How You Can Apply Sociology to Your Street Photography Projects

Dark Skies Over Tokyo

(One of the photographs from my new “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” project)

As a sociology student at UCLA, I have learned many insightful things through my courses that I have applied to my street photography projects. If you are struggling with finding your own voice in street photography or how to construct a project- check out my post below. I discuss my personal experiences in sociology, how I applied those concepts to my street photography projects, as well as practical advice to those who want to learn more.

I am also excited to announce my new “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” project that I shot in 2011 and just published.

Curious? Read on!

Avoid shooting projects with pre-conceived notions

Dark Skies Over Tokyo

When I was taking my honors ethnography course at UCLA one of the things I learned from my professor Robert Emerson was to avoid entering a social world with certain pre-conceived notions.

For example, my research was studying a high school continuation school – a school where “problem students” were sent. Many of the reasons why students were sent to this school included disciplinary issues, attendance issues, as well as academic issues.

Continuation students get a bad reputation for being “problem students” and are often seen as troublemakers, lazy, or aggressive. This is also the notion that I had before entering the school, but I constantly reminded myself to have an open mind.

Once I entered the school and got to know the students for a few weeks, I discovered that many of these stereotypes of the continuation school students were misleading. Sure many of the students had issues with behavior at school, but it was due mostly to pressure from gangs in the school that caused trouble. Some of the students had issues with attendance at school, but it was due to family problems at home (students’ parents having drug issues, etc.). Other students had issues with grades at their previous school, but some of it was caused because the students didn’t have access to a computer or Internet at home.

For the course I had to take down notes of everything that happened at the school. Instances of students fighting, students arguing with the teacher, students confiding me about their family issues back home, students talking about the stereotypes they experienced from others, etc. By the end of the course I had to compile the three main themes I observed during my research at the school, and present them in a final paper.

This sociology/ethnography course taught me much about when it comes to working on street photography projects.

When it comes to working on a project, you shouldn’t go to a certain place with pre-conceived notions in your head. Rather, you should have an open mind and adapt to every situation. If you have certain pre-conceived notions about a certain location and try to force your research to find what you want, it won’t be truly representative of what you find (and frustrating).

For example, having pre-conceived notions about a place is like having a wooden board with certain shapes cut into it (squares, triangles, circles). If you try to find evidence that supports your pre-convieved notions, it is like trying to shove whatever you discover on the streets into your pre-cut wooden board.

However if you go to a place with an open mind, it is like starting fresh with a wooden board with no holes in it. Once you start discovering certain themes, then you start cutting the shapes and start supplementing what you find into your projects.

Korea: The Presentation of Self

Korea: The Presentation of Self

One of the projects I currently published on my website was “Korea: The Presentation of Self“. I am Korean-American, and I knew I was going to be in Korea for around two weeks and wanted to do some sort of street photography project there.

I spent the first half-week just wandering around the city, and took photographs of anything that interested me. I also made sure to talk to a lot of people in Korea and asked them what they found interesting or unique about Korea.

A few weeks prior to coming to Korea, I visited Tokyo and shot a project there which I titled: “Dark Skies Over Tokyo“. It was a project about the irony of Tokyo that although it is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, it has one of the highest suicide and depression rates in the world (and they say money can buy you happiness). I found Korea to be similarly depressing in that certain way, and found it difficult to differentiate Korean society from Japanese society in that regard (Koreans are also notorious for being chronically depressed and also have high suicide rates from stress and over-working).

I was at the Leica store in Chungmuro, and talked to Summer, one of the curators at the ILLUM gallery there. I showed her my project from Tokyo and described my difficulty trying to differentiate my project from Tokyo and Korea. Summer then said something interesting to me. She mentioned that although many Koreans suffer from depression and suicide, she generally found quite happy and social. She mentioned a bigger issue was the sense of insecurity that Koreans had as well as self-image issues.

I then had a “eureka” moment. It all clicked to me at that moment- as I thought about my own experiences with my fellow Koreans. We are so concerned about our self-image, and try to bolster it through our fancy cars, expensive designer clothes, as well as cutting-edge gadgets. I then started to think about all the Louie-Vuitton bags I saw in Korea, all of the Mercedes-Benz cars I saw, as well as all of the iPhones in the subway.

Therefore my focus in my project started to narrow down – and I focused on this theme of identity, consumerism, as well as image-management. “The presentation of self” was a concept I learned in my Sociology courses from a sociologist named Erving Goffman – who stated that the world was a stage. We put on costumers and masks when we enter our social worlds and put on a show (when we are in public). However once we retreat back home, we take off our masks and show our “true self”. I then set out to the streets of Korea to find instances in which people try to present themselves in public.

After showing my project to dozens of people, I finally edited down the series over the course of 6 months (I shot the project last January).

Dark Skies Over Tokyo

Dark Skies Over Tokyo

When I was in Tokyo for two weeks, I also tried to work on a project. The pre-conveyed notion I had of Tokyo was that it was full of geishas, exotic neon lights, as well as the best technology in the world. I therefore went out and started shooting whatever I found interesting as well, but told myself I needed to work on a project.

My “eureka” moment was when I was riding the subway with Bellamy Hunt in Tokyo. I saw that the subway stations had these gates that opened and closed when the subway trains came, and asked what they were for. Bellamy mentioned how Tokyo used to have an issue where a ton of people would jump in front of running subway trains to commit suicide. I found that quite grotesque, and he continued by telling me about other issues in Tokyo – such as places like suicide forest where people go to commit suicide together. He also mentioned how the Japanese “Salary men” would work over 100 hours a week, only to drink away their pain at night.

