Photo of the Year Project

Over the years I’ve taken to documenting more and more of my life with the increasingly convenient camera technology we have. I began this work in earnest around 2012, after making friends with someone who tried to take at least one photo each day. While I don’t take photos with the same frequency, it’s not unusual for me to generate around 1,000 photos per year, albeit mostly of dogs. In 2022 I thought it might be fun to award the title of “Photo of the Year” to one photo each year, including retroactive awards spanning back to my earliest digital photos from 2008. Although there’s no defined rubric for my judging, it’s my hope that this project will, over time, highlight the development of (1) my personal style, (2) the technology that facilitates this, and (3) a unique quality of each year. While I won’t change winners once they’ve been selected, I may modify award descriptions following the clarity of hindsight.

2021

Since the pandemic, people have been forced to find creative ways to entertain themselves. One of these innovations was Electric Mile, a “Drive-Thru Audiovisual Adventure from the minds behind Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC).” The goodie bags for this event, also picked up through a mask-enforced drive-through, came with a pair of cheap diffraction glasses, which I used to take this shot. The radio station (coordinated to the surrounding installations) can be seen in the car’s dashboard in the lower left of the shot, a reminder of the barriers still in place between participants and the outside world.

2020

I took this photo because I thought the Granville Island Market, our last stop before leaving Vancouver, was pretty. I wasn’t trying to get the framing perfect, although I consciously decided that the worker would improve the shot. I really just wanted a record of the place. This photo wins, however, because of the out-of-frame context. News of Covid had been spreading, and the fear of the unknown had left the city emptier than it would have otherwise been. People are in this shot, but they’re spread far and wide. Fear was in the air. For my partner and I, this was a dream vacation. It wasn’t until the day after we returned home that things got serious, when Tom Hanks announced his Covid diagnosis and we (the collective American consciousness) realized we were all doomed. In less than a week, the world shut down. It would be over a year before I would see people getting groceries without a mask on.

2019

This photo is a record of the vast 2019 Super Bloom and its reach into the high desert, but it’s part of a larger narrative that unintentionally echoes last year’s winner. Here too is a yellow road line, but sparse in its application, surrounded by dark asphalt. Instead of an imposing Neo-Romanesque building, there’s nothing but the empty desert stretching 20 miles to the San Gabriel Mountains. A short-lived winter snowfall is replaced with a short-lived winter explosion of color. This was an isolating trip for many reasons and a dramatic departure from the previous three years spent in the East Coast’s megalopolis. I’d made a rash decision to pick up and leave, exchanging possible futures for another, and amidst all these stark contrasts, I found comfort in the explosion of flowers and pollinators that California welcomed me home with.

2018

Yale is the most beautiful campus in the world, and more so in winter. And while I took hundreds of photos of every nook and cranny of its buildings, across three seasons for two years, and most of them are visually striking, all but a few lack a transcendent quality that sets them apart. In my mind, this year’s winner replaces depth (the third dimension) with time (the fourth dimension). Snow is suspended in mid-air, the bright yellow road lines are temporarily revealed due to a passing snow plow, and the gate light will soon turn off as morning becomes noon. The grand building behind it, for all its three-dimensional solidity, is flattened into a backdrop for this singular moment that can never be exactly replicated.

2017

This year’s winner earns its spot for a handful of reasons. The moment itself is special: spending July 4th at the National Mall with friends, all taking a break from our summer internships. Compositionally, I enjoy the red glow of the fireworks mirrored on the phones within the shot, as well as the eager photographer silhouetted against the Washington Monument and Capitol Building. There’s a contradiction here between individualism and collectivism, all taking place in this most American setting, reinforced by the implication that this exact picture is replicated in hundreds of different ways. Even more subjectively, I like the outermost sparks that form a larger sphere around the chrysanthemum explosions, flourishes which remind me of the flecks of paint thrown onto my favorite Sargent painting. This is a triumphant moment disguised in a low quality iPhone photo.

2016

It’s important to emphasize that I don’t apply any filters to my photos. I’m not opposed to them, but with my visual memory being as fragile as it is, I like to know that what I see is what I truly saw, or even just what I meant to see when I took that photograph. And if I take enough mundane photos, which by 2016 I’m certainly doing, I get the occasional diamond in the rough. In this year’s winner, a beautiful afternoon at the beach is ruined by a swift moving fog. This scene of disrupted leisure off Santa Monica’s pier would have mirrored my own thoughts about returning to the East Coast.

