(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.



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  1. The TED talk is so chuckleheaded it’s scary and embarrassing. If you want to know why Dr. King is the figure the media extols over other brilliant workers in Civil Rights, read Taylor Branch’s biography. If you want to know why Apple has reached more people than the modern Catholic church, it’s not some superficial sense of purpose alone; it’s a thousand things. Life is more complex than this golden circle. You see the world as a sociologist; that may have been a strength; now it appears to be turning into a weakness. You are too in love with cliches, jargon, graphs, spoonfuls of sugar. If you really want to plumb the depths of why you are drawn to street photography–or anything–try writing a column without using the word “I” so incessantly. This is said in appreciation of what you do in photography and in sharing the resources you come upon. Dont be swayed by simpletons. Please respect your audience’s intelligence.

    1. Hey Slumming Angel,

      Thanks for your feedback! I definitely agree, one of the problems that I have to constantly face is ‘confirmation bias’ and sometimes it is easy to get sucked into just one mental model of seeing the world.

      Certainly this TED talk isn’t the silver bullet for all explanations in life, but something I found interesting to consider.

      Also the reason I like to use the word “I” so much is to share my personal experiences, and to re-iterate that everything I write in this blog is just my opinion. I still have a lot more to learn and I like to follow what Socrates once said, “The only thing I am certain of is my own ignorance!”

      Cheers and keep the feedback coming :)

      1. I love the why question, because it is one of the few things we can actually control. The more we focus on our purpose, the more we have a vision that guides and motivates us. Great article Eric and thank you for sharing. I find it inspirational. The fact that you use I has nothing to do with the fact with insulting anyone’s intelligence (WHAT?). It has to do with the fact that you are sharing your experiences indeed.

  2. Interesting article. “Why” is an unusual question in the amateur photography world I know.

    So many photography books or magazines are about “how” or “what” and forget “why”. Perhaps their readers do not want to know the answer…


  3. Bonjour Eric. I really enjoy your blog ; and this article is like many others : it’s brilliant and inspiring. It’s a real pleasure to read you. Deep thanks for that !

    Your text reminded me a formula from Pierre Soulages, a french painter : ” I don’t know what i’m searching for, what i’m looking for ; (it’s) what I do (that) learns me what i’m searching for”. Perhaps he used the “three why principles” :-) . No matter, it’s a powerful principle.


    1. Thank you very much for the kind words Thierry. I am glad you enjoyed it, and it has inspired you! I have been trying to focus on deeper article like this one and spending more time researching, editing, and thinking about the ideas. But there is still a lot to be explored!

      And that is definitely a beautiful saying from Soulages, thanks for sharing :D

  4. “Why”…tricky one. For me, it´s a feeling. Some kind of instant gratification when everything is in its right place when you press the shutter. The image has to satisfy me in different ways depending on what kind of street shot it is. Sometimes the geometry of the streets, buildings etc has to be in order. Sometimes when closer to people I want emotions and dynamics to to rule the shot. Most often it has to be a mix of it all. That´s the estethic part of it all. Storytelling is the other.

    THEN, I have another “why”. Famous documentary/street photographers often state that “you have to love people” as a photographer of this genre. I don´t. I´m very suspicious to my fellow human beings.

    People have to earn my trust in daily life. But the more I am out shooting, the more I learn about people. Photographing people is a way for me to LEARN to love the strangers around me.

    To sum it up….I do it because it makes me feel the poetry of life.

  5. I shoot street photography to express the connection between what I see and what I feel. I love the last line of Peter Levi’s comment below: “I do it because it makes me feel the poetry of life.” I’d have to say that’s as near to what I feel as anything else I could say.

  6. My niche is Street Portraiture, a cousin of Street Photography, but different. http://www.deinfaces.com/

    In my 60s, with the workaholic career over, Street Portraiture helps me connect with people in a way that I never have. I want the last chapter of my life to be different, and the camera is a tool to establish relationships that would otherwise never occur. And the faces tell such great stories!

  7. I shoot street photography because it’s the place that inspire me the most.

    people live with their eyes closed and don’t see what’s happened around them. Shoot in the street push me to look more carefully what’s happened around me and all the same funny or beautiful things to enjoy around yourself.

  8. Very great article !

    For me i can say, i dont know why i want to do street photography.. i am about to start it when december 1st has come. I don´t know why exactly i want to do it .. but it has somehting to do with people and their stories .. it was always important to know the stories behind peoples faces . I´m working as a special care worker and i´m working with a lot of disabled persons.. it´s important for me to help them deal with their life and bringing it to the fullest…. it was always the passion for the person and their needs and especially their background and how i could help them … i don´t know exactly what it says about my reason to start doing streetphotography .. but it might have to do something with the stories .. i would be very happy if it would be like that … We´ll see what i can feel, why it is how it is and what i really want to achieve in my photos =).

    So thanx again for sharing this really profound article about why we do things. It hopefully will change a lot in my life and help me find my way easier with street photography in the beginning =).

