Why Do You Shoot Street Photography?

(Above: Photograph from my on-going “Suits” Project. The Netherlands, 2012)

When I was in Korea earlier this year, my friend and fellow street photographer David Kim shared a TED talk with me titled: “How great leaders inspire action.” David holds a leadership position at his job, and he told me that this talk changed the way how he lead others and how he leads his own life. Needless to say, I was fascinated by the talk and after watching it – it changed my life.

The Golden Circle: Focusing on the “Why” not the “What” or “How”

In the talk Simon Sinek makes the case that successful leaders/organizations/companies asked the question “why” before asking the “what” or the “how”. For example, he used Apple, Martin Luther King, and the Wright Brothers as examples who focused on the “why” questions.

For Apple, they follow the “why” question when it comes to making computers. Why does Apple do what they do? They want to inspire people through elegant, simple, yet powerful devices.

For Martin Luther King, why did he want to see equality and freedom for all races in the states? Because he had a dream.

For the Wright Brothers, why did they work so hard to build the first flying airplane? Not to make money, but to create a technological breakthrough that would help all of mankind.

To better illustrate the this “golden circle” principle I re-created a diagram that Sinke used in his talk below:

The golden circle: A simple model to be an inspirational leader.

As Sinek mentioned in the talk, less successful individuals/companies/organizations start at the outside (the “what” and “how”) and go inwards (to the “why”), whereas the greats start from the inside and go outwards.

To better illustrate this concept, here is an excerpt from the talk in which Sinek on how Apple focuses on the “why” question to create greatness:

If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?” “Meh.” And that’s how most of us communicate.


Here’s how Apple actually communicates. “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” Totally different right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me. All I did was reverse the order of the information. What it proves to us is that people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

Other PC manufacturers generally follow the “what” and the “how”. What do PC manufacturers make? Computers. And “how” do they make them? By constructing them in factories. They often forget “why” they create the devices that they do.

Due to the fact that these PC manufactures don’t focus on the “why” causes them to not think about usability or the user experience. Apple wanted to create the most elegant, intuitive, and friendly user experience to help improve the lives of their consumers.

So how does this concept of the “golden circle” apply to street photographers? 

From my “Korea: The Presentation of Self” Series, 2011

I get interviewed quite a bit for my street photography. Generally the questions that people ask me include the “how” and the “what”.

“How” questions:

  • How do you take photographs on the street?
  • How do you approach strangers and take their photos without their permission?
  • How do you find the time to take street photos?

“What” questions:

  • What settings do you use on your camera?
  • What camera and lens do you use?
  • What do you look for when shooting on the streets?

However people rarely ask me “why I shoot street photography” which I feel should be one of the core questions.

I conduct many interviews for other street photographers, and I admit it is also a question I fail to ask. In my experience when I have asked the question to photographers, not all photographers know the answer to this question. It is a question that we all have difficulty answering (not only in street photography but in life).

The last year or so I have been seriously asking myself “why” I do what I do. With this blog, with my photography, and with my life. Before I give some solutions on how you can better understand why you shoot street photography, I would like to share some of my experiences and frustrations to show how I discovered “why” I shot street photography.

The early “why” I loved photography

“The Conductor” – One of the first street photos I took that I was proud of. From my “All The World’s a Stage” Series, 2009.

I first got started in photography when I graduated high school. As a graduation present, my mom surprised me with a shiny new Canon SD 600, a lovely little point-and-shoot camera (thanks mom!). At the ripe age of 18, I remember the obsession that quickly ensued.

The first week that I owned my new point and shoot camera, I took nearly 1000 photographs a day for several weeks.

Why did I do this?

I have a terrible memory. I quickly discovered that photography was a way for me to remember, and also better appreciate the small things that I overlooked in my day-to-day life. Whenever my friends or family would ask me to recall an event, I would often be blank. However when I looked at a photograph, the memories would come surging back.

That summer I also entered college, starting my undergraduate studies in sociology at UCLA. What I learned through my studies was that sociologists are obsessed with the “why” question. Why is there inequality in sociology? Why do individuals revert to “group” think when at public events? Why do we think that buying nice things will bring us happiness?

Needless to say, my studies in Sociology have had a profound impact on my photography. My start in photography coincided with my start in sociology, so both of them grew hand-in-hand. I soon saw my photography to be less about documenting my daily life. It soon shifted to documenting the lives of others, especially people out in public and on the streets.

