Photos in this article are from my travels in Istanbul this summer.
I often get criticism from teaching street photography workshops. I get criticized that they cost too much. I get criticized that I am not qualified enough. I get criticized that street photography is something that you “cannot teach”– and is something that has to be learned on one’s own.
Instead of defending myself about how I teach street photography workshops I teach– I wanted to write an article about why I teach street photography workshops. I think that we generally forget to question ourselves “why” we do anything at all. By asking the question “why”– it helps us often get to the core of our life’s purpose.
Contrary to popular I don’t teach workshops to make a ton of money and buy all the Leica’s in the world. From my workshops I am living more or less month-to-month (while trying to put a little into savings). I am pretty certain I made more money (after expenses) working at my old 9-5 job.
For this article, I will share some of my personal experiences which brought me to teaching– and dedicate the other part to sharing specifically why I teach street photography workshops– and what I hope that students (and myself) gain out of them.
My first interest in teaching
Teaching has always been my passion. Ever since I was young, it brought me great joy to help my friends in school and assist them grasp concepts that were difficult for them to learn by themselves.
As a student myself, it frustrated me how ineffective my teachers in school were. They never spoke my language. Therefore when I helped tutor my friends, I spoke in a language they could understand.
I loved the feeling that I was helping my friends learn. There was nothing more satisfying when I would try to teach them a difficult concept and I would suddenly see the light bulb go off in their head.
I remember when I was growing up– my parents would always ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. The only legitimate job to Asian parents are to get a job that earns a lot of money and has a lot of prestige. This generally includes being a doctor, a lawyer, scientist, engineer, etc.
When I told my parents I wanted to be a teacher– they would ask me: “Are you sure you really want to do that and be homeless?” Even though teaching was my passion, the thought of being homeless didn’t sound very appealing. Therefore I decided to switch my trajectory and study to become a doctor (like my grandfather was).
Going off to college
From high school, I applied to a bunch of schools and got into UCLA. I initially chose Biology as my major (to study to become a doctor)– but after a quarter of hating my classes and wanting to find my purpose in life, I decided to switch my major (against the whims of my parents).
I went to the course registrar– and remember looking at a list of all the majors I could choose on a pink slip. It seemed like there was a hundred. I scanned the list and I saw “Sociology” on the list. I remember thinking to myself naively: “Oh, I like society– let me try that.”
When I started to take my Sociology classes, I fell in love with them. It was the first time in my life that I felt that what I was learning was actually practical and applicable in my daily life. Whereas science and math was about these complicated formulas and thermos that were only applicable in school– sociology taught me how to cope with my everyday life, and challenged me what society taught me.
Sociology taught me to challenge the status quo: Did I really need to earn a million dollars a year to be happy? Why is status so important? Why is it that women are marginalized in society against men? Why is it important to follow your passion (and not money)? Why are people work-a-holics? What is my purpose in life?
These were some of the questions that absolutely fascinated me– and for the first time I started to ignore the grades I got in my courses, and only cared about what I learned and took out of my classes. I was also enamored by my teachers in my courses– who were alive, energetic, and engaging with the students. They didn’t just lecture for hours on end and put students to sleep (like the science and math teachers often did). Rather, they asked students questions about their experiences– while tying back the lessons to sociological theory.
I was hooked. Being inspired by my teacher Terri Anderson, I wanted to follow in her footsteps and share that knowledge and wisdom
and become a teacher myself.
I then had my heart set on being a professor. I started to take on Sociology research assistantships to build up my CV, started to bring my grades in my classes, and even taught a course at UCLA as an undergraduate titled: “The Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks“.
Also while at UCLA, me and two of my friends (John Son and Daniel Jeong) founded The Photography Club at UCLA. Believe it not, we didn’t have a photography club at UCLA before (surprising, considering how many Asian people we have at the school). It was a phenomenal experience–in which we were able to bring passionate photographers together (whether noob or pro) and share lessons, go on photography outings, and even have exhibitions.
