Life through a lens: Blipfoto founder Joe Tree's 10 years of photo sharing

In 2004 Joe Tree decided to tell his story one photo and one day at a time and started his own daily photo journal. As The Drum’s Cameron Clarke catches up with him 10 years later, not only has he thousands of snapshots to show for it, with just a fraction of these shown here, his blog has grown to become global online photo-sharing community Blipfoto.

For 10 years now, Joe Tree has been sharing every day of his life with thousands of complete strangers.

It started on 21 October 2004, with an unassuming photograph of autumn leaves. As a distraction from his day job running a design company, Tree set himself the challenge of taking one photo of his day every single day and sharing it on his own online journal. A decade on and Blipfoto, as it was christened, is not only still going strong – it has become Tree’s livelihood.

“I really thought it would last two weeks and I would get bored of it and do something else,” he says in the airy boardroom of Blipfoto’s office in Edinburgh. “But I found it to be really addictive and captivating and I was going out and looking at the world in a way I hadn’t before.”

Others found it captivating too. His loved ones, and in turn their loved ones, soon started asking for their own accounts so they could try the photo a day challenge, and Blipfoto morphed from one man’s personal project into a small but loyal community and eventually, now, a growing business.

Today “tens of thousands” of active users in more than 170 countries document their everyday lives on their own Blipfoto journals, and together they have shared around five million photographs and posted 29 million comments. The community organises regular meet-ups, and two couples have even married after meeting on the site.

Blipfoto’s members are older than the social media norm. They tend to be in their late 30s or early 40s, and it’s not unusual to find people in their 60s, 70s or older. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever posted content online. “You reach a certain stage of your life when you have kids and you realise we’re not all here forever,” Tree says. “You’re either doing it for yourself because you want to keep a record of your life, or because you want to create something you can hand over to your kids in the future.”

It’s no surprise that Tree’s favourite photo is the one he posted the day his daughter Bella was born. “The whole thing is really about celebrating life. You’re recording little bits of life every day. In a personal sense, the pressure to go and take a picture of something that generally makes you feel good every day is quite uplifting. I already have this 10-year archive – seven of those years are the years that my daughter has been alive on this planet and to be able to hand that over to her is a pretty unique thing.”

Limiting members to posting just one – meaningful – photograph a day, Blipfoto couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the selfie saturated worlds of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. For Tree, that only serves to validate Blip’s purpose. “Over the last 10 years photography has changed from being something we use to keep a record of the most precious moments in our lives and very quickly, almost without us noticing, become a form of instant communication. Snapchat is the ultimate evolution of that.

“I think what’s happened with photography, and what Instagram and Snapchat have done, is really exciting. I’m not anti these things at all. But we’ve lost something along the way, which is that we don’t keep our most precious memories any more. We’re sharing them, but we’re not saving them. That whole experience of going to Boots and picking up your photographs from your holiday, sitting down with your friends and thumbing through them on the sofa was a really precious moment that we’ve lost. I don’t think people are really missing that just yet. Give us another five years and I think it’s suddenly going to hit us.”

One of the ways Blipfoto makes money is by responding to this challenge; its members can turn an entire year of their photographs into a physical photo album. And on a bigger scale, the British Library has recognised the potential future value of Blipfoto’s already vast and fast growing archive, by indexing the site’s entire content every day.

What Tree is working on now is growing Blipfoto in the US. “With all these thousands and thousands of people doing the same thing, this much bigger story emerges. Really what I want to do with Blip over the next 10 years is create this much bigger thing, this collective human history, and make that available to everybody. The way to make that happen is to get Blip into the hands of as many people as possible. I think it would be fantastic to be able to look back on a moment, like the Scottish referendum for instance, and find out what people were saying and thinking.”

All that’s left is for Tree to take his picture of the day – and on this day, day 3,652 of Joe’s journal, yours truly is the subject. “There are days when it’s a drag and it’s 10pm and I’ve got to force myself to do something because I’ve been stuck in front of a screen all day. I just have to take a picture of anything. But I’m still glad that I do it every day. I’m still glad that I make the effort to put this marker down for every day of my life.”

This feature was first published in the 29 October edition of The Drum magazine.

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