  9. One of your best articles yet, Eric.

    I also happen to love the “why” question. In fact, the “why” question is the very reason I photograph. I try to understand the world (and its people) through photography and personal contacts I make as a result.

    In reality I have a lot of disdain for humanity. Because on the surface we do a lot of idiotic stuff and we treat each other poorly. But there are always wonderful rays of hope shining through this mess that can be captured. And remembered. And taken into consideration.

    I use my photographs as proof of the fact that we are just as capable of being great as we are of being assholes.

    Speaking of assholes: you, slumming angel, fall into that category. I think. :)

      1. Apparently, you haven’t read my previous comments. :)

        Incidentally, why are you so afraid of putting your real name with your comments?

          1. Do cowards go against the herd? Believe me, i don’t want hundreds of *&#lickers to peep into my photostream.:)

  10. Great article Eric. I really enjoy the articles you write that have more of a personal touch like this one. I’m glad your photography career and blog have done so well.

    I think people need to keep in mind that just because a video has a good message doesn’t mean its the answer to all things. Sometimes an interesting point can be made simply to get you thinking… You handle the trolling well.

    Keep up the solid work man! Love your site. Its your passion for photography that makes this blog fun for me to visit.

    Keep Living the Dream,

  11. So weird Eric. This was the exact TED talk I was telling you about during dinner in Ktown. Great articles as usual. Keep up the good work. Hope you are still planning on publishing your best photos the end of the year.

    1. Hey Walter, yeah we totally talked about that TED talk last time we were in Ktown. Glad you enjoyed it, and hope your photography is going well in NYC. My new hope is to publish my first book – but will probably take me 5-10 years!

  12. Dear Eric, your articles are really inspiring and I want to thank you for them, I can feel the sincerity in what you share with us. You have a good point about the “Why” question but realize that there is a certain amount of impertinence in it.

  13. Shooting street photography is like playing poker for me. The house always wins and you mostly always get crappy shots of boring shit. But when that perfect hand comes, you bet big and take the house. Just like when the streets gives you that great opportunity where you’re at the right place at the right time and you press that shutter with all the correct settings, it’s a crazy endorphin rush.

  14. I did not know the story of how you ended up taking photography as a carrer path. Thanks for sharing. Great to see it has turned out well so far.

  15. Thought provoking, this post is one of the reasons I keep coming back to your blog. Keep up the great work Eric. I for one truly appreciate the effort you put into these posts. Not just a repost from PetaPixel like so many other photogs. Your journey is inspirational for many of us. Keep it up, please.
    Keep shooting,
    Chad Nordstrom

  16. Those 3 why questions were just examples, right? Because I think the reason should have more to do with taking pictures than with meeting up with your friends…

    I think a good reason would be: because I just can’t stop to keep on trying to create a better picture to frame and hang on a wall.

  17. So, “to see what the world looks like, photographed” isn’t a valid answer anymore?

    I photograph because I’m trying to taste new flavours and see new colours in the world. I photograph, but I could just as easily sit and study. Photography encourages me to see things in new ways, and conversely, to express my visions and emotions in ways that I cannot express orally.

    I photograph because I can’t NOT photograph.

  18. Hi Eric, for someone who also studying sociology I guess I can understand how our eyes automatically attracted to anything happens in our surrounding… In my 3rd years in college I started to realize that I like to take pictures of people, mainly my friends and bought a Kodak point&shoot and used it until it broken 3 years ago. Since then I really forgot about my hobby until a month ago when I found yanidel’s blog and a link to this blog of yours in one of the article… That is the first time I really felt like I found a new world. Never heard any about streetphotography before and the images in your and yannick’s blog really caught my eyes… I was an admirer of beautiful landscapes before, but now I felt that streetphotography is more interesting. It shows reality, humanity and interactions between human and the environtment… Guess I now will save to get some camera next year to replenish my hobby and definitely will give streetphotography a try… thank you!!!

  19. I noticed many people on your photos just don’t want to be photographed. My question is: why are you so aggressive during your sessions? Don’t you think this way to reflect our life is a fake, it’s not true. And it’s not fare. People on most of your images look ugly, I don’t think this is the way they really are. I guess you are not a photographer, just some kind of hunter, aren’t you? :)

  20. Same as any other photography, because I like to be able to hold onto moments that might otherwise be lost forever. Plus I like to slowly take in and savor all the details of the world, but it’s not polite to stare at people in real life, so I take a photo so I can stare at that instead.

  21. A very nice article Eric, as always! This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but not able to answer. I didn’t know where to start. Now I got a tool to figure it out. And Thank you for that! If you’d write a book, I’d read it. Cheers from Norway.

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  23. I can’t believe this. I saw that TED talk several days ago, and have been asking the “why” question to myself constantly. Why DO I do photography? So many different thoughts and ideas about it and then I find this blog post! It outlined much of my same thought process and many of your ideas resonate with me. I have not yet found the exact reason, but thank you. Thank you for this. I’ll keep searching. :-)

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