The honorary mention was taken with haste, as even today I don’t understand how Yale’s dining halls work, and I was pretty sure I was trespassing in some way. While I regret not pushing my luck for a better shot, I probably would have just churned out another boringly symmetric photo.

2015

From 2014 and on, I caught the panorama bug. I think this is the best one I ever managed to take, thanks to the beautiful scene, the color coordination of clothing and water, and the rock-like stillness of my companion and our surroundings. The list of components that make this image work found their antithesis in a panorama attempt made in the following year, pictured below for reference.

2014

The first place I ever felt at home in was Prague. I crossed the Charles Bridge, pictured here, every weekday on my way to and from my internship. On the weekends, its cobblestone path was an integral part of my running route. I willed myself into becoming a local. During the busy hours, I passed by tourists and made a point to not understand the English words they used. I pointedly ignored the caricature artists and souvenir stalls. I passed by countless wedding photo shoots and one pornography shoot with aloofness. One time, on a morning different from the one pictured here, I watched a city worker piss on the great gate. Always channeling the bridge, I remained undisturbed.

2013

There’s going to be a point in time (2015) where I realize my point and shoot camera is garbage. I haven’t reached that point yet. This is one of the infinitely small moments that in aggregate make up the 24 hour-long trip to Portland via the Coast Starlight train route. Having spent over a decade in the sun bleached world of Southern California, Mexico, Israel, and Brazil, this photo captures my first impression of the Pacific Northwest. If you look closely the details are there, but the motion blur from the train and the distorted light of a cheap lens unexpectedly revealed the Oregon countryside as I felt it in that moment.

2012

This image has stayed burned into my mind for over a decade. After my camping partner, feeling the first waves of food poisoning from some bad Chinese food, drove us up the treacherous mountain road, in the late night, amidst pouring rain to our campsite, after we tried to sleep through the relentless rain and wind at what felt like the edge of the world, we woke up to find the sky beneath us.

2011

I did not enjoy my time in Salvador. After spending nearly four months there, it took me several years of living in suburbia to work up the desire to visit another country. However, the beautiful beaches off Sete de Setembro, the warm Atlantic water, and the handful of friends I made while living there helped break through the overwhelming sense of alienation I experienced at the time. Among this small group of friends was someone who I considered to be my exact opposite, mainly because he never seemed out of place. This photo shows him returning a soccer ball to a group of young students playing a game. The tall sea wall, the fence on top, the language barrier — if he saw the same obstacles I saw, he always managed to ignore them.

2010

I never had as much difficulty photographing street life as I did in Israel. It might be because this was my first time taking photos in a foreign country, or because this was my first time using a point and shoot camera, which made embarrassing noises just turning on, or because there were a couple dozen rambunctious UCSB students behind me, or even because cameras weren’t as ubiquitous as they’ve since become, thanks to cellphones. Or it might just be because Israelis in particular aren’t comfortable with pictures being taken. For any or all of the reasons above, I managed to accomplish the opposite of what I was going for with this shot, and I drew the gaze of almost every person in the frame. This photo wins because it makes me feel extremely uncomfortable.

With the context now in mind, I have included a rare honorable mention for this year, as I believe the subject of this photo showed true devotion to his faith by ignoring my picture taking.

2009

A follow-up to the winning shot from 2008, I always appreciated the Antelope Valley’s landscape after a transformative rain or snow. The desert, dead and brown for 366 days of the year, can be stunningly beautiful when the conditions are right. On this particular day, the hills offered their own take on autumn.

2008

I spent my adolescence bounded in by the hills that surround the Antelope Valley. For most of that time, I didn’t think about what was on the other side of them. My house was situated at the base of the southern foothills, about as high up as any house could get, and so my attention was always directed downward to the valley floor, where school, friends, and girls were. Vaguely, I knew the freeway to Santa Clarita was nearby, and further, Los Angeles. I knew the area was a risk for fires, having once watched helicopters battle flames peaking over the nearest hill. So I expected more of the same, and it took a lot of teenage angst to bother hopping the service access fence for the aqueduct, to follow the steep road to the base of the great watercourse, to brave the ghosts of tweakers in the drainage tunnel beneath it, and then continue up the steepest part of the hill. However, when I finally reached the summit, I found a pleasant trail, oversupplied with trail markers and shaded seating, and a view of the comparably lush Leona Valley. I felt robbed. My great solo adventure had brought me to a rest stop for a much easier trail serving people with a much greater perspective.