The Digital Journalist
America 24/7:
Extraordinary Images of One American Week
November 2003

by Rick Smolan and David Elliot Cohen

A hundred years from now, historians may pose questions such as these: What was America like at the beginning of the third millennium? How did life change after the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing war on terrorism? How was America affected by its corporate accounting scandals and the high-tech boom and bust? Was it still the land of opportunity? Could Americans still express themselves freely?

America 24/7
A Family Photograph Album
Americans have maintained a long love affair with their lives and images.
by Patrick Cox, Ph.D.
We created America 24/7, the largest collaborative photography project in history, to address these questions and countless others. Since so many Americans seem concerned about how their country is portrayed by Hollywood, Madison Avenue, the media, and government, we decided this would be a propitious time to invite Americans to tell their own stories, unfiltered, with digital photographs of their families, friends, and communities.

Over the course of a seven-day period, May 12-18, 2003, more than 25,000 professional and amateur photographers, including 36 Pulitzer Prize winners, were issued an unusual challenge: Go out and create a visual time capsule. Make extraordinary images of everyday American life.

Like any wee, this particular week's momentous and mundane events were reflected in headlines: Record Number of Tornadoes in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle; Candidate Bush Files Papers for 2004 Race; Trapped in Heat in Texas Truck, 18 Immigrants Die; Lawsuit Seeks to Ban Sale of Oreos to Children; Gramps a Grad at Age 95. Other events, that didn't make the headlines, were reflected in the quotidian statistics of American life: 78,000 Americans were born, 45,000 married, 48,000 died. Hundreds of thousands more graduated from high school or college. Millions celebrated birthdays.

Watch a movie about the America 24/7 project.

But America isn't merely the sum of its headlines and statistics. America is a super-sized idea -- a dreamspace -- where individuals are free to practice Catholicism, or Buddhism, read Karl Marx or Nora Roberts, protest a war or join the military, work for a giant corporation or launch a new venture in their garage. Within its wide margins, the American nation manages to encompass an inexplicably complex yet workable whole.

The hundreds of thousands of digital images that poured into America 24/7's website comprise an unprecedented view of Americans in celebration and sadness; in action and contemplation; at work, home and school. Our decision to make this an all-digital project reflects a critical tipping point in the history of photography: 2003 is the first year Americans purchased more digital cameras than film cameras. For the first time since its invention more than 150 years ago, photography is being transformed -- from chemicals to bits -- and the transformation is profound. Taking, utilizing, and particularly sharing photographs will never be the same.

To mark this sea change, all of the America 24/7 professional, amateur, and student photographers shot with digital cameras. Their pictures were stored, transmitted, edited and laid out digitally. We have created large-scale collaborative photography projects for two decades, but the digital technology behind America 24/7 enabled a new inclusiveness. For the first time, we could combine amateur and student photographs with the work of leading journalists. This exuberant democracy of images, reflected on the following pages, is a revelation.

Nearly every 24/7 photographer stayed close to home and chose his or her own subjects. We asked our shooters to capture the essence of daily life in their communities. And we encouraged them to find a household where they could hang their hats for a week and record the texture of modern family life. We also asked them to address larger themes of work, recreation, faith, community and the natural landscape.

Then we recruited picture editors from America's leading magazines and newspapers, including National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. They had to select the best 300 images from the hundreds of thousands submitted. This was an incredibly difficult task. At times we all felt as if we were forced to choose which of our children would make it into the lifeboat. For this Digital Journalist feature, we turned to the Advanced Photo Journalism class students at The University of Texas, to pare down the hundreds of photographs in the book to our selection of 50. For these young photojournalists, it was a rare opportunity to second guess the best photo editors in the business.

America 24/7 is not intended to be fair. Not every state, race, religion -- or photographer -- is represented; nor is every point of view included. This is not a book for tourists or one created by a public-relations firm to explain America to the world. It's a visual patchwork, woven by Americans from every walk of life. Just as Roy Stryker's landmark Farm Security Administration photography project shaped our collective memory of the 1930s, we hope the compelling photographs in America 24/7 will help shape future generations' understanding of this poignant and pivotal period in American history. We expect that this family album will inspire, amuse, and on occasion, disturb you. As a mirror of everyday American life, this is as it should be.

© Rick Smolan and David Elliot Cohen