Photos in this article are from my on-going “Colors” series.
I recently read a book titled: “Die Empty: Unleash your Best Work Everyday”
and found great inspiration in it. It is a great book in which the premise is easy: will you die with all of your dreams, aspirations, and talents inside of you– or will you work everyday towards emptying out your mind of al these great ideas and thoughts? Will you lie on your deathbed having any regrets? Or will you die empty having dedicated everyday towards your life work dying empty without any regrets. You certainly don’t want to die full of regrets.
On Facebook and Twitter I proposed the question: “Before you die, what would you like to accomplish with your photography?” I thought the same about me and my photography– and here is what my thoughts are:
I personally don’t care if I become regarded a “great” photographer– and can care less if I go down in the books of history. I feel the purpose of my life is to dedicate my mind and soul to the street photography community– writing articles, featuring other talented street photographers, and building a sense of community (online and offline). Of course I want to make great photos, but this blog comes before my personal photography.
Of course you have your own dreams and aspirations with your photography
and you have to dig deep to understand and think why you take photos. Sometimes we get stuck in cruise-control– simply going out and snapping photos without any purpose or end in mind. While I do appreciate this “stream of consciousness” type of photography I think we should have a greater goal or purpose with our photography.
I think all of us are capable of great photography. But often it is life’s obligations that get in the way– the 9-5 job, the emails we have to answer, obligations to our family and kids, and the work we need to do to pay the bills. However if we never carve out time for ourselves and our photography– we will die full of regrets in our photography.
I think in order to create great photography– we need to avoid mediocrity. One thing I learned from the book is that the word mediocrity comes from the Latin words: “medius” (meaning middle) and “ocris” (meaning rugged mountain). Literally translated, mediocrity means to “settle halfway to the summit of a difficult mountain.”
Photography is hard– and I truly believe in my heart that street photography is the most difficult type of photography. There is so little you can control in street photography. To a great extent– you can’t control the light, what people are wearing, the background, or a situation or a mood. All you can do is choose where to stand, and when to click the shutter. Whereas other types of photography, you can manipulate the backgrounds, the people, and stage things much easier.
So realizing how difficult street photography is– sometimes it is easy for us to fall into complacency and to continuously take the same type of photograph.
Personally I fell into being complacent with my photography when I started early on. I was a huge fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and my strategy would be the following: find an interesting background, and wait for an interesting person to step into my frame.
I shot like this for around 2 years, and got some decent photos out of it. But at a certain point, it no longer started to interest me– I wasn’t pushing my photography forward.
I then remember seeing a video on YouTube of Bruce Gilden shooting street photography with a flash– and I was blown away. I never could imagine someone could shoot street photography like that– but I was curious. I then went on the streets with a flash, and experimented. I was surprised to find that most people didn’t give a damn, and I found a new way to express myself in street photography– getting closer to my subjects, and using a flash.
Even that became passé after a while– I no longer found it interesting to simply approach strangers and take photos of them with a flash at a close proximity.
Nowadays I find myself doing more “still life” and “urban landscape” street photography. Most of the photos I’ve been taking nowadays don’t even include people– and are either focused on intimate objects or the urban environment. I have found this type of photography to be even more challenging and interesting to me.
So you can see, even though I have fallen into creative ruts in my photography (and have been complacent)
it was stepping outside of my comfort zone and trying something new that helped me take my own photography to new heights.
However every step of the way when I changed my style of photography– I received criticism and feedback from people saying that they “liked my old stuff better.” But ultimately I decided to choose what made me happy– and what felt which was pushing me forward in my work.
Pablo Picasso started off as a more standard painter– drawing realistic scenes. But it wasn’t until he started to create controversial abstract art that his fame started to take off. Even Andy Warhol started off as a successful commercial artist– drawing realistic looking shoes and other advertisements. But he didn’t make a name for himself until he started to experiment with “pop art”– and expressing himself with cans of Cambell’s tomato soup.
One fascinating concept that I learned in the book was the “7 Deadly Sins of Mediocrity.” The author made a list of 7 attributes and traits we had to avoid (in order to avoid mediocrity– and to soar to greatness). Here is the list, and how I think we can apply this to our street photography:
1. Be aimless
The author says that in order to avoid mediocrity– we should’t be aimless with our work. Rather, we should define what is “_meaningful progress_” to us– and to keep working towards our goal.
In street photography, I think it is great to be a flaneur and to simply roam the streets for rest, relaxation, and fun. There is no problem with that. But I think if your goal and aspiration is to become a great photographer– I don’t think this laid-back attitude is enough.