We also wrote the following manifesto for the club– to share our core principles and leave a legacy behind:
1. Photo club to be open to photographers from all backgrounds and skill levels:
Photo club is to be an open community and forum which invites photographers from all skill levels and backgrounds to enjoy the art of photography. Photographers in the club will always have an open hand to help those who may need help or suggestion, and will not do so in a pompous manner. Photo club is a place for photographers to meet new friends, improve their photography skills, and just have a good time. Above all, we will NOT be a club that values gear-obsession (cameras, lenses, tripod, etc) over photography itself. Furthermore, members do not need a “fancy” camera to join– or even have a camera.
2. Photo club to be dedicated to community involvement:
We see photography as a tool not only for fun and enjoyment, but also using it to help out the community in some form or another. We wish to use our skills and talents to help support photography to individuals from all walks of life, which can be shown through the Photo Exhibit we had on “Love” in which we raised money to be sent to an organization called ”Kids with Cameras” which supports photography to impoverished children in the red light district in Calcutta, India. Furthermore, we will try our best to reach out our hands to other clubs on campus and collaborate as well.
3. We are a group of amateur photographers:
The Photography Club at UCLA is a group of amateur photographers that shoot for the pure love of it. The word “amateur” stems from the latin word “amator” which means lover. The club will not be focused around “professional photography” in trying to make money from our craft. Although members are more than free to embark on any photographic endeavors, the club’s main focus will be to promote an open environment to learn and grow photographic vision and passion.
Change of plans
Although I had my heart set in becoming a Sociology professor, I started to have my doubts in the middle of my Senior year. I questioned myself: did I really want to go to school for another 8 years before I could teach and do what I was passionate about? I then decided that becoming a professor was something I still wanted to do– but would give myself a year or two break before deciding to go back to school.
I then started my internship at a digital media publishing company
and ended up getting a full-time job there as an “Online Community Manager.” I loved that my job gave me the opportunity to connect people all across the globe via social media and engage them– but I hated how little “real life” contact I had at my job. I felt fully alive when in the classroom and over time, I began to dread my job.
Getting laid off
The best thing that ever happened to me was when I got laid off my job. My company (like many other tech companies) IPO’d (entered the stock market)– but also like many other tech companies started to crash miserably. Whole divisions got cut out– including the social media one. I got brought in my HR, was explained that I was being let go.
At first I started to panic– what would I do with all of my student loans, credit card payments, and my bills? How would I pay the rent? Would I ever find another job?
I then calmed down– and told the situation to my family, close friends, and my amazing girlfriend Cindy. The advice that Cindy told me was life-affirming: follow your passion (which was street photography)– and see where life lead me. Of course– that and having a backup plan (which was moving back in with my mom, which wasn’t a terrible idea– as she makes amazing Korean food and I wouldn’t have to pay for rent).
So I remember on that day, I recorded a video for the blog– sharing that I just got laid off my job, and I would try to figure out a way how to pursue my blog as a full-time passion, whether it be sell t-shirts or teach workshops.
I am happy to say that a bit over 2 years ago is when I lost my job– and I am still doing what I love (running the blog)– without being homeless.
What I love about teaching workshops
Sorry for blabbing on with my personal story– I know it probably isn’t that interesting, but it does give me some valuable time to reflect.
Anyways, I wanted to share in this section more about what I love specifically about teaching street photography workshops:
1. Bringing people together
I remember when I was in elementary school living in Queens, New York
I would always be the one calling up my friends for us to all meet and hang out. When I left New York, my good friend Spencer told me something that would forever stick in my mind– “Dude, Eric– you’re like the glue that holds us all together, you can’t leave us.”
I think one of my main purposes in life is to be a “connector” and bring passionate and like-minded people together. To be the magnet that brings people together, and the glue that helps people stick with one another.
When I first started street photography in Los Angeles, one of the most difficult things was to meet other street photographers. I longed for a sense of community and belonging, and I felt naked and empty without it. Funny enough, you would think in a city as big as Los Angeles, the streets would be crawling with street photographers– but I never met another street photographer on the streets.
