Create: How I Use My Journal for Documentary Work

Remember, this is how I work. This strategy may or may not work for you but perhaps there is something to be gained by having a listen, even if it’s only something small you pick up to add to your quiver. You just never know.

One of the best things about being on YouTube is that people have discovered the fact I keep a journal. This makes me happy because it means that more of you might start keeping your own, and when it comes to doing long-term work there is simply no better partner than a notebook/journal.

This film is long but I was feeling good and had no particular place to be. These films, for me, are like creation therapy because they allow me to talk about things I love while taking a break from some of the daily tasks that aren’t as savory.

You don’t need anything fancy. You don’t need the perfect pen. And the journal is for you and nobody else. This is a safe zone. Write like you mean it. There is no right and wrong.

37 Comments on “Create: How I Use My Journal for Documentary Work”

  1. This is exactly what I needed to here and see right now. I told you I was struggling with the writing for my project and I took your advice from your email which was a big help by the way. This film has really got me inspired and fired up to start filling out some pages. It’s strange… I’m feeling just as excited to start writing as I am to make images at the moment, that’s never happened to me before!
    Thank you so much!

    On a side note, I saw you are going to do some photo critiques with Marc soon. I don’t normally submit photos to people for critique but when it’s yourself and Marc doing the critique then I need to try. Is there any chance I can email some pictures in instead of using Facebook? I don’t want to have to create a Facebook account. No problem if not.
    Thanks again!

    1. Kurt,
      We did our critique and it went well. Not a single bad image in the group. I’ll be doing more. Get your work in. Or email it to me. if I can kickstart your journal life….then I’m winning.

      1. Yes I saw the film on YouTube, some superb work in there. The Robert Frank image stole the show though. That’s great! Next time you do another critique I will shoot you some stuff over. Thank you very much!
        I have been writing, drawing, sticking, gluing, pretty much everything in my journal everyday since! Absolutely love it! I got stuck today and then I remembered your advice… pay attention to details. After that I wrote almost 2 pages none stop!
        Take care buddy!

        1. Kurt,
          AMazing what we learn to not see. Simple things. I was sitting outside today. Heard a woodpecker. Or at least thought I did. Got up, snuck over, totally different bird just hammering away on this tree. I was like “Hmm, that’s a new one.”

  2. I started a journal after reading a book by Ibarionex Perello. I tape in my photos that I print at CVS and then critique them, trash them, and try to learn from them. It is hopefully, helping me to become a better photographer.

  3. This is great, and very helpful. Especially the part about keeping it personal — that’s easy to forget and then suddenly you feel as if there’s a reader over your shoulder and you lose all your freedom.
    Do you keep separate journals for each project or do you have one mega, all-purpose journal where you put everything in –projects, notes, etc.?
    Printing out your book notes from your iPad and pasting it in your journal is really ingenious.
    (And I love a site where one week, you learn about the glorious Streetbeefs and the next, you’re reminded of the brilliant Paul Bowles.)

    1. Tim,
      Oh my God, Streetbeefs. Bowles would NOT approve. As for the journal, I do both. I always have one by my side, but sometimes a project will require it’s own space, it’s own pages.

  4. I have journaled in the past as a part of a specific process, and have started up again. It’s not a natural habit for me, so it has been hit and miss so far. I appreciate you posting the videos here as well as youtube, as I cut that last tether to social media yesterday. Gives me more free time to actually write something in it and figure out what I really want to do with my photography.

    1. Chuck,
      Life beyond social is so much better. It can take a while to detox but after you begin to see and feel in a very different way.

      1. It does, got my latest MC square book from Blurb shipping today, very pleased with how it turned out. Was worried that a 12×12 format was going to be too much, but not the case. Thanks again for all the tips and inspiration.

    1. Honesty means less following, fewer endorsements, and less revenue. Our entire industry is based on deception and make believe.

  5. Thanks for posting this. I’ve journaled on and off with no ‘purpose’ for years, and I think this is the nudge I needed—focusing notes around a project. Love the idea of adding sketches, photos, etc. to make it more fun and engaging.

    Thanks for making your videos, I find your context and advice very helpful, and often hilarious.

  6. Hey Dan,

    I thought I would try and create a journal through Blurb, but there doesn’t seem to be the option on the UK site….??

      1. Thanks, Paul, I had seen that. The problem is, when you download Bookwright, the Notebook option isn’t there. I also can’t find Notebooks in the pricing section. Both of these make me suspect Notebooks aren’t available.

        1. @Lynn
          I just tried it using v2.1.0 of Bookwright on an old iMac. When clicking on the Create icon, click on Pro Design and Notebooks is the far-right option. At least on my version…

          1. Hi Paul,

            I binned Bookwright and downloaded it again … clicked on Pro Design as you suggested … and, lo and behold, ta dah … Notebooks are there! Thank you! Most likely my complete ineptitude with technology that surfaces from time to time….

