Five friends who embarked on a unique tradition in 1982 are gearing up for their latest installment. John “JD” Dickson, Dallas Burney, Mark Rumer-Cleary, John “Belves” Molony, and John “Wedge” Wardlaw have been capturing the same shot every five years as part of their “Five Year Photo Project.”

Last month, they snapped their ninth photograph in the series. True to tradition, they revisited the familiar site—a prefabricated cottage located on the California-Oregon border near Copco Lake.

The five friends in 1987

This year, when Burney, the individual positioned in the middle of the photograph, received a diagnosis of liposarcoma, the group of men, all aged 59 (except for Rumer-Cleary, aged 58), feared that it might signify a snapshot of just four friends. Burney had undergone surgery to remove a large malignant tumor from his left leg in 2019, leaving him with limited movement, yet still able to walk. Despite his challenges, he expressed gratitude for simply being alive. “It’s nice to be back here and know that cancer isn’t going to stop what we’re doing,” he shared with CNN.

Due to Burney’s cancer scare and the ongoing pandemic, the trio hadn’t been able to gather together since their previous portrait was taken in 2017. The night before their latest photo shoot, the men reunited to enjoy “Wedge” tacos, a tradition where Wardlaw crafts tacos by filling hard shells with meat and pan-frying them at high temperatures, wearing safety glasses and a glove to shield himself from splatter. On the designated Wednesday, the five friends assembled on the deck railing in the same order and positions they had maintained since 1982, continuing a tradition that has spanned over four decades.

five men sitting on a deck railing

In the latest photograph, Burney’s right-hand rests against his right knee, while Rumer-Cleary’s knee or lap is adorned with a cap. Molony holds a jar in his right hand, containing a cockroach discovered near the cabin, along with butterscotch candy (for the roach) and a cut-out photo of actor Robert Young from a coffee advertisement, intended to keep the insect “company.” In recent years, some of the friends have even begun wearing identical outfits to ensure the photos closely resemble the originals.

Rumer-Cleary, a software engineer and co-founder of Occam Networks, remarked on the encounters with strangers who find him familiar. “It’s happened to me for a couple of different reasons,” he explained. “I’m 6’6″ and have facial hair. They won’t recognize it immediately away. ‘You appear familiar, but I’m not sure why.'” The group of friends, all graduates of Santa Barbara High School, captured their first photo using an automated camera timer when they were 19 years old. The Copco Lake cottage where their reunions take place was built by Wardlaw’s grandfather in 1970.

five men sitting on a table inside a cabin

JD was the sole owner of a genuine 35mm camera during their 1982 lakeside excursion, and it was his suggestion to capture some group shots. It was Wardlaw who managed to convince all five men to return to the lake in 1987 and propose the idea of replicating the original photograph. From then on, Wardlaw took charge of capturing all subsequent shots, following the initial one. Reflecting on their decision, Wardlaw shared, “When we took it and saw the photo, we said, ‘We should come back and take it in five years.'”

“I said, ‘We have to make a vow to do it every five years,'” he recounted to the Santa Barbara News-Press in 2007. Since then, the friends have dispersed across various locations. Dickson has remained in Santa Barbara, where he manages a tourism website. Molony pursues photography in New Orleans, while Wardlaw, a filmmaker and photographer, resides in Bend, Oregon. Rumer-Cleary, now retired, lives in Portland, Oregon. Burney, a retired Air Force veteran, will commence his 23rd year of teaching in Northern California this year.

The five friends in 2012

At the time of the 2012 photo, only two of them were married. However, by 2017, all of them had tied the knot, with JD already having a son. Wardlaw revealed that they had entertained various ideas about how long they intended to continue capturing the photograph. “When the story went viral in 2012, we were frequently asked this question,” he shared. “So we began to think. We may still go with the blank space.” He explained on their website that they had considered using an urn, finding humor in the concept.

“Another possibility is that each of us has a mug with our nickname on it,” Wardlaw continued. “That person’s mug could be placed in the blank space.” Other ideas included using a cardboard cutout. Despite the multitude of possibilities, Wardlaw affirmed, “The true answer is that we will continue to photograph. We will keep taking it until there is no one left, and then hopefully someone, perhaps John Dickson’s son, will take a photo of an empty deck railing where we once sat.”

five men sitting on a deck railing

These men are indeed privileged to share such a strong and enduring friendship! To stay updated on the “Five Year Photo Project,” you can visit their website or follow them on various social media platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The group even made an appearance on the Today Show in August 2012 to share their remarkable story. Here’s how it unfolded.