Noah Kalina took a picture of himself every day for 20 years – and will until he dies
by Tobias van Schneider
It started as a side project. Back in 2000, Brooklyn-based photographer, Noah Kalina, decided he would take a photo of himself every day.
Six years later, he compiled the thousands of pictures into a timelapse video and shared it on YouTube. The video promptly blew up the internet.
On January 11, 2020, two decades after he first started the project, Kalina updated the video and went viral again. The 8-minute piece, set to a somber piano score, tells a story as backgrounds change and Kalina ages in seconds, all while his eyes remain fixed on the viewer. It is intimate and unsettling in a way you can't quite put your finger on, like intruding on something you weren't meant to see.
And he plans to continue the project forever.
Here we talk with Kalina about what motivated to commit to this never-ending side project, the unexpected effects of going viral and the difference between selfies and self-portraits.
You were taking selfies long before we had the term “selfies.” Why did you decide to do this at the beginning? What sparked the idea back in January 2000?
It was a few things…
The first time I saw a digital camera I was completely enamored by it. This was 1999 and I was shooting film and walking to the photo lab to develop color film. The promise that I could skip those steps and shoot an unlimited amount of photographs was just so perfect. I already had a computer and was messing around with Photoshop (5.0). I knew I had to get a digital camera. I ended up with a Sony DCR PC100. It was actually more of a video camera (that was okay, I liked making silly videos with friends) but it shot stills (640x480!) onto a 16mb memory stick and that was good enough for me. I honestly had no idea what a megapixel even was.
I have a memory of sitting in my dorm room at college and looking at snapshots of myself in high school. I remember wondering, when did this physical change take place? It doesn’t feel like I changed that much but from 16-19, it was obviously very drastic. I looked at this new digital camera that I had, which happened to have a flip screen so I could see myself, and I was like, I am going to photograph myself, every day… forever.
Lastly and possibly most importantly, when I was 15 I saw the film Smoke written by Paul Auster and Directed by Wayne Wang. The scene where Auggie shows Paul his photo album. This is me and you right now:
Social media & smartphones have allowed us to capture the ephemeral and remember moments we would have forgotten otherwise – the mundane, day-to-day stuff we didn’t photograph before.
You’ve essentially been doing that for 20 years. Have these photos served as a diary of sorts for you? Can you remember taking most of them or do they bring specific memories to mind?
I can basically look at any shot in this project and know exactly where I was. Certain photos provide details and I can recall who I was with or what I was up to. It’s the perfect diary for me since I’ve never really enjoyed writing.
I sometimes think about the kids raised in a social media world from the start. Every move they make is documented online, from the moment their parents post their naked baby photos on Instagram. What effect do you think this will have on us, either positive or negative?
Oh man. Good luck, kids! I have no idea. The stuff my friends and I did in high school and college was super embarrassing. Do you remember JNCO jeans? I wore those. I am so happy none of that exists online. But maybe this is all so normal now it’s accepted. I have no idea. I don’t really think much about them as I am too busy trying to work out my own psychological issues.
"I think it forces people to confront their own mortality. We all know how this ultimately ends."
It seems we look back on pictures of our younger selves with more empathy than we felt in the moment the picture was taken. We have perspective with age. The flaws we saw in ourselves before seem minor now. We know how that thing we were worried about worked out in the end. Has this project changed the way you see yourself in any way over the past 20 years?
I honestly think I am mostly the same person just with a little more experience. I really thought I’d grow out of all of my insecurities but they are still there. When I look at this project I mostly am critiquing myself from a physical perspective. I don’t know what I was thinking when I cut my hair short. And some of my interior design choices have been suspect. That said, I am always trying to do the best I can!
When I look past the surface stuff and shed my insecurities I do feel proud of that guy. He’s doing what he always wanted to do.
People describe the new video as “haunting” and “stirring” and “heavy.” What do you think it is about the video that gets this response? Did you expect this reaction?
The most interesting thing about this project is when I first published the still photographs on a website (around 2002) people HATED it. Nobody understood it. I’d say 90% of the feedback was negative. I’d get emails telling me that I was a narcissistic asshole.
Once it turned into a time-lapse, the reaction completely flipped. I suppose it was easier to see what was going on. People definitely respond to the dedication. I also think it forces people to confront their own mortality. We all know how this ultimately ends.
