(All photographs in this article provided by Rinzi Ruiz)
My good friend Nicholas Susatyo recently recommended a book to me: “Zen in the Art of Archery.” In-fact, it was the book that Henri Cartier-Bresson said had the deepest influence in his photography. I have been meaning to read it for a while, so on my flight to Philly I decided to give it a go.
The book is written by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosophy teacher who went to Japan for several years and learned the art of archery (while teaching philosophy at a Japanese university). He heard about the art of archery, and was fascinated with the zen philosophy which was embedded in the art.
Zen in the Art of Archery
As we all know, archery is no longer practiced in the “real world” in battles and such. When Herrigel wrote “Zen in the Art of Archery” in the 1940’s, it was a very closed art– only reserved to local Japanese who were serious enough about it. To teach a foreigner the art of zen and archery was considered heretical.
However with some good luck (a good introduction by a Japanese friend) and some persistence, Herrigel was able to go under the wing of one of the greatest archers in Japan. And with his experiences learning under him for 6 years, he wrote his brief book in “Zen in the Art of Archery.”
The book was an enjoyable read to me, because he explained the zen philosophies (which are often cryptic) in a way in which westerners could understand. Being Korean-American myself, it was the perfect balance of Eastern Philosophy with Western analysis.
After finishing the book, not only did I learn many insights which I plan on applying to my practical everyday life, but also to my street photography. Some of these philosophies may seem a bit cryptic, but I will share what I personally got out of reading the book. And of course, I am not an expert of zen–and one of the biggest difficulties is that there are so many branches of zen that all the practitioners have subtly different philosophies. Please feel free to share your thoughts and also corrections in the comments below.
1. Lose yourself in the moment
One of the things I love most about street photography is this feeling that I lose all consciousness of myself when out shooting on the streets. I no longer think of myself consciously as an entity– rather, I feel like my body melts into the streets and I become physically and spiritually embedded into the environment that I explore.
I lose consciousness of walking, of breathing, and even of holding my camera. I let my eyes wander– being fascinated by the people living their everyday lives on the streets, and their interactions. Whenever I see something I want to capture– I don’t hesitate. I fluidly approach my subject, and the camera almost takes the photo by itself. Of course I generally follow-up with a smile and a brief hello, and either continue to talk with them, or continue on my way.
One of the philosophies of Zen is that you should lose self-consciousness of yourself, and especially of your own ego. You don’t think of yourself as being great and the center of the world. Rather, you see yourself as something quite insignificant and just like a grain of sand in a desert.
When I am out shooting on the streets, the feeling of getting lost in the “flow” makes me feel much more comfortable shooting in the streets (and is often when I take my best photos). The second I become self-conscious, I find myself drawing too much attention to myself and my subjects can sense my hesitation and feel less comfortable.
When I start shooting on the streets, it takes me a while to “warm up” to get into the zone. Imagine yourself as a cold car in the winter. If you want your engine to perform optimally, you want to warm up your engine, let it run for a bit– and let the oil circulate the gears. The oil lodged into the hidden nooks and crannies also burn off, and become to loosen.
I think the same philosophy can be applied to street photography. When I first hit the streets, I am quite self-conscious and feel quite uncomfortable shooting in the streets. The first thing I try to do is start clicking, and I start to loosen up. I hear the click of my shutter, and it is a warm and inviting sound. I want to hear my shutter click some more, so I look for more interesting subjects to capture. I talk to strangers that I find interesting (often not even taking a photo of them– but just getting to feel more comfortable with people on the streets).
Once I get warmed up, I feel much more bold shooting in the streets– and self confident. I melt into the streets, and feel like I become part of the streets. But once again, I try not to think too much. I simply “go with the flow” and let the photography opportunities come to me.
2. Ignore recognition/fame
One of the philosophies I learned from zen through the art of archery is that the master archers don’t care about showing off to their peers, or even hitting the target. They practice the art of archery to become introspective, letting go of their ego, and detach themselves from the world. Herrigel’s master summed up archery quite eloquently by calling it the “artless art.”
Being social beings, we crave recognition and affirmation from others. This certainly applies to every aspect of our lives. This includes affirmation from our families (reminders that they love us), affirmation from work (that we are doing a good job), and affirmation from friends (that we are admired and respected).
Certainly there is nothing wrong about being affirmed by others. However, it can be quite dangerous once we focus more on the affirmation of others rather than focusing on our own internal goals.
The archer is not focused on showing off– and neither should we as photographers. When we shoot on the streets, no need to show false bravado of taking photos of strangers super-close with a flash (to show to others how courageous we are).
I know that when I started street photography, I felt that I had this strange need to prove myself to others– and how courageous I was to others. However over time, I found out that this was a false path. I still shoot quite similarly as I did in the past in regards to shooting at a close proximity (from .7-1.2 meters) but my philosophy of why I do it is different. I don’t do it for the sake of it anymore, but to feel more emotionally connected to my subjects. I also find myself talking more and interacting more with my subjects, which I find to be more genuine.
I also think this can be applied to the world of social media. I used to be a whore to views, likes, favorites, and any sort of notification on social media. It made me feel good, special– and that I was a good photographer. After all, how would I know if my photo was “good” if I didn’t get at least 100 “likes” on a photo?
