How the Philosophy of the “Barbell Theory” Can Improve Your Street Photography

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See how you can incorporate the barbell theory to improve your street photography, like these guys pumping iron and getting stronger. Photo by Guy Le Querrec, FRANCE 1979. Copyright: Magnum Photos

One of the most influential books that read in my life is “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb. The book is part philosophy, and part a practical guide on how to live a virtuous life.

One of the central concepts of the book is the “barbell theory.” What is the barbell theory you ask? Well, it is the concept that whenever it comes to things in life– we should approach two extremes (and avoid the boring middle). It is a concept that I have applied to many fields of my life, including street photography. I hope this article can shed a new way on how you see the world, and how you can apply this to your own personal work.

Introduction to the Barbell Theory

stillbbell

What exactly is the “barbell theory” you ask? The concept of the barbell theory is to embrace the extremes in life (image the heavy weights on the the far left and the far right of a barbell). In the book “Antifragile,” Nassim Taleb suggests that this is a better strategy in life rather than just striving for mediocrity. For example, You can apply this philosophy to life.

An easy way you can think about this theory is the idea of two polar opposites– which when combined work better than just half-assing two things. An easy way to think about the barbell theory is the idea of “working hard, playing hard.” I will continue to explain the theory a bit more in detail below:

Writing and the Barbell Theory

It is no fun being a starving writer, or artist.
It is no fun being a starving writer, or artist.

Taleb uses writers as an example to illustrate the barbell theory. Writing is one of the most uncertain professions in the world. There are so many aspiring novelists who find writing to be their passion. But they have a dilemma. Should they try to put 100% of their effort into writing and try to make it a career? Or should they simply keep a boring accounting job and pursue writing as a passion on their side without any interruptions? Or should they pursue a middle-management job and try to write whenever they may have the chance?

According to Taleb, he preaches for aspiring writers to stick to a boring and stable job (which doesn’t require you to use much mental energy) and pursue your writing on the side as a pure passion. He doesn’t encourage the idea of even getting a writing job that can suck the life out of you (freelance writing, editing, or other gigs that you may not be passionate about).

This is the barbell theory in application: keep a boring and stable job (the far left side of the barbell) while pursuing your passion of writing without it being influenced by your day job (the far right of the barbell).

I will try to illustrate the barbell theory with the ghetto illustrations below:

1. Barbell approach (left and right extreme strategy) – Preferable

[]—————-[]

  • Left extreme: Boring Job
  • Right extreme: Passionate writing
  • Outcome: Stable life, and better writing– as the quality of your writing has no obligation or negative influence from your job.

2. Boring approach (middle, average-weighted strategy) – Boring

—–[]—[]——

  • Left average: Mediocre job
  • Right average: Mediocre writing
  • Outcome: You don’t become super rich from your job (you are just stuck with middle-management jobs) and your writing will be affected too (the stress of work will kill your mental energy for writing). So mediocre job and mediocre writing.

3. Risky approach – Avoid at all costs

—————[]

  • Left: no stable job
  • Right extreme: Pursuing writing as a profession
  • Outcome: You might end up homeless, as the prospect of making a living being a writer is very unlikely.

Barbell Theory in Other Fields

Barbell dog in action
Barbell dog in action

We can approach the barbell theory in other fields. Here are some examples in which we may incorporate it into our life:

1. Finance

Avoiding “medium risk” investments. Rather, investing  90% of your money in uber-safe investments (government bonds or boring cash) and 10% in very speculative stocks (high risk, high reward).

This way your downside is low (you can only lose 10% of your money) while you have a huge upside (if your speculative stocks shoot up, you can earn a killing)

2. Exercise

Avoiding “jogging” and low-intensity aerobic exercise. Rather, focusing on short and intensive sprints at 90% of your heart rate combined with leisurely walks.

3. Work

Avoiding working in a fragmented manner all day (checking social media, blogs, email). Rather, working in short and intense bursts and after finishing work, relaxing all day.

4. Food

Avoiding a “moderate diet.” Rather, combining fasting for a day, and then feasting for the next day. Studies have suggested that “intermittent fasting” is superior to our health than just obtaining “regular calories.”

5. Family time

Avoiding distractions when spending time with your family (not checking email while with your kids on your smartphone). Rather, spending your non-divided attention with your kids for a day, and perhaps working for the entire next day (not seeing them at all).