Many creatives (especially designers, it seems) do daily challenges, for example designing a poster a day or doing one new illustration every day. Very few of us follow through past a week or so. But you did. What’s the secret to staying committed to a daily ritual or side project? And why should we?
I think it’s best to start these projects and never tell anyone. That way you can fail in private. I start way too many projects that I immediately jinx by telling people about them too early on.
Early on with “Everyday," I remember justifying this project to myself by saying it was just “practice.” I always wanted to be a photographer and I knew the best way to get better at something was to do it every day. I would take at least one photo every day, even if it was just my face. I wasn’t trying to make good photographs of myself. I never really properly lit myself or tried to flatter myself. I just clicked a shutter, but for some reason it felt like it was helping. And maybe it actually was.
I highly recommend long-term daily projects. I love when people do 365 photo projects. I think you just need to make it easy on yourself and hopefully fun. My time commitment to this project is less than a minute a day and maybe 20 minutes once a month to archive it (totally not fun).
This isn’t the first time you’ve gone viral. The benefits are obvious, but I’m guessing there are relative downsides too, trolls being the first that comes to mind (although every YouTube comment I’ve seen on your videos is uncharacteristically positive). Are there any negatives to being a viral sensation?
Going viral is a blessing and a curse. The attention is nice and flattering and I love how it brings attention to all of my work, but it’s very distracting. Even though this is the third time now, I am still up all night reading emails and comments (I know this is unhealthy but I can’t help myself).
That said, the internet has changed so much, more so from 2012 to 2020 than how it was from 2006 to 2012. There is so much “content” now, I feel like this current wave is much smaller and less intense even though the project is bigger than it has ever been.
Some might consider the selfies we all take and share today self-indulgent/absorbed or shallow. Others might argue they are a form of expression or self-actualization. What do you think?
As we know, the term “selfie” didn’t exist when I started this project. It is and will always be a “self-portrait” to me. I actually find the term “selfie” flippant. And most “selfies” are. If you’re just posting photos of yourself so people think you are cool or attractive and are searching for likes, it’s absolutely shallow and self-indulgent.
That said, I don’t want to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do. If taking a photo of yourself with an outstretched arm and then immediately posting it on Instagram brings you joy, go for it.
Back in 2007, you attended an exhibit titled “We’re All Photographers Now,” which illustrated how technology has made photography more accessible to everyone. It’s been more than a decade since then and that has only become more true. As a professional, how do you feel about this? Do you think it’s hurt or undercut the work of professional photographers?
I was an early digital photo/camera adopter and I started my career photographing for websites and making a living (sort of) doing it. I have no doubt the older photographers looked down at me thinking I was destroying the profession. Now I’m the older photographer looking at what the kids are doing and I’m like, these kids are destroying what I thought I destroyed!
"I think our best bet is to just keep trying to make things that interest and fulfill us. And really keep our mouths shut and let the work do the talking."
Some questioned the artistic merits of projects like this, implying the ease with which you can make them or the self-focused nature disqualifies them as art. Your project challenged that old-school notion.
When apps and technology allow us to make all kinds of things in just seconds (think: TikTok videos, Instagram stories, the 1 Second Everyday app) what, in your opinion, qualifies something we produce as “art?”
I’m not all that interested in the debate over what is and what isn’t art. Some of the people making “content” for these platforms are insanely talented. They are certainly entertaining. Performance is art. Comedy is art. Lip dubbing is… well I don’t know. But some of these people are amazing lip dubbers. The creativity is wondrous.
I think really good art is often rooted in concept and intent. But it doesn’t have to be. I know a lot of people who are incredible craftspeople who I think are incredible artists but they would never consider themselves such. A guy built a deck for me on my house last year and I was like, “Dude you’re a damn artist,” but he just dismissed the suggestion. His work took skill and craft and dedication but never in a million years would he consider himself an artist.
We all approach the concept of art differently. It’s obviously very complicated. I am just going to leave the final decision to the art historians. I think our best bet is to just keep trying to make things that interest and fulfill us. And really keep our mouths shut and let the work do the talking. Nothing ruins good art more than the artist trying to explain it.
Last question: Your hair has remained consistently fantastic over the last 20 years. What’s your secret?
I am flattered you think so since you are my beard idol. Honestly, I don’t do anything special. I shower every other day and I only shampoo my hair once or twice a month. Just like the little kid who started taking a photo of himself 20 years ago, I am still a dirtbag.