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Breathing Life Into The Common Camera

December 2nd, 2011

A year ago today, we reached our fundraising goal for the Common Camera Project in 24 hours. I wrote this piece a few months ago as a short reflection on the whole ordeal.  Thanks to everybody who jumped on board, helped out, assembled cams, spread the word, and provided general cheer. It really shook things up for me, and it’s been a wonderful adventure ever since.

There I was, sitting on my living room floor in a circle of highly capable soon-to-be Berkeley grads applying sticker label after sticker label to disposable cameras. We were only half way done, but already on hour five. My lovely roommate and longtime childhood friend, Sean, stood up amidst the carnage of paper bits and child-sized scissors to announce, “Man… Kevin sure is lucky he has friends.”

The Common Camera Project is a social art experiment that’s distributed over 300 disposable cams to be passed from person to person around the world. Each unique “Common Cam” comes in a nifty cardboard box and is labeled with a simple set of instructions:

1. Take a pic of something that inspires you
2. Pass the camera on to someone you trust
3. If you’re last, mail it back to us.

As of today, cameras have been “checked-in” as far as Alaska, Kenya, India, Brazil, Vietnam, Moroco and the Netherlands as well as all across the U.S.

This wasn’t what the project originally looked like to me. For me, it started as a curious question: What would happen if I gave a stranger a disposable cam and told them to take a pic and pass it on? That’s all. It was a silly question–that sounded more like a wedding reception or a photographic disaster waiting to happen–that I sat on, forgot about, and let simmer for over six months before doing anything about it.

What would change is that I eventually took this simple sideproject seriously. I didn’t’ start working on it because someone told me to, or as part of a job, or to find a girlfriend (for the most part). I started Common Cam and roped in some amazing friends because I wanted to create something just because I believed it was meaningful.

I think we search for reasons a lot to rationalize how to expend our efforts. I’ll read this because I need to know it for work or I’ll put this together to make some money. But as of late, I’ve come to believe that some of the most fulfilling experiences emerge from applying that same level of hustle, structure, critical thinking to a personal project just because it naturally sticks with you.

Things changed when I started pulling in my friends. I think it’s when you’re willing to solicit honest feedback, and bring in some relative expertise that your curious question or idea becomes something more.

And in the following months, Common Cam (which wasn’t even the name at the time), would transform to involve a Kickstarter campaign, a website for people to share their story, and a mass-mailing of hundreds of tiny packages at the Post Office. All of this was in large thanks to good people willing to make their mark and badass friends willing to spend a Saturday completing incredibly remedial tasks.

You should ask them, but I don’t think they did it for the free pizza. I think they helped out because they saw something worthwhile. It doesn’t matter if it’s an idea big or small (in fact I think starting smaller is better) as long it resonates with you and you’re willing to take it out of your head and ask someone else about it.

For us, we patiently await the return of most our cameras. Who knows how many we’ll get back, but the project has already given me so much more than I expected, most significantly an intoxicating taste of how it feels to work on something just because it feeds your soul.

I may not have any more cameras to send out right at this moment, but I’ll try my hardest to at least pass along that same infectious feeling to you in the meantime.

Tagged: Common Cam, Common Camera Project, disposable cameras