One of the most toxic feelings that a photographer (or human being) is to feel envy. Apparently envy is a trait that is deeply embedded in us, even as babies.
But why is it that we feel envy, what are we envious about, and what can we do about it?
Evolutionary reasons for envy/jealousy
First of all, realize that it is totally normal to feel envy (wishing you were in someone else’s spot) and also jealousy (fearing that someone else is going to take your spot).
After all, it is a great human adaptation that has helped us survive through the millennia. If humans didn’t feel envy, then we would probably be exited from the gene pool (survival of the fittest). Envy is what probably kept us from dying (if everyone else is eating the huge bison your entire tribe hunted but you, if you didn’t feel envy you would starve to death).
Envy is also what has helped keep human society in check. Without envy, no concept of “fairness” would have come about. A democratic state and concepts of “fairness” (unfortunately) are rooted from envy and jealousy.
However in modern times, envy and jealousy is something that mostly makes us unhappy and miserable. The worst is when it comes to photography and social media.
In sports, you have scorecards to tell who is winning and who is losing. Before social media, photographers didn’t really have a good sense of who was “winning” or who was “losing”. Perhaps photographers “kept score” by counting the number of exhibitions they had, how many published photos, or how many “Time magazine covers” they had.
But now with social media, it is all about the numbers. Who has more “likes” than the other photographers? Who has more followers than the other photographers? Who has more comments and online “klout” than others?
The problem with playing the “social media game” is that is a treadmill. Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill” in which whenever we upgrade let’s say, our house, our car, or get a raise at our jobs, we feel a brief spurt of happiness, then tend to “baseline” back to the happiness we felt before. Therefore we are constantly needing to “upgrade” more and more, to run faster and faster on the treadmill, just to keep on pace.
There is also a “social media treadmill” in which we constantly need more and more likes, comments, and external affirmation (via little red hearts) to feel content with our photography and progress.
The problem is that no matter how many likes, comments, or followers you have— you will always want more, and never be satisfied.
Why are we never satisfied?
When it comes to satisfaction; it makes sense that we have evolved to be constantly dissatisfied. Why? If we felt easily satisfied, we would have gone extinct a long time ago.
For our ancestors (hunter-gatherers, and agricultural-based societies) they were never satisfied with the amount of food they had, so they kept hunting and growing more crops (to make sure they didn’t starve to death). They weren’t satisfied with their homes, so they would constantly work on them to make them more durable and warmer (so they wouldn’t freeze to death in the winter).
As time went on (and we built cars and suburbs) we feel like we need to constantly make more money, because we have a fear that we might go broke, become homeless, and die alone. But then again at the same time— a lot of the need to earn more money (and drive fancier cars, have the newest gadgets, and of course— have the newest cameras) is because we want to show our status— and the fact that we are envious of those who have more than us.
Take for example the camera you currently own. I’m sure you love it, and you appreciate it a lot. Yet, there is probably a nagging feeling at the back of your head— oh but what about that new camera that has more megapixels? Perhaps by having more megapixels, sharpness, and a bigger sensor size will help me create more artistic images with more “depth” and “pop.”
Or perhaps you feel your camera is too big and heavy— you heard the newest version of “Camera X” has just the same image quality as your camera, but is half the size and weight.
Or you aren’t satisfied with the colors or black and whites that come out of your camera. Perhaps if you plop a few thousand dollars (put on some massive credit card debt, sell a kidney, or eat ramen for a year) you can afford that newest shiniest high-end digital camera (that will solve all your life’s problems).
It is all more similar than dissimilar
One of the things I am grateful for is that I have pretty much used every single camera out there. I have certainly not owned every single fancy or expensive camera out there, but I have at least held them, shot with them, and played with them a bit.
Honestly; at the end of the day, cameras are all much more similar than dissimilar.
Also I find that a lot of high-end or expensive things have a certain “mystique” — for example shooting with a Leica camera. While a rangefinder is a fantastic tool for street photography, I think 90% of the mystique comes from the fact that it is very expensive (at least the digital ones), that there is a legacy (Henri Cartier-Bresson and many other famous street photographers), and the fact that it is so much more different from any other modern digital camera.