In studies of master violin players, researchers have defined the idea of “_deliberate practice_”
that these masters would dedicate at least 3 hours every morning on their craft, not being distracted by anything else.
I think that in street photography we need to have the same sort of “deliberate practice”– with a defined goal.
For example, I am a huge advocate for working on projects. Why? Projects have a clear and defined goal: to work on a photo-series that has a larger message and meaning.
When I am working on smaller series (of a location or of a concept)– I aim to create a set of around 10-15 images that I could feature on my website. The time I work on a shorter-term project varies (it could be as short as 2 weeks, or long as 2 years) and when it comes to editing and sequencing my work– I get lots of feedback and suggestions from other street photographers whose opinion I trust. After sitting on the images and letting them “marinate” for at least 6 months to a 1 year– I then publish it on social media and my website.
Currently I am working on two long-term projects– one on “Suits” and another on “Colors” (which I plan each will take around 8-10 years). My ultimate goal or aspiration is to publish a book out of these images (around 40-50 images), and have an exhibition or a gallery show for them.
So for my goal, they are clearly defined. Of course I stumble and sometimes fall off-track along the way. I also have my moments of doubt and times that I want to abandon my projects.
However because I have a destination in mind– I don’t feel like I am aimless. I have an overarching goal in mind, which keeps the compass on my ship set.
Questions to consider:
If you feel aimless in your photography, you can consider some of these questions to yourself:
- Why do I photograph? What is the impetus which takes me out of my house to photograph?
- What kind of subject matter am I drawn to in my photography– and what am I trying to say through my work?
- Do I just take photos for the sake of it, or do I have a greater purpose in mind?
- What do I want my viewers to get out of my photography or project?
2. Be bored
One of the best ways to live your life is to follow your curiosity– and to avoid boredom. The author brings up the concept of “_disciplined curiosity_”
to identify what makes us excited and engaged in life, and to follow that path.
I think what drew us all initially to street photography was our curiosity of strangers– and life on the streets. All street photographers I meet are generally humanists– interested and caring of human beings.
However it is easy to lose inspiration when shooting on the streets and to feel bored. We may always go down the same streets to photograph– and it may lose its appeal.
There are several ways to cure boredom when it comes to street photography:
1) First of all, we can try to explore new and novel areas. This can be different neighborhoods in the city you shoot, or it can even include traveling to a foreign place.
2) Secondly, we can try to photograph in a different way. For example, we can still shoot in the same area, but instead of shooting in black and white we can focus on color.
3) Thirdly, we can explore different styles and types of photography outside of street photography. If you are bored of street photography, perhaps try portrait photography, landscape, or even take photos of flowers. Even Lee Friedlander who is best known for his street photography has done a book on trees. Sometimes by taking a break and exploring a different style or approach
you can stay curious and continue to grow and explore.
At the end of the day, I think we should all enjoy shooting street photography. It shouldn’t be a job or a chore. It is something we do as our passion– not because someone else forces us to do it. Life is stressful enough, why force something that doesn’t come naturally?
Therefore take the approach of a child: to always explore for fun and to experiment. By avoiding boredom we can make sure we don’t fall into the rut of mediocrity.
Questions to consider:
Some questions you can ask yourself regarding boredom:
- Why do I enjoy shooting street photography? What aspect of it excites or invigorates me?
- Are there certain locations that bore me when I shoot on the streets? Are there any other places I can shoot that I find are more exciting and interesting?
- Am I shooting a project that I am bored of? Is it time to finish the project, or to simply approach it from a different angle?
- Which photographer’s work excites me the most– and which photographer’s work bores me to death?
3. Be comfortable
One of the big traits of mediocrity is comfort. The ancient Roman orator Cato once wrote: ” Comfort is the road to waste.”
I think in the modern world, one of the traits we strive towards is a life of comfort. We like having comfortable shoes, comfortable houses, comfortable cars, and comfortable lives. As much as we are all hard-wired to like comfort, it is what makes us complacent and prevents us from striving for more.
In fitness there is a common saying: “No pain, no gain.” If you go to the gym and only lift a 1 pound dumbbell ten times, you will never become stronger. You need to push yourself to your limits (and beyond) to become stronger and achieve greatness.
Therefore in order to become great, all you have to do is avoid comfort. Strive towards continual growth.
In street photography, it is easy to fall into what is comfortable and easy. We might always photograph the same type of subject matter in the same places.
If you find yourself being too comfortable when you are shooting– you will fall into complacency and never reach your own greatest potential.
