A Letter to My 18 Year Old Self: If I Started Street Photography All Over Again


Dear Eric,

You are 18 years old. You just got a point and shoot digital camera from Mom as a high school graduation present. You are super excited, as you never had a camera before. A lot of exciting things will happen in your life surrounding photography. I wanted to write this letter to you and give you some advice I wish I knew. This is coming from your 26-year-old-self.

First of all, cherish your beginnings in photography. Continue to be like a child. Embrace that sense of wonderment you have with the world. Photograph anything that interests you. Cherish this time of discovery, because it will be one of the happiest moments you will have in your photography. You won’t worry about the likes, comments, views, or “favs” you get from others. You’re also lucky you haven’t discovered “social media” yet. This means you’re only shooting for yourself, to embrace your horrible sense of memory. After all, isn’t that what you wanted?

You’re also starting college soon. What I wish I told you is to shoot more while you’re in college. You’re never going to experience college again, and I don’t think you took enough photographs. Don’t get me wrong, you’re going to do some pretty cool stuff. You’re going to discover “street photography” purely by accident by noticing you’re interested in photographing strangers. You’re also going to start studying sociology (after hating biology) and your interests in photography and sociology will combine into “street photography”.

You’re also going to make the “Photography Club at UCLA” which is going to be freaking awesome. You and two of your good friends are going to come up with the idea over a party, and go out and simply do it. Your future girlfriend and partner Cindy is going to encourage you start it. Listen to her, as she will continue to give you tons of love and support in your photographic life in years to come.

Realize in your photographic journey, you’re going to have a lot of heart-ache. You’re going to pursue your love of photography because you want to share the love you have with others. But one day, you will start a blog on street photography– and encounter a lot of resistance. You will have a lot of people who support you, and a lot of people who re going to hate what you’re doing. You’re going to be called a sell-out, someone who is “tarnishing” the purity of street photography. You’re going to be mocked, ridiculed, and given petty death threats on YouTube. You’re going to fall into a creative slump– and not pick up a camera for several weeks from all the negative feedback you get. You’re going to be afraid and nervous what other people think of you, your photography, and your intentions. You’re going to think about giving up on photography.

But Eric, don’t give up. Realize that you’re going to inspire others and help others through your writing and your work. Not everyone is going to like your work and what you’re doing, but realize that the secret to failure is trying to please everybody. Just speak openly, transparently, and don’t front– speak truthfully with your heart.

Also don’t get greedy. Don’t try to hoard all of your information to yourself. Keep it open and free. Share everything you learn about street photography, sociology, and life with others. You will be tempted to “sell out”– but embrace the barbell theory you will learn in “ANTIFRAGILE” from a philosopher named Nassim Taleb: either give away your stuff for free, or charge premium bucks for it. Don’t settle with trying to charge for everything.

Realize that your dream in life isnt to to become super famous, to pursue photography as a living– but simply to build up a sense of community in the street photography community. Realize that you’re not very important as an individual. Your job and purpose in life is to serve others. And the more you give, the more you will receive in return.

Also I want to warn you: don’t succumb to “gas” (gear acquisition syndrome). You’re going to want all these fancy and expensive cameras. You’re going to think buying that new Leica M9 will make you the best street photographer in the world. You are going to think that the gear is holding you back. You’re going to daydream in your cubicle in buying that new lens, hoping it will inspire you.

But know that is all bs. The camera you currently own is more than capable. Rather, use that money you waste on gear on experiences. Travel, attend photography workshops or classes, and invest in photography books. Realize that no matter what camera you own, you will never be satisfied. And realize money can only buy you happiness if you invest it into experiences.

Realize that at the end of the day, you’re not going to really care about the photos you take. What is going to be the most valuable is the amazing people you will meet along the way. You’re going to cherish the friendships you create with other photographers all around the world in your photographic journey. These photographers will continue to inspire you, give you honest feedback and critique on your work, and push you to become the best photographer you possibly can.

Also know, “less is more”. Spend a lot of time editing your shots (only showing your best work). Don’t upload photos online the same day you shoot them. Let them sit for a long time, and “kill your babies”. Like a nice steak, let your shots “marinate”.

