How I Will Publish One Million Photographs Before I Die

Waiting for the Mother Ship -- Death Valley, CA

My friend Chris Guillebeau sent me an email this morning about my uploads to Flickr. One of the things I love about Chris is that like me he is a big dreamer/achiever. For those of you who don’t know him, you should get to know him. He’s a huge motivation and someone who can help you achieve great things as well. Chris wrote up a really nice interview on my photography a few years back.

One of the things that Chris wanted to do was to visit every country in the world by April 7, 2013. For this goal he is using the United Nations list of 193 member states. You know what? He’s visited 192/193 so far. WOW! His Brief Guide to World Domination should be required reading for every person in the world. It should be taught to students especially.

I sincerely believe human beings are capable of so much more than they think they are. Unlocking our true potential and power comes from some very basic tools and techniques that can be learned. In 2005 I read a book that dramatically changed the way I think about my own life by Brian Tracy called Focal Point. I’d encourage you to buy this book and read it. It’s probably the most important book I’ve ever read. If you’ve got kids buy it for them and give it to them as well. It teaches you how to accomplish great things.

One of the things that I’ve decided that I want to do with my own life is to publish one million photographs before I die. When I talk about publishing a million photographs, I’m not talking about simple shutter actuations — I’ve already taken over a million frames. Anyone can push a shutter a million times. You could probably train a monkey to do this. Anyone can even publish a million meaningless photo clicks to the web — many in fact already have.

My quest is not simply quantity over quality. What I’m focused on is publishing one million *quality* photographs that I believe in and care about as personal art — photos that I can be proud of. Each photo I choose to publish is carefully selected amongst many different frames from a shoot. Each photo is individually worked with, processed, edited with software, keyworded, and frequently hand titled and geotagged (although not always, for those last two points). Occasionally I will create more than one version of a single frame, but each photo is unique and different.

Although I publish my photos to many different sites on the web, Flickr is where I’m presently maintaining my larger body of work. What a deal Flickr is — unlimited high res photos for $24.95/year. Nobody comes close to touching this. In addition to this great value, Flickr comes with great presentation tools, an awesome new iPhone app and a pretty terrific social network too.

At present I’ve published 79,783 photographs to Flickr. In addition to these published photos, I’ve got an archive of about 22,000 fully completed and finished photos in a folder ready to go to Flickr. Each day I publish about 30 more of these to the site, pretty much at random — or about 11,000/year.

Which brings me back to Chris’ email earlier this morning. Chris is working on a new book right now and for the book had asked me some questions last month about my photography. He was following up today to confirm that last year I published about 11,000 new photos to Flickr — which I’m going to confirm with him shortly after finishing this post — but in considering this, I realize that the 11,000 number for 2012 is problematic. It’s problematic because if you assume that I continue on at this pace, I will need to live 84 more years to realize my goal of 1,000,000 photos. At age 45 today, it is highly unlikely that I will live to be 129, and so at my present pace, this sets my goal up for failure if people take my publishing rate today at face value.

My goal is much more complex than simply 11,000 photos per year for the rest of my life though. I’ve thought about my lifetime goal for many, many hours and my plan to achieve it is more complicated than a simple number for 2012 might suggest.

I’ve actually worked out my lifetime achievement goal in rough form with a spreadsheet as I’ve developed my thinking. At present what I plan on doing is increasing my publishing rate of photos by 2% per year during the next 10 years. The reason why I’m publishing less photos today is primarily because I’m so focused on actually shooting the photos today. I want to spend the time in my life when I’m most physically fit shooting the most. I also think that time/age frequently add interestingness to many photos. So I’d rather capture photos here and now today than in the future.

If I increase my publishing 2% each year for the next 10 years (something I’m very confident I’d be able to do even with my current unpublished archive alone) I should have about 200,000 photos published 10 years from now.

10 years from now my last of four children, Kate, will (hopefully) be leaving us for college. With all four of my kids out of the house, I will likely spend less time on my children than I do today. So 10 years from now I will increase my publishing rate even more, about 5% per year — more time for shooting but more importantly, more time for processing. In 10 years I’ll have approximately 370,000 photos published.

20 years from now, not only will my kids (again, hopefully) be done with college, but I’ll also be able to retire from my day job at around age 65. This will then free me up 100% to focus my time and energy on photography. I plan to increase my publishing rate by 10% per year then.

After age 65 the proportional rate of time spent shooting vs. processing will likely flip flop from what I’m doing today as well. Instead of spending 80% of my time shooting and 20% of my time processing, like I do now, I’ll likely spend 20% of my time shooting and 80% of my time processing. When you’re an old man (not that 65 is old, but I’ll get older likely after that) it’s a lot easier to sit in front of a computer and process than it is to run around the country staying up 20 hours at a stretch and shooting.