          2. Lynn,
            I just opened Pandora’s Box. I think you are going to dig these things.

          1. Dan,

            I hold you fully responsible for the stack of 5 journals from Blurb that I now have on the table (going to gift some to friends) and the test photobook, tradebook and magazine I ordered last night 🤣


  7. As always, thanks for sharing this Dan. Perhaps this is just an observation but it might turn into a question as well. It seems that there are differences betwen:

    – creating a physical journal by using a blank notebook, a pen, tape, glue, photographs, etc. to write things down.
    – creating a physical journal by using software (e.g. BookWright) to do the same thing digitally (and then printing it).
    – creating a physical journal by using software (e.g. BookWright) to create/design a “blank” journal using (possibly your own) photographs, words, art, etc. and then printing this new blank journal so you can then write things down (back to the first bullet).

    From what you described, it seems like you have done all three at various points. All three end up with the same thing… a physical journal. But the third adds a layer where you are not only documenting your thoughts/etc., you are also designing the journal/notebook itself (potentially using your own thoughts/art/etc.). By itself, that isn’t really a question… but have I understood your process correctly?

    Thanks again.

  8. As for keeping a journal, I had a slightly different idea. It was not so much about my work as it was about my and my family’s everyday life. The assumption was that once my children (now only my daughter … although who knows how it will be in the future) readily read what life looked like with my eyes and how crazy parents she had;), but also what worried us, what concerns we had and what ours enjoyed it. Of course, photos are an important part of the journal, but in the developed and pasted form, and not printed as pages of the journal itself. I am afraid that no one in such a form would try to make it, even if the price was exorbitantly high.

    1. Mac,
      It’s all good. I think that sounds like a very important addition to your family history. Paste or no paste. Smart move.

  9. I like Matt J’s summary above, esp as I was trying to keep everything straight in my head. So, for example, for your Albania trip, you carried with you a notebook where you kept notes/quotes, etc.., and then you put it together later (after presumably getting film back, or maybe you shot digital and did it contemporaneously?), and when you put it together later, you either have it as a photo book of your work, or it then creates your next journal that you’re writing in and keeping notes from another journey or time in your life?

    Are you ever carrying a blank-ish journal that you’re creating as you go where you’re saving “space” for photos you’ve taken that you intend to print later at home (or get film processed, etc..)? Or do “current” photos that you’re taking simply go into the next journal you’re creating (or photo book you’re making)?

    I have a friend who finds intriguing hardback books and essentially “re-makes” them into journals — preps them by putting in imagery (photos or magazine clips), finds quotes she likes and puts them in, decorates with Washi tape, creates pockets on pages to “hide” things in, uses some of the actual text from the book (making black out poems) but otherwise uses the pages to create new things — glues in blank pages, or dot pages, or graph paper, etc.. The act of “creating” the journal is part of her art process, and then she will use the journal for the next season of her life, and that is the “second” part of her process — journaling her life. At the end of a year, she burns everything — all the journals/books (I don’t think you’d support that practice!). Your process reminds me of her process, though slightly different. I begged her for years to make me a journal so that I could use it as my journal. I couldn’t understand how she had time to make the journal and actually journal. Finally I convinced her to let me pay her to make me one, which she did. It’s completely filled from several years ago, and it is absolutely one of my favorite journals b/c it feels like a work of art, and yet all my thoughts are in it.

    Thanks for sharing your process and encouraging people to simply start. I haven’t journaled since covid hit. In the whole flight, fight, or freeze response thing, I freeze, so I struggle to do any of the things I would normally do to take care of myself (read, journal, exercise, etc…). I use all my energy for continuing to take care of others (4 teens & husband), and then it’s like I’ve used it all up. But watching your video today was helpful and felt like something I should get back to. Thank you.

    1. Aileen,
      Wow, you have your hands full. Four teens? Yikes. Nobel Prize. You win. I keep a journal at all times. Sometimes I leave space for things I will glue in later and sometimes I don’t. I never get hung up on how it looks because for me it’s about the writing. The writing is the hard part, the part we try so hard to avoid. You know the saying about people afraid to be left alone in a room with their own thoughts. Yep. In Albania, I was designing each night. So those notes in the journal were being added in real time to the publication. By the time I left the country the magazine was ready to print. I would have never been able to create it without the journal.

  10. This was great. I’ve always kept journals, but I look at a lot of them and cringe. I’m sure that’s not uncommon. I remember the first time I saw a Moleskine – I scooped one up. So much potential in those empty pages. All too often they turned into – Hung out with X tonight. We had some beers. And that would rate high on the quality spectrum. Still, hope springs eternal. Paul Bowles, what a life. Sometime if I ever get around to it I’d like to listen to the recordings he made of Moroccan and Berber music for the Library of Congress. I always thought Shakespeare messed up the Let It Come Down line. I wish Banquo had said it instead of his assassins. (How do you do the top down shots?)

    1. Scott,
      Clumbsily. Fuji or Sony mounted on 15 year old tripod. Rode Mics. Bowles was a truly interesting dude that influenced so many people. And he liked his kif.

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