But once you shoot with a Leica (or have owned one for a while), the mystique wears off. It soon becomes like any old camera. And you are no longer satisfied with it. You need a faster lens (the f/1.4 Summilux instead of the f/2 Summicron you have), you need another body (you need both a Leica M240 and Leica Monochrome), or you just need more lenses (21mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, etc).
And trust me, I have friends who literally own every single camera out there (M2, M3, M4, M5, M6, M7, M8, M8.2, M9, M9-P, M240, M242, Monochrom, etc) and they are still not satisfied. And if anything; having that many cameras adds more stress and complication to their lives (they don’t know which camera to shoot with when they go out).
I guess I can liken this to cars— I have always been into cars ever since I was young (watching too much Fast and the Furious as a kid). I always lusted for high-end sports cars. But once I sat in some of them and rode around in them— I realized that they were cool and fun, but after about 10 minutes in one of them I realized, “I’m kind of over this.” And from speaking with people I know who own exotic sports cars— they all admit, you sooner or later just get used to it.
Just like everything in life— you buy a big house. You get used to it. You buy the newest smartphone, you get used to it. You win a million dollars, you get used to it.
We lose the sense of gratitude, satisfaction, and contentment. Then we become to envy other people who have more than us, thinking that somehow they are happier than we are.
The truth couldn’t be further away.
Don’t be poisoned
I have fallen victim to the “social media treadmill” and “gear acquisition syndrome” (both are the worst diseases that can befall a photographer). I would say I am (mostly) cured of these diseases— but I know that if I tempt myself, I can easily fall into the spiral again.
For social media— one day it just kind of occurred to me that likes don’t really mean anything. They are just people scrolling through their feed, and mindlessly double-tapping a photo of yours they might find interesting (after looking at it for a quarter of a second). Likes don’t pay your bills, keep on your lights, or keep you warm at night. And also— whose opinion of your photos matters more— the opinion of your followers, or your own opinion of your own photos?
For gear— know that no matter how much gear that you own, and no matter how expensive it is— having more gear in your life will just create more complications. When I would own a lot of cameras and lenses, I would fall into “paralysis by analysis” — I would analyze my shooting preferences for the day, and I would waste 30 minutes trying to figure out what camera to bring that day. Also I discovered that by shooting with too many different cameras, my images weren’t consistent in terms of the “look.” Furthermore, owning too many cameras became physically (and mentally) “heavy” — there is nothing worse than traveling with a camera backpack that is 50 pounds of camera gear.
Also with cameras and lenses— there is never a “perfect” camera or lens. There is always upsides and downsides to everything. But what I have discovered (at least for myself)— in street photography, I always try to optimize for size and weight. Meaning— I would always prefer to have the smaller and lighter camera, that means I can walk longer during the day with the camera, feel less worried that someone might steal my camera, and also just always carry it with me. As a rule, the bigger or heavier my camera, the less likely I am to carry it with me where I go.
One of the best ways I have been able to cure myself of the madness of social media is to just take a break from it. I liken this to “fasting” with food. A short (yet painful) fast can cure or prevent a lot of diseases. Apparently people with Type 2 diabetics (not genetic) can actually cure themselves of diabetes by doing an intensive fast (where your body stabilizes its own metabolism). Also there have been some studies which have shown that intermittent-fasting or caloric restriction can extend your life (the theory is called “autophagy” — where your stronger proteins eat your weaker proteins, which creates some sort of “vacuum cleaner” effect in your body).
I also try to fast (or at least massively decrease) my caffeine intake on the weekends (I only had half a shot of espresso today on Saturday). This helps my body “detox” from caffeine, so it will actually do something during the week.
Detoxing from caffeine, fasting from food, and abstaining from harmful sugars is hard and painful. But the benefits vastly outweigh the negatives.
So the same with social media— as an experiment, just take a week off from uploading any images (or even looking at it). Uninstall all your social media apps (just for a week), and you will realize that there is an initial “withdrawal” phase— you have this deep fear of missing out (FOMO). You also no longer get the endorphin rush from seeing all those “likes” on your images. But after a while, you will discover, you will feel a lot more peace, calm, and tranquility (at least in regard to your own images).
