A retrospective: The 24 Hour Project by Sam Smotherman

What’s it like to shoot street photography for a day? You walk a lot of miles. You miss shoots, you get frustrated with the misses, you smile about the gems. I’m not talking about a work day of 8 hours, but a full 24 hours straight.

Here is a story of my 24 hours shooting the streets of San Francisco.

My imagination is good enough to make the short flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco an uncomfortable one. So starts a few days of little rest, a world to monitor, and a city to shoot. I was challenged to shoot a new city by fellow 24 Hour Project participant Vlad, as he would be shooting SF for the first time this year also. The night flight on Thursday turns into early Friday morning conversations. A short rest and a couple of morning naps. I hit the street taking the train from south SF into the city proper.

Not to miss any opportunities to shoot in the city, I head to a photo walk for The Hundreds lead by SF Street Photographer Travis Jensen and Hundred photographer Van Styles. The photo walk starts around 2 and logs about five miles from China Town to the Fairy building. With the group starting from and swelling to over 80, then dwindling to about ten. The SoS Mobb. We head to Mission. I am able to rest for a few, catching a nap about for 20 minutes.

It’s near 9 o’clock Friday evening. In three short hours, my time starts – my 24 hours in SF.

The world has already been at it for hours. Starting in New Zealand, who are now deep into the project. I’m checking the feed @24HourProject. Excitement growing. The plan of where we are going to shoot and when still hasn’t been made. When we have a rough sketch with input from the SOS Mobb, @vladadat and I head out.


From the Mission, we head to the Castro. Easy place to start off. Lots of people and lots of light. A good place to start things off. I start things off asking IIldio to take her picture – she asks me to watch her bike while she gets a pastry. The Castro proves to be what we thought; pedestrians, club goers, and light. The evening has starting off well as we head back to the Mission for the second hour.


I found some good light with an outside Torta place off 16th. Something I would be looking for all day and especially during those dark hours. Now clubs and bars are closing. The great last debates, challenges, offers and promises are made – few want to go home alone. Vlad and I have our own challenges as we work with a group of women to get their pictures. The men who were hanging around them tell us to leave, but when they step a few feet away we grab a few and head to the car.

Vlad is a man who likes to challenge himself. “I’m only going to be taking square shots using the native camera,” He tells me as we drive off, feeding our phones as we head to North Beach where the scene lasts a little later than most of the city. “I don’t use a GPS. I’m trying to learn the city.” With a full 24 hours of challenges Vlad keeps pressing to do better.


North Beach was more sparse than I had expected. We decide to stop and have the first meal of the day. Pizza. After food I get my next shot – a woman who works next to the pizzeria lets me take her pic, Kimber. I’m already bad with names and so when I hear a new ones, even if simple, it takes me a while.

We walk around the area for a while. Crossing the street is an elderly gentleman who doesn’t want his picture taken but promises that if we come back tomorrow, he can shine our shoes. A shine that will keep for 3 months. I would have rather had a nice portrait of him, and I was wearing sneakers.


Vlad strikes up a conversation with a man in a doorway. Interesting man. A Vietnam vet, who’s been in the city since his war ended. He insists that we use our phones to take his picture and is reluctant to have me use my Canon DSLR. He’s also reluctant about telling me his name and offers two possibilities, Jim was one, but I forget the other one. He gets disappointed at me several times when I don’t get his references and jokes. He was a quick witted man for someone standing out in a doorway a 4 AM. He asks me to take his picture with his glasses on. “But I need to be reading something…like a newspaper.”

“Like that one?” I ask, pointing to one bag with a newspaper sticking out of of the top.

“Oh Yes.” he says, picking it up and then pretending to read.

He allows me a few shots with my DSLR and I feel bad when we have to move on, cutting the conversation a little shorter than I would have liked.