Enter Street Photography and the Barbell Theory

I have been fascinated with the barbell theory for quite a while, and have applied it to my everyday life (some of the examples are in the list above).

A few of them include really intense workouts (for a short period of time) rather than jogging in the gym pointlessly for hours. I also try to only do email for a focused block of around 30 minutes-1 hour a day (instead of checking it constantly throughout the day). Not only that, but for my thoughts on street photography, I try to keep them either very long and detailed (blog posts) or very short (Facebook updates or tweets).

When it comes to street photography, I think there are also a lot of ways we can utilize the barbell theory to make ourselves more efficient, happier, and better photographers. Here are some ideas I propose:

1. Shoot in short, intensive bursts (relax otherwise)

Photograph by Kaushal Parikh
Photograph by Kaushal Parikh

The two best times to shoot street photography (if you want good light) is the early morning or the late afternoon (golden hour). Generally at all the other times during the day, the light is absolute crap.

So when you are out shooting on the streets, only shoot when the light is good and shoot like mad. Then don’t even bother taking photos during other parts of the day. Rather, you can relax, look at photography books, read, or visit exhibitions.

This will probably help you produce better images because when you are focused shooting during golden hour, you won’t be distracted– and you will be working with beautiful light (which will make your photos glow). This is the way in which Alex Webb works (he shoots early mornings, scouts for locations during the mid-day, and shoots again at the late afternoon).

I tried this approach while in Mumbai with my buddy KP. Since we are lazy we would generally wake up late, enjoy a nice coffee and lunch in the afternoon, chill out, read photo books, talk street photography, and once it was around 4pm– we would jet out of the house and shoot like mad for 6pm. I found it be a lot less stressful, and more enjoyable way to enjoy street photography.

2. Keep the day job, keep street photography as a passion

From my "Suits" project. London, 2012
From my “Suits” project. London, 2012

I know lots of street photographers who want to make their photography a full-time profession. What would the barbell theory tell us? Don’t.

According to the barbell theory, it is better to have a hyper-stable job and pursue your photography 100% as your passion, rather than taking up wedding photography and ending up losing your passion for photography (photography soon feels like work).

So my advice is similar: if you are truly passionate about your street photography, perhaps you should choose a profession that isn’t straining to your street photography. Don’t choose a job that has long hours (which prevents you from shooting after work) or that makes you work on the weekends (even less time to shoot).

The benefits of having a steady job is also that when you go on holiday and travel, you can do 100% of your street photography as your passion– rather than having to travel and ‘go on assignment’ and shoot stuff you don’t enjoy.

Having a steady income will also allow you not to stress out about your photography, and figure out how to monetize it and make it a living. It also gives you the funds to buy new cameras and lenses if you desire, or for film and developing costs.

I am hugely lucky to be able to make street photography my career. Key word: luck. For example, I started my blog when there weren’t many other street photography blogs, I got laid off my job at the right time, and I have also been fortunate enough to get so much help from others. I certainly never intended to make street photography a living either– it just kind of fell into my lap.

Therefore to be quite frank, I don’t know if you could make street photography a living (even if you worked really hard and wanted to) without having luck. And I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on just luck alone.

3. Shoot a ton, show very few photos

I shot 30 rolls in Istanbul in a week. This is one of the only few shots I decided to show. Istanbul, 2012
I shot 30 rolls in Istanbul in a week. This is one of the only few shots I decided to show. Istanbul, 2012

We can also use the barbell theory when it comes to shooting and editing. For example, I believe in the idea of shooting a ton of photos, but only showing a very few photos.

By shooting a lot, you increase your chances of getting a great potential shot. But on average, you will not get many interesting shots. But once you do get that one epic photo, then decide to share it. For all of your “average” photos, I encourage you not to share them at all.

I have encountered many photographers who are superb photographers but horrible self-editors of their own work. For example, if I look at their portfolio they got some really amazing photos, but a lot of mediocre stuff too. The sad reality is that my opinion of that photographer generally goes down when I see their so-so work. It would be better if they just edited down to their strongest images.

I know we all want to share our photos, as they are all our babies. But try to embrace this barbell approach and only show your best work.

My suggestions? I would say shoot everyday if possible, but only upload photos once a week. Even better, once a month. Then you will find the quality of your work that you should will be absolutely stellar.

Most photographers who are famous are only known for their one most famous image. So even if we show our one best photo once a year (and assuming you have a few decades to live) we got good chances of making one memorable image before we die.

