#Slowgrams: What One Silicon Valley Engineer Learned When He Stopped Taking Photos And Started Drawing

Welcome to Fahd Butt’s year of living sketchily.


This past year was one to remember for Fahd Butt.


A senior software engineer for DNAnexus, a Bay Area company that uses big data and the cloud to help genetics researchers, Butt turned 30, moved from Mountain View to San Francisco, attended Burning Man for the first time, and went to his best friends’ wedding in Toronto. He also met the woman who’d become his wife and married her in Pakistan.

You might imagine someone would want to photograph some these momentous occasions, especially someone like Butt who considers himself a “photo addict” with 200 albums on Facebook. But he didn’t pick up a camera or use his phone’s camera apps once. Instead, he sketched the big and small moments using pencils, pens, markers, and watercolors in one of a dozen notebooks he carried with him. All told, Butt estimated that he’d drawn about 500 images and managed not to take a photo even when another driver backed into his car in a parking lot.

the first Sketch

“The first thought in my mind wasn’t that my nice car is damaged,” he says. “I thought I’m gonna have to take a photo of this.” He didn’t. He got the other driver, an “old lady who was really flustered” to take one for him.

Butt, who goes by the name Fahdoo (“like Prince”) said he’d been in creative rut for a year and a half and taking photos had become a kind of social crutch, a way of hiding behind his camera to avoid experiencing his life. Inspired in part by illustrator Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage, Butt began reassessing his approach to seeing the world through a lens.

Fahd Butt

“When I first thought of it, I had a feeling of excitement,” he recalls. “What if I could do it for a month? Anyone can do it for a month. It’s not that hard. Three months? It’s a bit pushing it. A lot of interesting things could happen. That’s why I thought about a year. Could I even do that? What would happen in a year?”

A lot, evidently. Flipping through his notebooks at a cafe in San Francisco’s Duboce Triangle neighborhood on a recent Saturday morning, Butt skimmed past sketched and watercolored scenes of reverie at Black Rock City, concerts, parties, his friends taking their vows, Skype chats with his soon-to-be wife, and lots and lots of French toast. “I love French toast,” he says. “The hardest part was waiting to eat it. It got cold.”


Butt was so strict, he even declined to take tourists photos when approached around the city. “Some people would be like, ’Is your finger broken?’ Some would be like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool, that’s so San Francisco.’ Others would be confused and walk away.” Not that he wasn’t tempted. More than once his wife held her phone aloft and teased him by saying, “touch the button, touch the button.” Butt said he wanted to show her–and, perhaps more importantly, her father–that he was a man of his word and wouldn’t break his self-imposed no-selfie policy, even for the woman he loves. (He did make an exception to screen-cap some moments during their Skype chats, but he insists they’re not technically photos.)

Throughout the year, he scanned many of the drawings–Butt refused to even use his phone’s camera to capture them digitally–and put them online in a Facebook album called Crafture. Eventually, he hopes to get a gallery show and make a book, but for now his drawings stand as a kind of public journal of an extremely eventful year. For many of the drawings, Butt included a small Instagram-style pin and location data to remind him where the drawing had been done and a hashtag to give the images more context. A friend began describing his image as Slowgrams, which he liked very much.

Without trying, it seems Butt had tapped into a cultural moment: just a few days ago, the New York Times detailed the creeping ambivalence chronic photo clickers are feeling in a story headlined “A Defining Question in an iPhone Age: Live for the Moment or Record It?

Now that his year of living sketchily is over, Butt is philosophical about what he got from setting aside his cameras, including the vintage SLR his grandfather gave him. “You have to pick your moments,” he said. “You have to make a conscious decision.” The attention a sketch requires grounded him in the events he was witnessing and focused him in a way that photography never could. “You end up wanting to slow down.”

It also helped him connect with his friends and loved ones in a more direct way: “One of my friends commented that when you take someone’s photo, you’re basically putting a $2,000 piece of equipment between your face and my face. With a sketchbook, there’s nothing between us… I have to engage. It made me more focused on the person.”

The lessons of his project also seeped into his work as an engineer and designer (a mythical so-called “unicorn” in the parlance of Silicon Valley), inspiring him to think differently about his work. “It opens that creative side of you,” he said of sketching. “It helps to step out of your box and do something different.”