Questions to consider:
To avoid comfort in street photography, you should ask yourself some of these questions:
- Is photographing on the streets becoming a little too easy? What can I do to switch up my style?
- Do I only photograph in a certain area because I’m comfortable there? Are there any other places I could shoot which are more challenging?
- Are the type of images I create too simple? How can I make more complex and layered images
with more depth?
4. Be delusional
One of the ways to become better in street photography is to get honest and brutal critique on your work. When I started street photography, I thought my images were all amazing– and people who thought otherwise didn’t know what they were talking about.
Of course when I showed my images to my friends and family, they thought they were all great. However once I joined some street photography critique groups online, I realized that they weren’t very good at all. The honest and straight-forward critique I got (in terms of what worked, and what else I had to do to become better) truly helped me become more self-critical of my work, and to only show my best work.
I think that sometimes it is easy to become delusional to think that all of our work is amazing. I think the moment we realize that we aren’t good photographers is the moment we can truly learn and grow.
Therefore I think it is important for us to cultivate a sense of self-awareness, and to know the reality of our work. This is really difficult for us to do on our own, because we become so emotionally invested in our work (and can’t honestly critique our own work).
Therefore the practical solution I offer is to meet other street photographers in real life (whose work you admire, and opinion matters to you) and ask them to brutally critique your work. Tell them to not patty-cake or sugar-coat it. Ask them to be as straight-forward as they can, to help you become more critical and self-judgmental of your work as possible.
Of course you need to take everybody’s feedback with a grain of salt. In the end you want to please yourself before pleasing others in your photography and work. But by getting feedback from others, it can give us more clarity of the weaknesses of our work that we can’t see from others.
Questions to consider:
Some questions we can ask ourselves to avoid becoming delusional with our work is the following:
- If I showed my photograph to a stranger (who didn’t know the backstory of my image)
would they think it is an interesting image?
- What parts of my frame doesn’t work? Am I too far away from my subject, or too close? Did I photograph my subject from an interesting perspective? Should I have crouched when I took the shot? Is the background too messy? Does the subject have an interesting expression on their face?
- In 20 years from now, will people find this photograph interesting or relevant?
- Would I be willing to spend $1000 to print out this photograph and have it hung in an exhibition?
- If I showed this photograph to a photographer whose work I admire, would he/she be impressed with it? If not, what could I have done differently in the photograph?
- What are some lessons I learned about my work that I can better apply when I am out shooting on the streets?
5. Have a huge ego
In photography, many of us want to be recognized and respected for our work. Many of us feel great when our photographs get tons of likes, favorites, and comments on social media. We get a huge rush of serotonin when we find our images have been featured, when we gain more followers, or rack up the page views.
I have personally discovered that once you gain more followers and popularity, it is easy to get a big ego. Personally when I started to gain more followers in my work– my levels of expectation also began to go up for myself.
For example in the past, if I got even 10 favorites for a photograph on Flickr, I would become overjoyed. However nowadays if I upload a photograph to Flickr and it gets anything less than 100 favorites, I am disappointed in myself and frustrated– and think that my photographs aren’t any good at all.
Therefore I think it is important for us to be adaptable and to not always worry so much about what others think about our work. Of course being affirmed by others is a great feeling– but if we try too hard to satisfy others, we often end up not satisfying ourselves.
Some of the most influential photographers in history (William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Martin Parr, William Klein, Stephen Shore, and many others) have been fiercely criticized for working in a style different from what was commonly appreciated and respected. These photographers went against the status quo– and worked in a way which interested them and made them happy.
Then over time, people began to appreciate their willingness to take risks and sacrifice their own personal image to make work that made them happy.
So realize that even though you create work that others may not appreciate– don’t worry about gaining fame or recognition. Create work that is meaningful to yourself, and let go of ego and self-pride.
I feel that social media is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it is a great way to share your work with the world. However if you fall into the game of just worrying about having a lot of favorites, likes, and followers– it will eat you alive and make you miserable.
So if you want to worry less about ego in your photography, taking a break from social media (or spending less time on it) is great medicine and a preventative cure from worrying about ego.
Questions to consider:
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to avoid falling into the trap of having a big ego (or worrying about ruining your self-image):
- Who do I photograph to please? Myself– or others?
- If social media didn’t exist and nobody would ever see my images, would I still photograph?
- If I upload an image online and it gets no likes or favorites (but makes me happy)– is that good enough?
- Do I upload images to social media to share my work, or to simply get lots of favorites and likes?