For me, I have spent less and less time on social media— and felt more and more happy about my own photography. My photography is becoming a lot more introspective (photographing and documenting my own life, rather than the life of others), my personal satisfaction from my photography is more self-directed (than depending on external affirmation), and I feel that has helped me become more creative and more productive with my photography.
Of course, your mileage may vary.
The opposite of envy
So let’s think about envy as feeling negative feelings toward another— because you wish you were in their shoes. Envy can also be worse— envy can be a state in which you delicately hope for the downfall of someone else (so your status can be higher after they have fallen).
What is the opposite of envy? It is feeling positive feelings towards someone else, but while feeling grateful in your own shoes. It is being happy for others for their successes, but also knowing that “the grass is greener on your own side.” And it is hoping that that you both improve and get better, and being massively grateful for what you have.
Even now, I am not immune from envy. I still envy a lot of other photographers who have more followers than me, who travel more than me, who make more money than me, get more sponsorships and exhibitions than me— even though logically I know I have no rational reason to feel it— my emotions often override my rationality.
And I know that I will always feel envy for the rest of my life.
But at the same side— I have found an upside to envy. Envy pushes me to work harder and improve myself (rather than complain that others are succeeding while I am not). If anything, having a little “healthy competition” forces me to stay sharp, and to put my best foot forward.
A lot of athletes are inspired by their peers— to improve their own game, and take their own skills to the “next level.” The same goes for other artists, rappers, dancers, playwrights, or any other creative people.
Also realize that as photographers, we are all brothers and sisters in the same community and family. What is good for another photographer, is also good for us. Whenever a photographer has a huge exhibition or show, they promote the art of photography, which makes photography more popular as a whole. Which gives us better chances to succeed.
In the past I have been envious and jealous of other street photographers (and vice versa) — but I have realized: the more the genre of “street photography” gets popularized, the more everybody benefits. Street photography is still a very tiny slice of the photography pie— the more we can expand it, the more everyone gets fed. And once again, it is not a zero-sum game (meaning if you win, that doesn’t mean I lose).
Blessings on blessings on blessings
No matter how rich you are, or how poor you are— you will never find satisfaction without counting your blessings. It is also knowing that nobody’s life is better than yours. It is also knowing that there is currently no better place in the world to be, but the spot you are currently in.
It is being grateful for all the physical possessions you own, your friends and family, your past accomplishments, and also the fact that you are simply alive. That is the biggest blessing of it all.
And in terms of this elusive concept of “happiness”— the closest thing I have found that helps me as a creative is to seek “flow states.” A “flow state” is also called “being in the zone” — when you are so focused on what you are working on, that everything else disappears, and you are also using your skills to the utmost. It means working on challenging projects, that push you outside your comfort zone, and help you grow and build satisfaction with your progress.
For me, I am having a blissfully happy “flow state” writing these words to you on my laptop. There is nothing more pleasing to me than sharing some of my thoughts with you, and having the ideas flow out of my brain like water coming out of a faucet. I am the most miserable when I am not doing anything creative. To me, hell is being somewhere without any interesting people to talk to, not being around family, not having any books to read, not having any ideas to write about, not having anything to photograph, and not being grateful for anything in my life.
For you, finding a “flow” state might just be aimlessly wandering the streets and shooting “street photos.” Or it might mean having an engaged conversation with a friend, colleague, or family member. Or it might be chopping onions and cooking dinner. Or it might mean tamping your coffee beans and making a perfect espresso for your spouse. Or traveling somewhere, and letting your eyes be in awe of all the natural beauty out there.
The biggest thing is that you want a challenge — anything that is too easy and passive is never fun. We need to feel like we are being pushed, otherwise we are dying inside.
It is a constant challenge for me to find moments of peace where I can do creative work (read, write, photograph). Often that means me sleeping a lot earlier, trying to wake up really early, or secluding myself in the house (or preferably a coffee shop) to do some work.
Prioritize your own happiness, never envy another man (or woman), and fulfill whatever creative pursuit brings you joy, delight, and inner-satisfaction.
11:18am, Saturday, June 4, 2016 (about to have an epic family barbecue with slow-smoked brisket at Cindy’s family’s house, and enjoying the warmth of the sunny California weather).