Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Burying Random Moments Of My Life In A Jamjar

If you want to get a real flavour of what things were like in the past you need to concentrate on the ordinary and not the extraordinary. Look at the subject of any photo from eighty or a hundred years ago and you get an impression of what your grandfather or your great Aunt Maude may have looked like. But look at the background to the photo, that collection of people, places and objects which were also captured by chance by the camera lens and you get an impression of what life was like. Life wasn't the grand drawing rooms of stately homes, life was the cottage parlour with Uncle John's underwear drying on the creel. Life wasn't the once-a-year trip to the seaside, life was the daily early morning walk to the mill or the factory. 

That insightful group of social researchers - the Mass Observation Movement - understood this. They sent their amateur reporters not to record great speeches or practiced sermons, but into the back street pubs to carefully copy down random conversations (their 1943 book The Pub And The People remains one of the most telling books of the twentieth century in my eyes).

In this modern digital age you might think that the ordinary was being recorded more than ever before. Most of the population walk around with powerful cameras in their pockets and Facebook and Twitter appear to record in detail the minutiae of modern life. But as we scroll past the sixth selfie of Cassie on Facebook this week, we need to remember that, however boringly ordinary it may appear to us, it has been recorded and shared because it is special, because it is untypical of Cassie's life. Add to this the fact that such memories are merely transitory and will be lost when Facebook eventually collapses or you change your mobile phone, or your computer is upgraded, and you begin to realise that, as a generation, we may be leaving less of our ordinary lives behind than any other since the birth of photography.

What we need is a modern, digital equivalent of the old Mass Observation project, and I was delighted to discover, a few days ago, that such an initiative exists. It is called Jamjar Stories and its aim is to "use modern technology to continue the founder's - (of Mass Observation) -project to make 'an anthropology of ourselves". I got an email from the organisation last week asking me if I would be interested in participating and I was delighted to join the growing number of people who are together building a repository of the ordinary by means of short video clips.

My own particular contribution is, in the first place, a series of seven random minutes of my life this week. I have used a random number generator to pick the seven minutes (one for each day somewhere between eight in the morning and midnight) and I am recording what I am doing during that minute and posting to the Jamjar Stories website. Above you can see my video for today when the random minute (10.57am) coincided with me feeding the birds.

Anyone can join the Jamjar Stories initiatives: all you need is a half decent mobile phone and a life that is ordinary. Most of us have that.


  1. Fascinating! I recently read the diary of a British woman who was part of a project of writing a diary during the war. She continued her after, into the fifties or sixties, and it has been published. Of course, I cannot remember her name, but you may know it. The book was simply about saving and sharing and kindness and sacrefice, at the level of a household or a village.

  2. Well, you're right...Things in the digital age can collapse and disappear, as in the case of lost documents when one transitions to a new operating system for the IMAC or PC.It appears younger folks think Facebook will last forever, which is both funny and sad at the same time. Thanks for sharing your Jamjar video. Best to you and GLW.

  3. I've always wondered about how people lived at various times. I can put together a few ideas about my grandparents. Like most other people I wish I'd listened to more of what they said.

  4. It is true. Our generation especially next generation is not going to have a hard copy record of our/their lives. Photographers now are telling us to print your favourites. The jam jar project sounds fun.

  5. Good idea. If I was seeing a short of my grandfather's life, say feeding the chickens in the backyard, I would want to see him too. Do you ever get yourself into the photos?

  6. I cannot see your video for some reason...but I will imagine you feeding the birds! Sounds like a wonderful project!

  7. Is that a headcam you're wearing, Alan?

    Snazzy watch - looks digital too.


Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...