4. Only look at great images (and crappy images)

1x1.trans 10 Things Garry Winogrand Can Teach You About Street Photography
I always am inspired by Garry Winogrand, one of the masters of street photography. Copyright: Estate of Garry Winogrand

You are what you eat, especially when it comes to street photography. If you want to be healthy, it is generally better to have a super-strict diet of lean protein, veggies & fruit 95% of the time (and eating fast food 5% of the time) than eating mediocre food 100% of the time.

Perhaps the same can go when it comes to looking at images. I would say spend the majority of your time only looking at two types of images: extremely great images (photos from the greats) and really bad images (stuff you might see on Flickr).

The really great photos will allow you to understand what makes for a great composition, dynamic framing, strong content matter, etc. The really bad photos will teach you how not to shoot (shooting random crowds, having flat light, messy backgrounds, etc).

When it comes to looking at photography, I try not to spend too much time looking online (although there are a handful of really talented contemporary street photographers online– think In-Public, Burn My Eye, That’s Life, and some images in the HCSP pool) but rather looking at photography books. I also recommend Magnum Photos, Invisible Photographer Asia, and LPV Magazine.

Photography books tend to be far better edited, have a better selection of images, and have better image quality than the tiny 640px jpegs you see on the internet.

Some street books I recommend are here.

Conclusion

Larry Towell, Afghanistan, 2009. Copyright: Magnum Photos
Try more experimentation with the barbell approach. Photo by Larry Towell, Afghanistan, 2009. Copyright: Magnum Photos

The barbell theory is just one theory how to approach life, and not the ultimate. For me, it has personally worked well– but it won’t work for everyone.

However I do find that in life in general, it is better to avoid the average and go for the extremes. After all, when you are watching movies are you more interested in the average Joe C-list actor? Or the ripped action star (Sylvester Stallone) or the suave actor (George Clooney)?

I suggest as an experiment, try out some of these barbell theories in street photography and see how you like it. Life is all about tinkering and trying out new things. If you like it, embrace the barbell theory. If it doesn’t work out for you, no big deal– you didn’t lose anything but at least have the peace of mind have having experimented.

So once again, don’t strive for mediocrity. Go for the extremes, and it will pay off.

For further reading on the Barbell Theory read Chapter 11 in “Antifragile.” I highly recommend the book to everyone, who knows it might also change your life!

56 thoughts on “How the Philosophy of the “Barbell Theory” Can Improve Your Street Photography”

  1. Interesting post, Kim. I really like the approach (even though i could never work with something I´m not passionated about). Always nice to read your writings!

    PS. Should the word “passion” be something else in this sentence? “I know lots of street photographers who want to make their photography a passion. What would the barbell theory tell us? Don’t.”

    1. I agree with you, Jens. It has to be misprint. The right word is “work” according to the context. The approach is really interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Come on, a lot of this is just nonsense. Most of the rest is common sense.
    And there’s more to life than choosing either “mediocrity” or “extremes”.
    Give me a break!

    1. I definitely agree with you — there is more than life than just “mediocrity” or “extremes.” This is just one philosophy in living life that I found interesting which I found worked personally well with me. It isn’t the only way to live, and won’t work for a lot of people as well.

      1. I guess it’s common sense that every theory has its won (over)simplifications to it. However, I found some quite interesting and thought provoking ideas in this post – thanks again Eric for taking your time and writing this! Primarily it comes down to the question how to use your spare time to pursue the passion of photography and take care of family and friends and one’s job on the other hand. I find it very sensitive to go out and shoot intensively during a short time period i.e. the golden hour as you need to focus. It also turned out quite positive for me to not regularly show my images in the social media because thus I took away the “pressure” that I needed to post to get some feedback :-) Last but not least the “you are what you eat” argument to read good photography books is always well appreciated! ;-)

        Keep up your great work and passion Eric, it’s always a big pleasure to read your posts especially on my daily way to work which would be quite boring otherwise…

        1. I agree about the pressure we can put on ourselves to post images all the time. I was thinking just this yesterday and how I want to slow down to relieve that pressure

          1. I can tell you that a) shooting film or b) working on a project and keeping all images to yourself until you feel happy about your selection for this project can be good to slow down…. I really think that we go out and shoot for ourselves and to have a good time and not in order to hunt for some keepers which will give us some faves on Flickr (although I am always lucky when I get some :-)

    2. You have no idea how many times I’ve been told why I don’t work with photography since I love it so much. That, for them, would be common sense.