Then the reason why I took photographs was to record “The beauty in the mundane” – the wonderful slices of everyday life. My early inspirations were Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and many of the romantic French photographers. However over time, this also began to shift.

A shift in my street photography & the “3 Why Principle”

“Popsicle” – one of the photos that made me realize that I wanted to head towards a more sociological type of street photography. From my “The City of Angels” project, 2011.

After about two years of shooting street photography like that of Henri Cartier-Bresson by focusing on geometry, waiting for the right person to enter the scene, and capturing “the decisive moment” – I got bored. It didn’t interest, challenge, or push me enough in my photography.

I started to have my quarter-life street photography crisis, in which I wasn’t sure “why” I continued to take photographs. It is something that haunted me for several years.

I remember sitting down with a pen and pad, and I remembered a principle I learned in school, which was the “3 Why Principle“. My teacher taught it to me as a great tool to get to the bottom of everything.

My thought process went something like this:

1. Why did I take photographs?

Because I enjoyed it.

2. Why did I enjoy taking photographs?

Because it forced me to get off the computer, out of the house, and to capture “the beauty in the mundane”.

3. Why did I strive to capture “the beauty in the mundane”?

To have others appreciate the small things in their everyday life

As you can see, asking myself “why” 3 times it was able to give me a more crystallized view of why I shot street photography. I shot street photography to have others (my viewers) better appreciate the small things in my life.

Of course this is something that I first started off on, but my “why” has changed very much since then.

My interest in “sociological street photography”

From my “Suits” project. Beverly Hills, 2011.

I would say from my earlier work (see my “All the World’s a Stage“) my work has evolved. I now focus less on the beauty in the mundane. I am now trying to synthesize my interest and passion in sociology to street photography.

When I was studying sociology, one topic that has always fascinated me was the sociology of happiness.

Why was it that some countries were happier than others? If people says money buys you happiness, why is it that the richest people were often the most depressed and miserable, while people less fortunate reported a higher level of life satisfaction? What could I do in my life to be happier?

While as a student at UCLA, I told myself I would never “sell out to the man”. I was very anti-corporations and quite left-leaning in my political and social beliefs. I loved sociology and wanted to pursue my Ph.D. and hopefully become a professor in sociology.

Towards the end of my last year at UCLA, the prospect of going to school for another 8 years didn’t sound too appealing. At the same time my girlfriend Cindy introduced me to an internship that promised an opportunity to make a full-time career out of social media and Facebook. That same year I taught a course titled: “Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks” so it seemed like a good fit and I jumped right on in.

After graduating I got lucky enough to get a full-time position at the job and for the first several months I thrived there. However towards the end of my time at my company, I started to feel the pressures and the negative aspects of corporate life. I always had to be in the office at a certain time and date. I had a limited amount of holidays I could take off. I would be constantly pummeled by emails, requests, and social media.

From my on-going “Suits” project. London, 2011.

I also noticed how I would see others in the company who were much more successful than me – with a higher position, better pay, and with better cars. I wanted what they had, and then turned myself into a work-a-holic. I wanted a raise and wanted to earn more money, so I put in extra hours, would respond to emails even after work, and even on weekends. Money, power, and status were what were mostly on my mind.

Needless to say it made me quite miserable. I slept less, was more stressed out, and overwhelmed. Was earning more money to buy more clothes, more watches, and a nicer car really worth it?

One day while at work, I got called into one of the conference rooms for a meeting. I got sat down, and was surprised to see the director of HR sitting in front of me. He pulled out a manila folder with official-looking documents, folded his fingers together, and told me that I was being let go – as the company was “restructuring”. I was heartbroken by the news, and quite scared. How would I pay for my student loans? How would I pay for my credit card bills? How would I pay for my rent, my electricity, and food? Would I be able to find a new job?

Looking backwards, it was certainly a blessing in disguise. With the support of friends and family, I made the jump and decided to pursue my street photography full-time. I still remember when I biked home after hearing the bad news, and afterwards telling people on this blog the news. The response I got was outstanding and immensely supportive- which gave me the inspiration I needed. I am fortunate enough that after a year and a half I am happier than I have ever been in my life, pursing what I love and not being homeless (fingers crossed).

