Shoot Every Day As If It Were Your Last

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Tokyo, 2012. From my on-going “Suits” project.

I was sitting at home with my girlfriend Cindy, and I suddenly got a call from my cousin overseas. After two bouts of heart attacks while he was in the hospital, he passed away suddenly. My mom then called me and told me that I had to immediately get on the next plane to Korea to attend my grandfather’s funeral (which was on Sunday).

It was Friday night, and Cindy was fortunately able to help me book a plane that left the next morning. I quickly tossed some clothes into a gym bag, packed my camera and laptop, slept, then left to the airport.

After a 18-hour flight to Busan, I arrived Saturday night in cold and rainy weather. I took a taxi straight to the church where my entire family from all around the globe was getting prepared for the funeral.

RIP Halabujee
My grandfather’s tomb

My grandpa lived a long life, and passed away at the ripe age of 91. He grew up in the countryside of Busan (a city in the south of Korea) where he bootstrapped himself from a poor family into being a prestigious doctor. In his entire life he supported 8 children, and later on his life after he retired, he took up Chinese calligraphy.

His calligraphy soon became his passion. He would lock himself for hours on end in his study, and delicately wrote poems, verses, and characters onto beautiful white scrolls. When I visited his study, I was amazed to see hundreds of books on Chinese calligraphy stacked on his walls. He took his art very seriously, and continuously worked on and improved his craft from the age of 40 until a week before he passed away at 91.

From the doorway, looking into my grandfather's study
From the doorway, looking into my grandfather’s study

After his beautiful funeral this Sunday, the entire family gathered at his home and we started to divide up his assets. One of his most prized assets was his art. Fortunately everyone in the family were able to receive a few Chinese character scrolls as inheritances, which were absolutely beautiful. Many of them won national contests, and he was even given some of the higstehest art awards from Korea. As devastated as our family was about his passing, at least we would all have something to remember him by.

This past weekend has got me thinking a lot about death. I’m only 25 years old and (fingers crossed) still have a long life ahead of me. But death is quick fickle and sometimes unexpected. What if I will die in a car accident or a plane crash tomorrow? Who knows if I fall ill to a fatal disease or cancer? Who knows if I get mugged and killed the next day? Nobody knows.

Some chinese calligraphy done by my grandfather in his study
Some chinese calligraphy done by my grandfather in his study

Life is short. None of us know when we are going to pass.

Whenever we wake up in the morning, we should always be grateful to be alive.

Being an America, I used to always be obsessed about earning more money in life, buying a nicer car, saving up to buying a big house, and getting a promotion and raise at my job. But at the end of the day, how important are these things?

One of the most influential speeches I have heard in my life was from Steve Jobs. In a Stanford commencement speech in 2005 he shared:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Considering that he had many bouts with cancer, he would always wake up and look at himself in the mirror and ask himself: if today was my last day on Earth, would I live it like it were my last?

I think as street photographers, we should have the same mentality and shoot everyday like it were my last. The irony is that even though I am a “full-time street photographer” even I have a hard time to carve time out of my busy schedule to go out and shoot. Sometimes my entire day is consumed by answering emails, blogging, spending time on social media, reading blogs, writing, planning workshops, etc that I don’t have time to shoot. So I would say regardless of what job you have in life, unless you carve out time to prioritize your photography, you will never time find to shoot.

Some changes which have helped me find more time to shoot:

1. Bring your camera with you everywhere you go

I know I say this all the time, but it is still the best way to find time to shoot street photography. It doesn’t matter if you are busy with work or kids, if you always have your camera with you you can shoot even in the most mundane places (think supermarket, on the way to pay bills, or even at the post office).

2. Carry a small camera

I have discovered a funny paradox with cameras and photographers: the more experienced we get as photographers, we generally keep upgrading our cameras and lenses that they keep getting bigger and bigger. But in my personal experience, the bigger my camera got– the less I carried it with me, and the fewer photos I took.

I remember when I started photography with a little Canon point-and-shoot. I loved the camera, carried it with me everywhere in my pocket, and took a ton of photos everyday. Once I got a Canon 5D, it was such a pain in the ass to carry around everyday, that I rarely took photos (and rather spent time on gear forums).

Nowadays the only two cameras I shoot with are my Leica MP and my Contax T3. I only take out my Leica MP to big events where speed is a priority. When it comes to shooting around town in my everyday life, the Contax is with me 95% of the time. I keep it in “P” mode, autofocus, and just snap whatever I find interesting. Because it is so small and compact, I never find it a burden to carry with me, which leads me to ultimately taking more photos.

3. Ask yourself: what if I died tomorrow?

Nobody knows when they are going to die. So ask yourself, if you were to die tomorrow– would you regret not taking more photos in your life?

Personally, I don’t know any photographers who ever regret taking too many photos. The regret is always not taking enough photos (think of taking photos of your kids, on holiday, etc).

I don’t mean to say you need to jump on the next plane to Paris and shoot street photography. I generally find the most interesting photography done by street photographers in their own hometown regardless of how boring it may be. If we can learn anything from William Eggleston (who has shot street photography for over 60 years in Mississippi) we can still make interesting and beautiful photos from the most mundane places.


A rare photo I found of my grandpa taking a photograph. I guess it runs in the family.

Life is short. We never know when we are going to pass. Live everyday like it were your last– and don’t just apply this philosophy to street photography. Remember to keep in touch with your family (as you never know when they are going to pass), spend a lot of time with your significant other or kids, and friends closest to you.

Nobody dies on their deathbed regretting not making more money. What regrets do people have? Not pursuing what they were passionate about in life, not spending more time keeping in touch with friends, and not enough time with family.

Don’t worry how fancy your camera is. You don’t need a Leica to shoot street photography, your iPhone will do. You don’t need an exotic prime lens, just use your kit lens and tape the zoom. You don’t need to live in Tokyo, the suburb you live in is full of interesting characters and places to shoot.

The green isn’t greener on the other side. The grass is always greener on your side. Embrace that, and shoot like everyday was your last.

Steve Job’s Commencement Speech

Take the time to watch Steve Job’s commencement speech for the graduating Stanford class of 2005. Trust me, this 14 minutes can change your entire life (I know it did for me):