      To begin with I don’t consider my photography “work”. I have a steady job that supports me financially and gives me plenty of time and enough money to photograph.

      But that’s exacly what Eric pointed out: it would destroy my passion, since I’d work with wedding or babies and not with street. But they don’t see the difference.

      Thank you, Eric for sharing this. I’ve never seen nothing written that touches my personal life approach. Honestly, it’s very comforting.

  3. I’m not sure Eric. YOU have gone all out and taken a big risk (which you are to be given great credit for in the success you are making of it) YOU are in SP full on, full time yes? To suggest people stay in boring jobs is a bit dicey in my opinion. What is the one thing that seems perfectly designed to kill creativity, to kill passion? Boredom. And given most people work 40 or more hours a week at their “job” then it follows that they spend the majority of their waking time in that boring, soul destroying job. I’ve been there and done that. I’m not saying there is an easy answer; most people have to work to get money to live. I don’t know the answer myself. I am not in great health so we are spending our savings now and travelling and (I HOPE!!!! LOL) I am going to get to spend heaps of time on the street. But in other circumstances, I would be working probably as I’ve had to in the past. I know the “middle way” of Buddha’s teachings might work for some. it’s about I guess arranging your life so that you have time and money and other energies in balance. Good luck to all who try to get that balance. Must say I am hugely impressed with your posts these days mate!

    1. Cheers Paul.

      I am quite lucky– I had a ‘boring’ day job for about a year while building up this blog. So I had a steady income/health insurance/etc while pursuing my street photography as a hobby 100%.

      Then I got lucky and got laid off at the right time, allowing me to do this full-time. Surely that was a risk, but I took the safe route before jumping off.

      And glad you enjoyed the post !

  4. I find a lot of this advice to be bad. It seems to me that if one is receptive to life’s events, and one has a vision, one can bypass all this extreme or mediocrity talk with a little bit of hard work.

    For us with egos, we can try some of these tactics if perfection is what we strive for, however, not everyone strives to be a well-known master.

    I found these sentences to be in a sense naive “The two best times to shoot street photography (if you want good light)
    is the early morning or the late afternoon (golden hour). Generally at
    all the other times during the day, the light is absolute crap.” Are we landscape photographers?
    Stay indoors while I get all the good stuff ;)

    1. I do agree with you G– I generally shoot at all hours at the day (mostly snapshots). But having great light can transcend a good photo into a great photo. After all, photography is all about capturing light:)

  5. I had two choices in life, boring day job that I knew I would hate, or take a chance and do what I love. So after High School, I took my two cameras and traveled, took assignments, did a few weddings, and never looked back. I never made a lot of money, but I sure did enjoy my life.

  6. leeclacksonphoto

    i just find that the time spent on these endless ways to improve photographic practice just end up as formulaic life coach nonsense that have no bearing on creative ability. I would say that if people are constantly needing this kind of stuff to try to make good work then they probably will never make particularly good work.

    1. I agree with you — the most important thing is just going out there and doing this. However I still think it is important to share philosophies to build some sort of framework in which you work

  7. This is a thought provoking post that shouldn’t be read so literally. Eric is merely providing some personal examples. It’s a concept that you can use in your daily life or in your photography that can helps you focus you mind. Limitations are just one of many powerfully tools that can free your mind to dedicate itself to important tasks. It doesn’t entirely suprise me that some people react negatively, although a tad disappointing. Treat these concepts like tools in the toolbox of life, you don’t always need to use them but when you do they might be perfect idea to get the job done.

    Great mind discuss ideas
    Average minds discuss events
    Simple minds discuss people

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  31. Hey another Option not discussed is the extreme Barbell theory and this is where our friend and his fragility theory totally goes super-bust building on the answer by G and your examples in the article lets say you did writing and photography full time you emptied your tank at two full time risky activities i believe that with technology one can do that and through hard work humility i.e no ego one can win at two risky games and 1/2 the risk of each in fact are you not doing that in a sense with a BLOG about photography !!! and then off teaching what media house actually lets say VICE it’s just that media activity multiplied photo video text I think the new formula is outside of all this fragile anti fragile business SUCCESS=DATA+PEOPLE-LEADERS= CHARACTER & Prosperity !!! this is beyond the fragile anti fragile Dialectic A new Formula for the 21st Century but any movement like street photography because it is human people focused looks for heroes practitioners I think it must now move beyond that to pure DATA/IMAGE

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