Days of our lives, in photos: worth much more than 1,000 words

Colleges are exciting places, full of learning and living, but even our best efforts tend to fall short of communicating our campus experiences. But what if schools decided to take a day to document the moments, both large and small, along with the many faces and facets of its community?

This is happening, and the results have been amazing. At SUNY Oswego, we coordinated 24 Hours in Photos from 12:01 a.m. to midnight Friday, Dec. 2. Social media wizard Todd Sanders at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay followed with an awesome One Day on Campus event, run as a final project by his intern Jonathan Eckelberg. As of this writing, Mike Severy at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke was spearheading a day of photos on March 1, as part of the institution’s 125th anniversary celebration.

Content

Most colleges have a challenge with building a photo inventory of real students doing real things. Admissions shots of the photogenic and diverse gathering of girls under trees almost have become stock photography. Efforts to collect photos of students exploring all the opportunities on campus always seem harder than it should be. But a day in photos, with multiple contributors, is like a daylong scavenger hunt for real images.

At Oswego, I worked with a half-dozen student interns and volunteers — as well as community submissions. Our student photographers captured everyday students in their classrooms, showing their artwork, building projects in a technology lab, rehearsing in the College Choir and taking part in a formal Night at the Ellington event. From Jessica Bagdovitz’s shot of the Laker women’s hockey team lined up for national anthems to Chris McPherson’s quietly evocative picture of a student riding a Centro bus, results often were both authentic and artistic.

At UWGB, the project chiefly came together via Facebook, where we asked the community to contribute photos. “If you want kids to play, don’t make them leave the playground to do it,” Sanders said. “By no means is Facebook perfect, but the goal was to generate participation. If they saw a friend playing/posting, they would be more likely to play, too.”

Sanders and Eckelberg created a video that they embedded on their Current Students website, came up with challenges such as what students had for breakfast or the tallest stack of books, then provided incentives ($10 gift cards) to use throughout the 24 hours. They also welcomed submissions via a #GB1DAY hashtag on Twitter.

As a result, the project looks more like a day-long party than a chore. “People played. People planked. People Tebowed,” Sanders said. “People had fun. Even without baiting them with gift cards.”

At Oswego, we invited submissions via a Posterous account, a #24hoursinphotos Twitter tag and email. I took the graveyard shift (starting at 12:01 a.m.) but our student shooters, our campus photographer, and a nice pool of submitted photos from students, faculty, and staff carried the day and ran late into the evening.

At UWGB, with the process driven by the community, Sanders made an interesting discovery. “My role as photographer became obsolete once people woke up and took ownership in the project,” he recalled. “I wasn’t expecting that to happen, it was wonderful. It became their project. I don’t think I took a photo after 8 a.m.”

Benefits

In addition to creating content and community, the results produced additional benefits and rewards.

Building alumni pride. When we posted results to Facebook and Twitter, we saw plenty of feedback of the “I remember …” or “Wow! Love the new …” variety. Photos are a visceral medium where graduates can look at classrooms, dining halls and performance spaces they once trod and relive the memories. Or they can marvel over new buildings or modern technology that represent a college moving forward.

Providing a rich experience for prospective students. All the viewbooks and slick admissions videos and virtual tours in the world have merit. But to look at pictures of students in a choir, exhibiting their own art, staffing tables for organizations, doing a flying chest bump after scoring a goal or putting their knowledge to work are unquestionably authentic, tangible and identifiable to any student. Even a picture of three members of our Student Association Volunteer Ambulance Corps, on the job in the middle of the night, shows the level of dedication and involvement of our students in a way you won’t normally see.

 Recognizing unsung heroes. Looking for photo opportunities in the wee hours allowed me to meet people who keep our campus running, but do their work anonymously. For instance, I met George O’Neil, the overnight custodian in Penfield Library, who makes sure the much-used building is ready for students the next morning. Duane Hyde masterfully passed a Zamboni over the Campus Center’s ice surface at 3:12 a.m. for another full day of use. Then there the fine and friendly folks who work in our campus bakery to produce thousands of baked goods every day.

Sharing

The projects really gain legs when shared and are sharable via social media. Our main work involved the timeline service Dipity (where the original timeline lives), which you can embed into web pages and easily share through various social channels. However, Dipity has had outages and capacity issues, so we also made a Flickr photoset as a backup.

In addition to real-time dissemination on Facebook, UWGB assembled Flickr sets for every hour. The team also assembled a full Flickr set which includes a location-based feature so you can see a map of geotagged photos.

“The main goal for the project was to get people to play, to contribute, to share,” Sanders said. “Our main FB page rarely gets photos posted to it. The hope was students would see how easy it was to share and readily play the next time we called out to them for photos. A few people throughout the 24 hours asked how they could submit photos from their mobile device, THAT was the real win.”

Looking ahead

For the project at UNCP, Severy and the anniversary planning committee “identified a day mid-week that has a variety of events taking place on campus,” he said. “We are mapping events and finding gaps in the types of things the campus would like to see that isn’t normally accessible to the general public — executive council meeting, classes, performer green room access, athletic locker rooms.”

The outreach includes contacting event sponsors to solicit access to any photographers and content and/or to promote organizers taking and sharing pictures. Laying this foundation of awareness, and building a team to make it happen, reflect larger goals.

“The goal is to share the vibrancy and culture of UNCP and perhaps expose people to the myriad of things that happen on a daily basis that they may not otherwise see,” Severy said. “Additionally, we hope to engage the community in photographing these events so they take a critical eye towards exploring their campus.”

Sanders sees the project as something worth repeating with the lessons learned from the inaugural effort. “I like how the challenges played out,” he said. “I think we’ll explore that element more, maybe something that requires collaboration over a longer time period.”

At SUNY Oswego, any future efforts would likely adapt UWGB’s model to use Facebook and make it more interactive. While Zamboni drivers and campus bakeries are great subjects, the challenge is to not merely repeat these shoots. We may do some shorter projects covering special campus events, similar to what the University of Wisconsin-Madison did with its 2011 Winter Commencement.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, we’ve learned this much: doing a day in photos can speak volumes about your campus.