direction). I don't spend every night combing through wire photos now, and don't obsessively check comments, and don't stress if I can't answer an email immediately. All in all, I feel much better now than I did a month or two ago. It's got to be this way if I plan to continue long-term with the blog, which I do.
Now, for some of the good. This project has been the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I've ever done professionally. When I'm compiling an entry, gathering the photographs, trying to fit them into a cohesive story, it can often be a very emotional experience. More than once, I've found myself in tears when looking at rough layout of an entry for the first time (that's always a good sign that the entry will be powerful). I really feel like I've tried to take the best advantage I can of this platform I find myself on: 165,000 Google Reader RSS subscriptions, tens of thousands of daily bookmark visitors, Twitter-powered ripple effects, frequent top spots on Digg and Reddit.
I know that it's not me, Alan Taylor they are all interested in - it's the story, the photographs, the "what will it be this time?", the virtual travelogue, the amazing, the sad - the world, wrapped into one story - 30 or 40 photographs to linger on, react to, wonder about. I take that pretty seriously, and try to handle it with care. I hate being manipulated, and try not to run news photo stories from a single source (especially government sources). I also try not to cover the most obvious stories (except when I do cover them). When I run entries on areas of serious conflict, I try to make it as balanced as is possible, sometimes, it's nearly impossible (notice I've not yet done a comparative Israel/Palestine entry).
160 entries later, I think the blog is its own best testament to the level of fairness and diversity in subject matter I've tried to maintain, and I'm proud of that. The success and visibility of the blog has brought a great number of people into my life I would never have known: cancer survivors and the families of those who have lost their battles with cancer, some amazing, generous photographers, both professional and amateur, some great people at NASA, many wonderful everyday people from many corners of the world and believers of many faiths (and non-believers). I am thankful to (almost) every one of them. There are of course, the spoilsports, the trolls of every flavor, and, the blog comment spammers (who deserve a special circle in Hell), but they really are few, and don't spoil too much.
When I say the work is fulfilling, it's not just because it makes me feel good when I hit "publish", it's because of the tremendous and powerful feedback I get in email and comments - words that make me realize the impact the blog can have. For instance, when I ran an entry about Ramadan, I got many heartfelt emails from Muslims living abroad that felt cut off from home and the traditions they grew up with - who found such solace and happiness in the entry, and expressed surprise that such a positive photo story would run in a Western publication. When I feel like I can do some good, to be helpful, that's the most worthwhile. If, by showing photographs, I can help someone like James Nachtwey spread awareness of XDR-TB, drug resistant tuberculosis, and the Hell it's causing amongst HIV-positive patients in poorer nations - or can help humanize some banal news headline like "refugees in the Congo", or bring to the forefront dazzling images from some of our best scientists -- those are the best times.
Aside from the stress of the labor itself and everything else I complained about above, there's one other stress that's harder to quantify - emotional. I've never been on such a constant emotional rollercoaster, storylines like goofballs chasing a roll of cheese down a hill one day followed up by teenagers with assault rifles killing each other the next day. I've had to step out of my comfort zone many times to contact others and ask permission to run their (sometimes very personal) photos, or to take efforts to promote myself, which never comes easy. Also, my access to the raw wire photos has altered my point of view about human nature itself a bit, in a negative way. Daily exposure to thousands of uncensored journalistic photographs has exposed me to levels of brutality that I wasn't fully prepared for, and still have trouble processing sometimes. Civilian population centers that are also war zones make for really disturbing - if moving - photographs. I think you know what I mean. I choose to show a handful of these photos when I think it makes a point without being gratuitous, but that's always hard call.
However, I'm still amazed by the overall situation I find myself in - and am thankful to my lovely wife and kids who keep me sane and grounded. When I recently showed off a photo of me in the latest issue of PDN magazine, my daughter ran around the house yelling "Papa's famous!". Realizing how that might resound badly around the schoolyard, I told her that I was by no means famous, but might be "Internet Famous", and explained the difference, which she readily accepted.
Where will things be in another year? Who knows - it's a volatile world out there, especially for newspapers. I will do my best to keep going, mostly because, at the heart of it all, I really, truly enjoy finding, compiling and sharing these photo stories. I have plans, some small, some larger, which may see the light of day soon, or not - I'm still remembering to take things a little easier, enjoy balance, and not sweat the small stuff.
Thanks everyone for your support - you know who you are.
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