If I follow this strategy, and the part between age 65 and 80 is super important, I will publish 1 million photos when I am 80. Government life expectancy tables today give me until age 83 to live, but I wanted a few years as a buffer in case I kicked the bucket early.

My biggest challenge in all of this is maintaining my unpublished archive. I want this archive to grow larger and larger and larger, even as my published work grows as well. By growing my unpublished archive larger, I ensure that greater and greater diversity will be represented in my daily publishing. This is a secondary goal of mine, to have as much diversity with what I publish as possible. 20 years from now I like the idea of a photo from 2010 being published alongside a photo from 2015 and one from 2020. I like the idea of my photos been diversified not just by time, but by location (I’ll shoot more and more locations over my lifetime), subject matter (I’ll shoot more and more different things), style (my style will evolve and change), etc.

As I pursue this lifetime goal I’m also cognizant of a powerful tailwind at my back — technology. Technology will make my goal easier and easier to achieve. Already in 2013 I’m blown away at how much faster I can process my work than two years ago. Going from hard drives to flash storage, going from USB to Thunderbolt, faster macs, better cameras, all contribute to ensuring that I will be able to keep pace in the future even as I grow my publishing rate. For the first time, this year, I’ve felt like the only thing holding me back with my processing is actually me. For the first time with the hardware and software advances, I feel like I’m working and editing my work in real time. The future is indeed bright for the future tools that will not only continue to make our images look better, but which will also help us do more faster.

One final note — this goal is intensely personal for me and me alone. I created it, I live it, I fuel it. Over the years I’ve had many who have been critical of my goal. Many don’t understand that quantity can also be quality. Many have expressed an opinion that taking so many photos somehow diminishes my work. Many people have a desire to produce less, not more. All of this is fine. Everyone can do whatever they want. This is just what *I’m* doing. I’m not saying that this is the right path for anyone other than me and me alone. I’m not making a larger statement about photography in general, or saying that people that don’t keep my path/pace are in any way less significant as artists or photographers.

While I’ve personally admired many of the most prolific artist/photographers in the world (Warhol, Eggleston, Winogrand, Friedlander, etc.), I also admire many photographers and artists who make great art in smaller but more intense doses too. Whatever YOU do is fine. Be true to yourself and follow the artist that is inside of you.

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27 Comments

  1. Dylan says:

    It is so amazing that you have set forth on a lifelong journey.. planning the next 40 years of your life around the camera.. can’t wait to see the day you achieve 1,000,000. Enjoy each day in between :)

  2. Abdullah Suleiman says:

    I really hope that you’ll achieve your goal Thomas!
    I’ve been following you from the last year and I’m really impressed by your work.
    After 10 years when I’ll be 24 I’ll be having 3560 photos shared online if I’ll share only one picture per day, do you advice me to share only 1 picture per day or more than 1 ?

  3. nikki says:

    cool~well said. how about technology when you 75 is that you just drop your eyelids twice for a shot and shake your head for an edit tap your heart to add some romance to the picture hehe~ i like your focus!!! best wishes with the expedition !!!what a reflection your work will offer~nice one

  4. Steve Uhlman says:

    Great post Thomas! As I was reading, with the technology tailwind I’m guessing that you will know sooner than 80 that your “ready to publish” folder is at or near 1 mill! As I only 3 years older than you, I look forward to seeing you reach this goal!

  5. Melody Migas says:

    You go guy! Live long and process! I hope I’m around to see it, too. I hope I’m enjoying photography well into my years, also.

    “This is a secondary goal of mine, to have as much diversity with what I publish as possible. 20 years from now I like the idea of a photo from 2010 being published alongside a photo from 2015 and one from 2020″

    I love that you publish earlier years along with current. I like doing it this way, too.

  6. Aaron says:

    I’ve been watching your work for the past few years and have been amazed how consistent the quality has been.

    Right now you are shooting 22.3MP RAW files and have created a considerable backlog that you are processing. In 30 years will you still want to be processing lower resolution imagery when 150-200MP might be the norm for a point and shoot?

    Keep fighting the good fight.

  7. The Seneschal says:

    Just bought the Kindle version of Focal Point. Not sure you got credit as your link went to the hard copy.

  8. I think any goal that gets you out doing something you love is a good thing. The haters will hate.

    I still don’t understand how you find the time. Thanks for the book tip. Sounds like something I should read.

  9. Owen Byrne says:

    Your mention of Thunderbolt has me wondering… are there Thunderbolt card readers available?

  10. Thomas Hawk says:

    Thanks for the kind words all.

    Owen, I recently purchased a Thunderbolt Drobo. DAMN! That thing is so fast it blows my mind. I keep my “to be uploaded” folder backed up on a Drobo and while Firewire and USB worked ok for managing that folder there, it was still slow to refresh sometimes and slower to move files around.

    With the Thunderbolt Drobo everything goes so much faster and so I spend less time moving things around and working with image files than I used to.