Also don’t get caught up on the hype of the “social media treadmill”. There is going to be a time when you become addicted to likes, favorites, and comments and views on your photos. You’re going to care more about these stupid numbers than the photos themselves. Social media is only going to distract you from going out and making photos that are meaningful.

The best photos you are going to take are the ones that are meaningful and have heart and soul. Don’t aim to make simply funny or weird or interesting photos. Aim to take photos that inspire your viewers, through the raw emotional connection they create.

Also work on projects, not single images. Realize that single images are well suited for social media and getting lots of favorites and likes. But projects are going to define you. Projects will give you focus. Projects will help take your photography to the next level. And realize projects are going to take a long time. A good project is going to take at least 2 years, so be patient.

The day you become a “full-time” photographer is the day you lose your job at your company. You’re going to be scared. You’re going to have no money in your savings, have tons of credit card debt, and student loans to pay off. You’re going to be very scared, but know you have the love and support of Mom, family, and your loved ones. You’re going to worry about being homeless but don’t worry– everything will always turn out okay in the end.

Just remember: keep giving. Give until it hurts. Give until your body is exhausted and you want to curl up into a ball. Don’t be a consumer, be a creator. Create value for others, and aim to inspire others through the work you create.

I’ll send you another letter later. But until then, keep being a child in your photography. Explore, let curiosity lead you– and don’t forget, have fun. Use the camera you already own, avoid wasting money on gear, and embrace life to the fullest. Shoot as if everyday is going to be your last.

Love sincerely your 26-year old future self.

  • 7/25/2014, at Highlands Coffee in Saigon, Vietnam (written while waiting for your future lover Cindy studying at the archives)

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  • Dipu Sampang Rai

    Summary of you blog,NICE!!! And you got death threats?? :O

  • http://danielteolijr.tumblr.com/ Daniel D. Teoli Jr

    Overall good advice Eric. But you have to be careful when you get too high and mighty with ‘Don’t aim to make simply funny or weird or interesting photos.’

    I just shot this last week. When you do this type of work you don’t have much time to think all these philosophical thoughts you profess in your articles Eric. Your skills must be ingrained in you. You may have a blink or two of the eye to get the shot.



    I have only been to a rock concert twice in my life Eric and that was 40 years ago. I have no skills for concert photography. Nor do I have any special connections or all-access passes. I just buy a ticket like everyone else and start shooting. The only thing I do have is decent gear and some skill. But we don’t need much for doing documentary photography.

    As Bresson once said we only need an eye, a finger and two feet for documentary work. All these camera fondlers out there are weighing themselves down with gear. Fondling time should be spent in ‘pressing the button time’ if you want to produce good photography.

    The camera fondlers here would not have liked this shoot. I had to wash my camera 7 times a day or more. The Faygo soaked camera buttons are sticky now. But the Fuji’s are disposable, whereas I took more care with my Leicas.

    The camera fondler’s joy must be found in fondling their cameras and planning what to buy next for it cannot be found in making iconic photographs. Now, I am not immune from having too much gear myself. I make plenty of buying mistakes. But we should sell off our mistakes unless we want to be a camera collectors and not a serious documentary photographer – everything you own takes little piece / peace of you.

    Best Regards,


  • Michele Pople

    Keep up the inspiring writing !

  • LMikka

    Very wise and inspirational! Thank you for all your guidance and for not listening to the naysayers.

  • GrandMinnow


    • Dude!

      I wonder if you spend as much time communicating with your family as you do stalking this guy religiously, every single day. Maudlin. That’s the best you’ve got. Creep.

      • GrandMinnow

        (1) How I spend my time is irrelevant to my comment.

        (2) Writing comments over the course of a week or so is not “stalking”.

        (3) You’re claim that I post “every single day” is false. Lately, I posted on consecutive days, but overall, the number of days I don’t post is vastly greater than the number of days I do; there are times when weeks and months(?) go by without my posting. And even if I did post criticisms every day, that is not itself wrong.

        (4) “That’s the best you’ve got.” Yes, it made my accurate point in a single word – the exact right word.

        (5) “Creep”. Probably that’s the best that YOU’VE got, though not for accuracy.