I went home and did some Googling – and I found it quite ironic how Tokyo was one of the wealthiest cities in the world, yet had one of the highest suicide and depression rates. Therefore I wanted to work on a short-term project that revolved around the darkness of Tokyo, and this sense of gloom & “heaviness” I felt on my shoulders when around the city.

I then went out and tried to shoot anything that felt dark, grim, or lonely. During the edit of my project, I tried to focus on themes of alienation, confusion, as well as darkness. However at the end of the day, I consider myself a positive person and tried to end the project on a more positive light with some hope.



The project I am currently focusing on is titled: “Suits” – which is a self-reflection of how I used to feel when working as a “suit”. When I was working at my old company, I enjoyed my work, my co-workers, and my boss- yet didn’t feel entirely fulfilled. I hated having to work 40 hours a week from certain hours in the day, the loss of personal freedom, and all of the work was sucking the creative juice out of me. I then started getting caught up in getting that next paycheck, that next raise, that next promotion. I needed more and more and more, to buy that new BMW, save up to buy those new designer jackets, as well as trendy Nike shoes. I started essentially “selling out to the man”.

After I got laid off my job, I felt a huge sense of euphoria from my newfound freedom. Now whenever I see men in suit and a tie, I see a noose and a ball-chain. I see the misery and drudgery in many of them, I can sympathize with their pain.

Of course not everyone feels that way. Many people love their office jobs, their suits, and their work. However this project is more of a self-portrait of myself – in which I try to present photographs of how I felt when working for “the man”.

Practical advice

Dark Skies Over Tokyo

I encourage everyone to work on projects, no matter how long you work on them, what your topic is, or even how “serious” it may be. Here are some words of advice I have to offer:

1. Apply your personal experiences

If you work on a street photography project, think about working on a project that is personal to you. If you suffered a bad break-up with a lover and feel a sense of loss and gloom, I suggest shooting a darker and more somber project. If you are more of an optimist and see hope and love everywhere you go, focus on kissing couples and those in love. If you are getting older and having a mid-life crisis, perhaps you should shoot a project on age or your personal feelings of concerns or worries.

I have found that the projects I have enjoyed the most from others are the ones that are emotional and have a personal connection/story with the photographer. Therefore shoot from the heart.

2. Decide how long you are going to work on the project

A project can last as short as a few days, or as long as a lifetime. The advice I have gotten from other photographers is that a “good” project generally takes about a year (it is hard to take good photographs!)

I think it is important to have a deadline, or else you will never finish a project. I use the analogy of having tests or papers due for school. If you never had a deadline for a test or paper, you would never finish it (and just keep on partying). Therefore you can set the deadline for a week, a month, a year, two years, five years, or even ten years.

However at the same time be flexible. If you have been working on a project for 6 months and you no longer feel passionate about it, I suggest to close out the project.

3. It’s all about the edit

It is important to edit your project while you are shooting it as well as the end of the project.

When you are shooting the project, look for certain re-occurring themes. If you are working on a project about age, what do you see yourself shooting the most? Is it old people, young people, or middle-aged people? If you are doing a project about your own city, what themes do you see popping up in your photographs?

I suggest identifying what themes you see the most prominent in your photographs, and writing it down on a piece of paper. For simplicity sake, I like to section off my sub-themes in my project into threes. For example in my “Suits” project, I am focusing on men in suits, women in suits, and foreigners in suits.

When you are completed more-or-less of shooting the entire project, be brutal with yourself during the edit. You might have shot a phenomenal image but if it doesn’t fit your theme, don’t include it.

A piece of advice I have gotten from my friend Charlie Kirk is to print out your photographs in small 4×6’s and post them on your wall. Then constantly look at your photographs, and you will get a better sense of what photographs work and which don’t. I find that the good photographs (like oil in water) tend to rise to the top, and that the weak photographs (like lead in water) tend to sink to the bottom.

If you don’t want to print out your images, upload them to your Flickr and set them to “private” and look at them several times a week and after a while, you will begin to despise your weak images.

4. Get other people to give you feedback & critique

As much as we like to edit by ourselves, I think it is important to get a second-opinion. After all as much as we would like to emotionally detach ourselves from our images, we will sometimes cling onto our weak images that don’t really pertain to our projects.

Therefore carry around your photographs either in 4×6’s, on an iPad, iPhone, laptop, etc., and ask people to give you feedback in-person. Ask for suggestions for edits in terms of what photographs are strong and weak, and even ask for suggestion for sequencing the images in a theme.

5. Publish the project

When you feel that your project is “done” – decide how you are going to publish it. I recommend publishing it in a series on a portfolio website (I recommend index-exhibit- 500px is quite good too). I don’t recommend publishing the entire series on Flickr, as it is too focused on the “stream” and less on sets. People can look at the photographs in the “wrong order” and the message you are trying to convey through your project may not get through.

You can also decide if you want to do a book with your project or have it featured in an exhibition. I have found many people publish great work via Blurb, and you can also try finding local galleries to showcase your work.


Dark Skies Over Tokyo

I still have a lot to learn when it comes to working on projects, but some of the greatest insights I have had about my work is outside of photography. My interest in Sociology has undoublty had the biggest influence in my street photography.

Therefore I suggest you to inspire yourself with literature, science, economics, psychology, sociology, painting, sculpture, etc. to get an interesting outsiders-perspective and insight. This will help you give a unique perspective in your own work.

Work on projects that are personal to you, and show emotion and soul in your work. As humans things that generally stick with us hits us in the heart.

Any other advice you would have when it comes to working on street photography projects, or any difficulties you are personally having? Leave a comment below and share your personal experiences!