    I’ve also found that the built in card reader for my new MacBook Pro seems faster than my previous Firewire external card reader.

  11. The Seneschal says:

    One of the things I find fascinating is how you experience equipment wear, being an edge case. I’m amazed how well your cameras have held up, going way over the recommended shutter clicks. It’s also nice to see how past warranties have got your back, even being an edge case and well over the intended use.

    One thing I’ve often wondered. When you travel to a city to do an intense weekend shooting… it seems like you travel light. Let’s say if you were in Boston and your camera decided to break. Is your plan to just buy a new one? Not having a backup does promote light travel. If you’re in a major city I’m sure getting your hands on a new 5D M-x wouldn’t be too tough.

  12. Clint Sharp says:

    The thought occurred the me that the hardest part of publishing a million photos would not be publishing the photos, but coming up with 1 million titles. Keep up the good work. It’s not a project for me, but I think it’s so totally awesome that someone is doing it.

  13. Michael Ratcliff says:

    Nice read Thomas. I was actually wondering how you were going to accomplish the feat when I saw your Flickr numbers last week. Good Luck :)

    I did notice you forgot to mention one other problem I foresee in the future and possibly not too far… Who is going to spend quality time with Julia? You let her know I will be happy to take her out on the town and be there for her ;) I’m willing to do this for you AND her. I’m a giver :)

  14. Thomas Hawk says:

    Seneschal. I like that. “THE” Seneschal, the one and only.

    I’ve unfortunately been rough on my gear. I’ve had to send it back to Canon many times to be repaired. Lenses more than bodies, but sometimes bodies too. The extended warranties from Mack Camera are great. Similarly I’ve found LowePro does a great job at honoring their lifetime warranties, even when excessive use is sort of the culprit.

    I’m set up with Canon CPS Platinum and so this helps a lot. They give a 60% discount for repairs and also pay for expedited shipping both ways. I’ve been shooting the past 10 years with a 10D, 5D, 5DM2 and 5DM3. The 5D is dead right now. I’ve had one 5DM2 stolen.

    Usually when I travel I’ll bring both my 5DM2 and 5DM3 with me. I’ll shoot with the M3 and oftentimes never use the M2, or if my wife is with me (she comes along sometimes) she’ll shoot the M2.

    I haven’t had to use it yet, but my backup plan for a body is most likely Costco. Costco has one of the best return policies that I know of. If I was in an absolute pinch, I always could buy whatever Canon DSLR was for sale at Costco, use that, and return it within 90 days if I couldn’t find a better option. Like I say, I fortunately have not had to go this route yet. It feels like Costco is everywhere these days.

  15. Thomas Hawk says:

    Michael, haha. Yes, appreciate your contribution there ;)

    Actually Julia comes with me on a lot of the shoots and it’s helpful to have her around. I’m sure she’ll be able to keep up with the pace as we get older together.

  16. Varun says:

    Thomas – what I like most about the article is that you’ve juxtaposed your goals with statistics. I haven’t read the Focal Point – but irrespective of that, I am sure that you have sight set upon your goals and you shall certainly achieve them. I have always admired your work mostly because your images are not overly retouched and it gives them a more real and emotional feel. Your work continues to amaze me and I am sure many more and I wish you the very best.

  17. Nigel says:

    Thomas – not to get all morbid … but do you have a plan for someone else to publish your work just in case the reaper decides 83 is a little bit too long? Given how many unpublished pieces you have I’m sure there are more than a few hidden gems in there …

    I guess in the digital age it raises an interesting question – what happens to our digital life after we are gone (and more importantly who would we trust this to)

    I can hear it now …. and in the matter of Nigel’s estate he leaves his Flickr account to XXX ….. *grumbles from the audience …. * .. “dammit I wanted the car !”

  18. April Joy Gutel says:

    Great thinking…everyone should have a good goal to work on. Proud of you.

  19. Sir Cam says:

    So inspiring. Good luck with project.

  20. mrsth says:

    Takes a village!

  21. You have to dream it before you can accomplish it ! Go for it !

  22. Kevin Keller says:

    Thomas,
    Thanks for sharing not only your goal but your plan to achieve it.
    I understand your rationale for building a stockpile of images for later publication. When you do publish them, I hope you’ll publish in the same sequential order in which the images were shot. It will make for interesting viewing to watch the progression of images throughout your life.

  23. Matt says:

    I’m pulling for you Thomas! I decided a while back that I want my legacy to be photography.

    I’m interested in how you manage, edit and publish such a large volume of work.

    Do you only work on the RAW files and export out of Lightroom? Or do you create Files for Photoshop editing?

    Do you ever write about you process?

  24. Andy gimino says:

    Thomas….i have followed your work and i admire this goal you have set for yourself. Do what you love and follow your own path my friend!

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