While the 24 Hour Project is one project, there are 24 deadlines, and participants are to post one picture per hour to a social media. One can’t rest on the shot they just took. You need to keep moving. Keep pushing. This sometimes leads you to post a shot that is not the best in the hour, but it’s a place holder. But for me when it was posted that was it, that hour had been covered. Still working on getting a better shot but the pressure was off until the top of the next hour. Having done this for 3 years I have some strategy about when to post and use the time to decompress.


From North Beach we head to the Harbor, I think. Somewhere near the water and boats. It’s a little more suburbia here. Most people inside, few buses or cars out but we hear music. We walk towards it. It keeps moving, further down the road. We talk to a night manager at a hotel who is also out looking for the source of the music. On the job at 5 AM dealing with complaints, no doubt.

We meet Angel who was willing to stand in front of Jose’s car, whose music we could hear a full city block away. They had just gotten off work and were letting off some steam listing to some music, when I asked about the cops.

“They were just here a few minutes ago, They know we aren’t here to bother anyone, “let them make noise,” he says, quoting the cops, or guessing what they might have said just that.

A quick meal. First cup of coffee I’ve had on the project. Trying to save its power for when I really need it.



On the road. We second guess advice to stay out of the Tenderlion at this hour and wander around.

We meet a “Naomi” out working.

“You got to have a job and a hustle to make it in the city,” she tells us. There are a few others out hustling. It’s gotten a little cold and I’m starting to get tired. Keeping a watch for people keeping a watch on us.

Someone didn’t like their picture being taken, and has some words for Vlad, and Vlad has some words for them. But that’s all, just some words and we walk way. We have a deadline. The next hour. Only 18 more to go.


From the Tenderloin we head to the Ferry Building to catch the sunrise and the bridge. There is a jetty you can walk out into the the water on. That’s where Kevin is. He had the same idea we did, to watch the sunrise. He came from the East Bay to watch it. I ask if I can take his pic. “I don’t care.” He says the views here are nothing like his Midwest home. “The people are different too, they are more diverse and open minded.”

Not too long after the project, I was talking to a noted photographer about this shot. He told me that his friend’s advice to him was “don’t be that guy.” Don’t be the guy who takes pictures of people smoking. Quick little lesson: Not everyone is going to like everything you do, some might not like anything. You have do to it because you want to and I will be that guy who takes pictures of people like Kevin.

It’s fully sunny, and some part of my body is hurting. A short stop to get some water and pain meds at a very busy mini mart. Getting up or going home this early seems to hurt other people too. I’m not alone.

We hop in the car to find another place. A higher vantage point. Less people to see but the whole city to view. Beautiful. The time ticks. Deadlines loom.


This year I had the luxury to not drive. I didn’t realize how much that took out of me. Driving. The moments in the car were beautiful. Recharging my phone and me.  Selecting a car shot for this hour. It somehow said more SF to me than the few portraits I took and coffee shop snaps. A green smoothie drink for early breakfast. Keeping the food light.


Back to the Mission back to the SOS Mobb. I meet Grandpa Tupac on 16th. Animated and ready to pose. One of my favorite shots of the day. Hooking up with about 10 other street photographers from the SOS Mobb including @travisjensen and @rastadave52.


A light meal of eggs and bagel- the Mission takes me back about 20 years. when I would regularly travel up to the city to visit friends. It’s changed. Changed a lot. But several times I felt as if neither the city or I had really changed at all in the last 20 years. The feelings were fleeting.

Walking from the Mission to the the Tenderloin reminded me that I was not only tired but tired of walking. Keep on. Time’s ticking. Deadlines loom.


On the walk to the TL I shot a portrait of Rasta Dave. This was a trip that couldn’t have happened without the hospitality of folks like Rasta Dave, Vlad and Travis. It’s been amazing the connections that have been made via mobile photography. I’ve met a lot of great people and learned so much from them. This is one of the best parts of The 24 Hour Project, the life connections that have been made. Getting to the the real ‘social’, of social media.

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