Fortunately after teaching a series of workshops in LA, we were able to build a phenomenal community of open-hearted and generous street photographers. We had no ego separating ourselves from one another– or any competitive “dog-eat-dog” spirit. We all shot because we loved it with all of our hearts, and would always help out one another.
I just taught a workshop here in Seattle, and one of the most rewarding things was to bring together all of the people who were interested in street photography together. Many of them didn’t know any other local street photographers– and over the weekend we were able to bond over shooting, talking street photography, good food, beers, and of course– amazing Seattle coffee (not Starbucks).
I think especially in today’s day and age– it is so hard to meet other people in real life. Even more difficult is to build a community– and have people who meet regularly, and continue to share their passion with one another.
My last night in Seattle, we had around 6 of us– huddled around a dim sum restaurant, all sharing laughs, drinks– and in great company. Even though we were all from different walks of life– we shared this common enthusiasm and passion for life. It was an incredibly infectious and loving environment
something that I am so blessed to share with others.
2. Building confidence in my students
One of the most difficult things in street photography is to build your courage and confidence in the streets. It took me about a solid 3 years of shooting in the streets before I was able to muster up the courage to approach strangers at a close proximity and take photos of them.
I think of myself as a personal coach when it comes to shooting in the streets. Everyone who attends the workshop has the ability to get close to their subjects and take their photo– but it is their mental boundaries which prevent it. I therefore give the students a little nudge in the right direction– giving them assignments to shoot certain strangers at a close proximity. Because I am shooting with them 1:1 on the streets (and they don’t want to disappoint me)– they will go and take the shots and afterwards be amazed how much easier it was than they expected.
But like a gym trainer– I only give the encouragement. I don’t actually lift the weights for the students. They do all the work themselves. But it brings me great joy to see how much confidence and courage the students are able to build up– and believe more in themselves.
One of the things I found most valuable about street photography is how the lessons I learn apply to everyday life. Approaching strangers in street photography and taking their photo is hard. But also is approaching strangers in the streets and simply asking for directions– or even talking with strangers. Street photography has taught me that building your courage in the streets is something that could help in all aspects of your life– personal, business, and of course
3. Sharing knowledge
I am still a student myself– and constantly learning. But I have learned many things in street photography that I wish someone told me when I was starting off.
I love the workshop as an opportunity to share some of the lessons and knowledge I have accumulated over the years in street photography. Generally in the workshops the overall information you learn can also be learned through the blog. But what you can’t get online is personal feedback and 1:1 direction .
I feel philosophically, knowledge is there to be shared– not to be hoarded for oneself. Therefore in the workshops I try to empty out everything I have learned in street photography– and try to make it directly applicable to the students, based on their needs. Being able to share this wisdom (not mine, but from the masters who came before me)
is something that also brings great value.
4. Making a living
Of course one of the main reasons I teach street photography workshops is to make a living. I make about 90% of my income through workshops, and without teaching workshops I couldn’t pay my rent and bills.
But unlike a traditional business– I am not simply trying to maximize my profits and try to earn as much money as I humanly can. I am trying to make enough to pay my bills and have a little money saved up for emergencies– but other than that, I want to dedicate as much of my time, energy, and effort into this blog– and for the street photography community.
I love teaching workshops to death– I love traveling to foreign places, meeting amazing people, and sharing new experiences. But at the end of the day, I want to fully dedicate my life to the blog and the street photography community.
I think it is all important for us to reflect what we do for a living (or a passion)– in terms of why we do it. The answers to how we do our jobs or how we live our life is easy– but why is a whole new can of worms.
Personally I think I was put on this earth to serve other people– and to help society. My aspiration is to live for others, not myself– and to drive the genre of street photography forward. I want to help make street photography more accessible, to share the knowledge myself and others have learned about street photography– and to help anyone who is an aspiring street photographer in his/her personal journey.