The man who records his entire life

The man who records his entire life
Source: Richard Hooper via BBC
Date: 04-11-2016 Time: 12:11:30:am

Morris Villarroel is a life-logger. For six years he has been recording his life in minute detail using a log-book, a camera and a fitness tracker. Why?

Every day Morris Villarroel takes 1,200 photos. Most are very dull.

Morris Villarroel

Dozens of the car steering wheel. Several of a slice of toast. One of the kitchen cupboard where he stores onions.

But none will be deleted. They are part of Villarroel's plan to record everything that happens in his life, the mundane and the extraordinary alike.

"It occurred shortly after turning 40," he says. "I was looking back on my life and wondering what did I have to show?

"I wanted for the next 40 years to have a greater sense of what I had actually done during those years."

Since 2010 he has kept a log of everything he does. "I write down when I get up, what I eat, what I do," he says.

Then on 14 April 2014 Villarroel began using a miniature camera attached to his chest that fires automatically every 30 seconds. He has now accumulated more than a million photos from it.

"I haven't seen a lot of them. It's almost too much to go through," he says.

"It takes pictures of what's directly in front of me." His wife Erin "is really fine about it, except maybe for more private moments", he says.

"But I don't put it on in the bedroom and stuff like that."

As well as the camera, Villarroel, a professor of animal physiology, animal welfare and aquaculture in Madrid, wears a fitness tracker to record his movements.

Last year he filled 37 log-books with a record of activities, observations and ideas like these:

"I woke up at 05:45 in a hotel in Sweden. My hind leg muscles were hurting a bit."

"Talked about bird watching with colleagues at the coffee break."


"It would be interesting to know why some joggers feel the need to touch something, like a wall, when they get to the half way point of their run."

Villarroel assigns categories and keywords to the events recorded in his log-books. The data is organised in a spreadsheet, and when combined with readings from the fitness tracker and the photographs, gives a record of what he was doing at any point in the recent past.

Such as at 12:22 on 7 December 2014, when Villarroel was recorded not having moved for 60 minutes. The photos, partly obscured by a gown, show a hospital ward.

It was the moment his father died.

Scenes from the death of Morris Villarroel

Or 16:36 on 4 November 2014, the time Villarroel's son Liam was born at home.

Roll of photos telling the story of the birth of Morris's son

Most fathers might have a few dozen posed photographs of mother and child. Villarroel recorded the whole day, from contractions starting to the midwives leaving.

"Really my devices, looking back, tell me little, except that intensity is hard to capture," he admits.

But he hopes it will be interesting for his son to look back through his pictures and logs. "When he's 80 years old he can say, 'I wonder what my mother looked like when she was pregnant? Or what I was doing on the fifth day of life?'"

His children are fine with the project too, he says. His daughter, June, 15, "likes to look through them. It's kind of fun to see where we've been", he says.

Quantifying the vast amount of data that he collects is a major task in itself.

He's developed a morning ritual that involves getting up early, writing 750 words analysing his moods and how much time he spends doing different things, then downloading his gadgets. The process takes about an hour.

"I could do little else at that time of day and so I've accomplished something important for myself," he says.

He also reviews each week, month and year: "That again is a reflective process which not only reminds me what I should remember to do, but helps to plan and assess what's going on."

To a lot of people, all of this will sound completely pointless. He admits has taken so many photographs he will never be able to look at them all.

But recording absolutely everything does have practical uses, he says.

For instance, one day he lost a notebook. After two weeks, it still hadn't turned up. So he went back through the photos and found where he had left it.

Before returning to a place he's previously visited, he'll go back to his records to check how he got there, how long it took, where he parked, how long the appointment took and what he did afterwards (in one case, he was reminded there was a nice place to buy bread around the corner).

It offers a kind of self-defence, he says - if someone ever swears they saw him in a certain place at a certain time, he will have a whole sequence of photos to prove otherwise. He's never had cause to do this, however.

It's also helped him understand how much exercise he needs to take, he says. Using his Fitbit (he aims to take 10,000 steps a day) has motivated him to take public transport to work. He's also learned that the number of daily steps he takes goes up as the university semester wears on.

"We are creatures of habit but not all of the habits are helpful," he says. "I can map out habits and improve some, while avoiding other more negative ones." Sometimes he thinks he hasn't achieved much over one day or even a whole week, but by going back through his log he can see that he actually did.

Villarroel has no intention of stopping his project. Having such an extensive record of each day from the past five years has changed how he values time and events.

Thumbnails of the photos taken by Morris

"You're looking back on your life and asking, 'What am I learning? Am I advancing? How am I feeling?' and based on that, asking, 'Would I like to change? Or would I like to stay how I am?'"

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