My suits project

From my “Suits” project. London, 2011

Now whenever I see people in suits, I can feel their pain and misery. I know many friends who work at jobs they hate because they need the money to support their families, or because they have gotten used to their salaries. One quote that I read from Nassim Taleb was quite powerful:

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” (from the book “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms“) by Nassim Taleb

Now through my “Suits” project I am trying to paint a self-portrait of how I felt while working corporate, and hopefully inspiring others who work at jobs they hate, to re-evaluate their lives, and hopefully pursue their true passions in life.

So “why” do I photograph? Having studied sociology, I am a social critic at heart and I see many injustices in society that infuriate and frustrate me. Therefore I see myself less as an artist in street photography, but more of a sociologist with a camera to record my observations about society. I wish my photography could be used as a vehicle to help influence people to look at themselves more critically in their space in society.

The “how” or “what” of my street photography is also important, but not the main focus. How do I shoot street photography? By getting close, zone focusing, and using a flash. What do I shoot? People wearing suits and ties.

Suggestions on how to find why you shoot street photography

Part of my ongoing “Suits” project.

I suggest everyone to really ask yourself why you shoot street photography. It has definitely helped me get more focus in my photography and better understand my motives. Below is some advice I can share:

1. Categorize your photographs

If you are using Lightroom, import your portfolio and your best shots and start categorizing them. Start off by using general tags such as:

  • People
  • Animals
  • Intimate objects
  • Landscapes
  • Abstractions

Then you can start narrowing them down. As a street photographer, it is most likely that you chose “people” as the most popular tag. From then, you can narrow it down even more. Think to yourself, what kind of people do you photograph the most? Some ideas for tags:

  • Kids
  • Couples
  • Women
  • Men
  • Elderly people

Narrow it down some more. You can start adding emotions. For example, if you chose kids:

  • Happy kids
  • Sad kids
  • Excited kids

You can go as deep as you would like with these categorizations.

By categorizing your photos, you will get a better sense of what you photograph. Do you see yourself capturing more of the misery of everyday life or the happy moments? Do you find your photos to be mostly of people or not of people?

In the introduction of this article I wrote how you should start from the “why”. But if you don’t know why you photograph, working from the “what” you photograph can help point you in the right direction.

2. Ask yourself the “3 why” question

Like mentioned earlier on in this article, ask yourself the “3 why” question. I recommend writing this down on a piece of paper (you will get less distracted than typing this on your computer). Another example of what you can write:

1. Why do I shoot street photography?

It makes me happy.

2. Why does shooting street photography make me happy?

Because it allows me to meet up with my friends and shoot with them.

3. Why do I enjoy meeting up with my friends?

Because at home I am lonely and want to connect with others.

So perhaps in this scenario, you shoot street photography to be social.

3. General reasons why people shoot street photography

To also help you better understand why you shoot street photography, take a list of these reasons below. I have asked a lot of street photographers why they shoot street photography, and here are some of the general responses:

  • I want to show happy moments of everyday life
  • It helps me be social and meet other people
  • It forces me to step outside of my shell
  • I love the “thrill of the chase”
  • I want to make a critique on society
  • I want to showcase the inequality and suffering of those less fortunate than us
  • I want to document and record the world around me

This is certainly not a definitive list, but can be used as a guide to help point you in the right direction.


Photo from my ongoing “Suits” project. Berlin, 2012.

To take your photography to the next level and give you better focus in your street photography, always ask yourself the question “why”. I think it is important to ask yourself this question often, because the reason why you shoot street photography may change and evolve over time.

Focus less on the “how” and “what” of street photography. Focusing too much on the “how” of street photography will lead to an unhealthy obsession of equipment, lenses, and technique. Too much focus on the “what” of street photography will cause you to become locked down in your subject matter in what you take photos of. But understand the core reason why you shoot street photography will give you the energy, excitement, and happy fulfillment out of working on the streets.

So ask yourself “why” you shoot street photography and don’t just stop there. Ask yourself why you do what you do in your everyday-life, and I hope this can also bring you some more inner-peace (I know it has for me).

If you try your hardest and still don’t know “why” you shoot street photography – don’t worry, there are thousands upon thousands of people in the same boat. It is a life-long journey of understanding for all of us.

Why do you shoot street photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below.