- When I get fewer likes and favorites on my images than I am used to– how does that make me feel about that image?
6. Be fearful
In street photography, it is easy to become fearful. Fearful of what strangers think of you when you take their photograph. Fearful of what other street photographers will think of your work. Fearful if you change up your style– people might not respect you anymore.
Let go of fear– and take a leap of faith. The author of “Die empty” suggest the idea of ” purposeful risk taking” in life.
What is “purposeful risk taking?” It is not taking foolish risks for the sake of it (for example, taking a photograph of a stranger who is agitated and has a gun in his hand). It is about taking risks when they are necessary– and will ultimately help you in the end.
For example when you are in the streets, you might see someone who is interesting– but you might hesitate for a second because you are worried about upsetting them, how strangers around might perceive you, or your concern of getting yelled at. In moments like that, it is important for us to take a “purposeful risk”
a risk that we think is worth it, because you might make a photograph that inspires others and has some greater social purpose.
If we have a certain established style in our work (for example if we are mostly known for our black and white)
we shouldn’t simply avoid shooting color because others might think it isn’t any good or interesting. We need to take these risks to step outside our comfort zone to continue to grow and develop.
Questions to consider:
To avoid fear in street photography– we can ask ourselves some of these questions:
- What is the worst that can happen if I took a photograph of a stranger? Am I willing to take that risk for the greater good?
- When I upload an image to the internet, what is the worst feedback or criticism I can receive? Am I okay with that?
- Am I concerned of shooting in the streets because I don’t want others to judge me? Why do I care about what strangers think about me?
- If I don’t take this photograph, will I regret not taking it later?
7. Isolate yourself
In today’s modern world, it is easy to become closed off and isolated from other people in society. It is easy to become stuck in our routine of waking up, turning off the alarm, having coffee, driving to work, working, driving home, and watching Netflix alone at home.
In street photography– although it is a mostly individual activity (most street photographers I know like to shoot by themselves)– it is important not to totally shut ourselves off from the rest of the world.
This means even though you like shooting by yourself, don’t totally avoid all other street photographers. Other street photographers can give you helpful advice and criticism that can help you in your street photography journey.
Personally I like to shoot with other street photographers. I get lonely and uninspired when I am by myself. There are many famous street photographers who have shot with a partner, such as Garry Winogrand (with Joel Meyerowitz), and even Jason Eskenazi (who often likes shooting with others).
Try to reach out to other street photographers either online or in-person. There are lots of great street photography groups online on Flickr and Facebook, and many small local street photography groups. You can always check out Meetup.com to meet other street photographers in person, or even try to privately email or message other street photographers in your area to shoot together, critique one’s another’s work, or to simply have a coffee or beer together.
By having a sense of community with other street photographers, you can stimulate your creativity with new ideas, approaches, and images that can help you grow. Some of the best insights I have gained in my street photography is from the meetings I have had from other street photographers (mostly in person).
Questions to consider:
- When is the last time I met another street photographer in-person?
- What are the benefits of meeting another street photographers either in-person or online?
- What kind of insights or ideas can other street photographers share with me that I might have not thought of myself?
- What are the benefits of shooting with other street photographers versus shooting by myself?
I think when it comes to your street photography– you need to ask yourself why you photograph. Do you photograph for fun and as a hobby– or are you trying to become a great photographer?
I don’t think that mediocrity in itself is a bad thing. I am quite mediocre in lots of things in life, but it doesn’t bother me too much (like cooking, math, and my knowledge of pop culture). However I don’t want to be mediocre in certain things such as street photography and my knowledge of the world– which I cultivate through constant reading, learning, and shooting and exploring the streets.
If you are fine being a mediocre street photographer, that is no problem. You might just want to do it to relieve some stress out of work. That is totally fine.
However if you want to become a great street photographer, you don’t want to settle for mediocrity and a life of comfort. You need to constantly push yourself to the next level– and by re-examining and re-inventing yourself.
The “7 Deadly Sins of Mediocrity” I shared above from the book “Die Empty” can be a great starting point if you feel a little bit bored or uninspired with your work.
When you die, your life will be measured based on how much you gave to others from your body of work. Don’t die full of regrets: Go travel to that one place you have always wanted to go to (regardless of how busy or tight on budge you might be). Buy that one photography book that you think will help you gain better insights in your own work. Take that photography class or workshop with that photographer whose work you admire. Pursue that photography project you have always dreamed about– but had hesitations about. Our life is short, and we never know when we will die.
Live purposefully and die empty.