    • Paetroz

      At times you post some sensible things, but then you post something that seems to have no point but to be hurtful. What does this achieve? Judge not.

      • GrandMinnow

        My point is not to be hurtful but rather to express my view of the article.

        Hurt? Beyond mere mild rankling? Actual significant psychic anguish? Who do you think is “hurt”? Kim? He says he welcomes and benefits from criticisms. Should we not take him at his word? Other readers? I would hope that adults are not so very emotionally fragile that they can understand that there may be different reactions to a piece of writing so that, while some people are motivated to describe the article as inspiring, another person may be motivated to describe it as maudlin. Rather I take it we’re not children who always have to do as grandma tells us to do when she wags her finger at us, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

        “Judge not.”

        A Biblical platitude. Now you’re just throwing me red meat.

  • Chris Leskovsek

    It’s a bit sad that nowadays we write even the most soulful words/notes/letters in the ‘cloud’. This are the type of things you write down on a piece of paper, so whoever comes after you finds this deep down in a drawer, and also finds your hand writing which is part of each other souls. Nice words Eric.

    • Sergio Leyva

      Totally agree.

  • jann

    You’re so wise for 26, Eric. Wiser than people twice your age. I’m one of your “silent” followers, but I love your blog and totally admire what you do. (I wish those negative people would just unfollow your blog instead of harassing you…)

  • Jeremy Nix

    Cool self-portrait.

  • Sergio Leyva

    Beautifully written mate! I always thought about the same thing, what I would do if I started doing street photography all over again and similar points to yours always arise. Thanks a lot for sharing this, will be a good re-read for those bad days we all have from time to time. Keep up the good work, cheers!

  • grains

    This is very inspiring. I completely agree as I have been distracted by social media.

  • robert

    Interesting concept…thanks for a good article.

    However…I think that you know deep down that this is untrue also right?

    And realize money can only buy you happiness if you invest it into experiences.

    End Quote.

    Ultimately, it won’t buy you happiness either.

    Happiness cannot be bought…it cannot be manufactured or forced.

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  • http://blacren.com Blacren

    All I can say is thank you!

    If you have a moment please check out my photography


  • Pingback: A Letter to My 18 Year Old Self: If I Started Street Photography All Over Again()

  • blink

    My early photographic evolution was back in the 70s (maaan), and I’m grateful it avoided the internet treadmill. The percentage of useful to useless advice was pretty much the same as now, but numbers were smaller. Photography has never lacked for opinions, which is in keeping with enthusiasts for a medium whose process takes 1/1000 of a second to complete. As with the advent of digital photography, I’m not sure how much the internet has contributed to the quality of SP as a whole, and I very much doubt it’s added much to the sum total of happiness in the world. If I were to give my younger self advice it would be shoot more, because the 1970s, it’s people and places were dying off faster than I could have ever imagined. And stay away from the internet unless you’re certain it’s adding to your photographic education and personal joy.

  • Rom Ayala Ladera

    Thanks Erick!well said!I don’t know if your familliar with the posdcast of Andrew Ferebee Titled Knowledge for men.Try too look it up,it’s worth listening to.

  • DG

    Eric, I’ve spent countless hours reading your blog in the past few weeks.


    Your posts are thought-provoking. I often read them bit-by-bit; lingering on one point at a time.

    I’m also a librarian and share your dedication to giving things away for free.

    This year I’ve started to dedicate myself to photography and feel more inspired and informed by your blog.

  • Sean

    Im 25, started photography at 18, was passionate about it, (my greatest work and creativity was then). Lost that fire amidst all the university work, and an attempt to be grounded, less head in the clouds. Did psychology and a few sociology courses and got a bit disllusioned with the whole corporate culture. And now im at a crossroads in my life, with a quarter life crisis. I decideded to dust off that camera, roam the streets. While the constant words of ‘grow up, work longer, and no time for hobbies’ ring…I guess many of us have killed this inner child, so vital for photography, and try to compensate with GAS.

    Maybe what I like to say is, you are not juat teaching photography but inspiring as well. You’re transcending mere impartation of skills, to fostering a mindset, lifestyle and community. And for that I thank you.

    Coffee Bean
    ION orchard.