Once again, I also found this to be a false path. I soon found myself not taking photos for myself– but for others. I let their favorites and comments dictate what they thought was a good or interesting photo–rather than following what I felt was a good or interesting photo. My experience taking a year off of uploading images to social media certainly helped me focus more on my personal work, and I think has been the best thing I have ever done in regards to my photography.
Know that when you are shooting on the streets, you have nothing to prove to others. You don’t have anything to prove to yourself. You shoot street photography because you enjoy it, that you find it a challenge, and that it satiates some sort of passion that you have deep inside of you.
Therefore don’t worry too much about how many “likes” or “favorites” you get on Facebook or Flickr. Rather, aim to please yourself. When you want feedback in terms of how you can improve your photography, ask colleagues that you trust
or find a mentor who can give you stern and critical feedback (that isn’t just patting you on the back).
3. Don’t photograph others, photograph yourself
One of the fascinating (and first a bit puzzling) concepts that the zen archery master told Herrigel the importance that in the art of archery, the archer doesn’t look to aim at the target– but rather he aims at himself. The master continues this analogy with some examples:
- The bow and arrow doesn’t shoot outwards, but inwards.
- The archer doesn’t bring the bow to highest tension, but the bow brings the archer to highest tension.
- You don’t hit the target, the target finds your arrow.
Even though I am Korean-American and heavily influenced by Eastern philosophies, I still find myself more of a westerner at heart. As a westerner, I like to think that I have control over everything– and that I am the actor and the agent that controls my own destiny. I don’t like the idea that things can be outside of my control.
In photography, I think we can use the analogy that we aren’t aiming to photograph others. But rather, we are trying to photograph ourselves.
I heard this many times by photographers– that when we photograph someone we are simply taking a self-portrait of ourselves.
For example, if we are shooting on the streets we tend to be drawn to whatever we find interesting (which says a lot about our own personality). I might walk down the street with you and even though we technically pass the same buildings and subjects– we both will probably take different photos. I might take a photo of a trash can with a little doll hanging out, you might take a photo of a happy couple. Perhaps this shows my personality of cynicism and loss of hope in the world, and perhaps the photo you took shows more of your own optimism.
I look at the work of Daido Moriyama which is dark and gritty– and I feel I am looking straight into his soul (in the past, he had lots of problems with drugs, alcoholism, and strained family relationships). When I look at the work of Martin Parr, I can see his cynicism with the world– and disdain of the negative aspects of capitalism and consumerism.
At the end of the day, there is little to no objectivity in photography. It is all subjective. We decide what to photograph and what not to photograph. We decide what to include in the frame, and what not to include in the frame.
Embrace your subjectivity in photography, and try to shoot faithfully. Don’t photograph in a way which you feel doesn’t sit your personality. If you find yourself a shy and introspective person, you don’t need to shoot a stranger super-close with a flash. You might want to take a more detached approach, and not intrude on somebody.
If you find yourself more outgoing and gregarious, perhaps rather than just snapping photos of strangers and moving on– take some time to talk and engage with your subjects. Personally, I enjoy the conversation I have with strangers and finding more about their personal lives (than the photographs I take of them).
In the journey of photography, perhaps one of your aims is to discover yourself– and who you are. So don’t see photography as a yourself looking at others through a pair of binoculars, but as looking at yourself through a mirror.
In life, we often try to force things which aren’t natural. We try to stick the square pegs in the circular holes, and often try to fit the circular pegs in the square holes. It often doesn’t work out.
In the western world, we live by the philosophy of bigger, better, stronger, faster. If we fail to meet a goal or expectation, we simply blame ourselves (or get blamed by others) that we simply weren’t “trying hard enough.”
In the art of archery, it flips this concept upside its own head. The key to become a master archer is not to become super strong to pull back the bow to launch your arrow as far as it can go. The key is to be relaxed, and let things take care of themselves.
In archery, when you are too tense and not smooth in practice– your arrow will wobble and not fly straight. Herrigel’s archery master explained the key of making an arrow fly with grace:
“Relaxed drawing of the bow, relaxed holding at the point of highest tension, relaxed loosening of the shot, relaxed cushioning of the recoil.”
I find that this concept of being relaxed is extremely important in street photography. I find when I am tense when shooting in the streets, people can sense my tenseness
and feel less comfortable around me. Not only that, but when I am tense I tend to lose out on many photo opportunities– as I don’t let my eyes wander and find things serendipitously.
I think the same applies in life. When we try too hard and force things– they generally don’t work out. For those of you in a relationship, think about when you were trying to court your significant other. What was a more effective strategy? Showering the girl or guy you were interested with presents, compliments, and attention? Or simply being yourself, acting casually, and letting them be drawn to you? I find most relationships happen in the latter.
Don’t be so tense when you are out shooting in the streets. Remember that street photography isn’t a game or a competition. You aren’t competing with others photographers on the internet to see who can get the most likes or favorites or followers. You are doing it for yourself, and nobody else.
A suggestion that I have is when you are shooting on the streets, don’t worry too much about your technical settings. I generally like to shoot in “P” mode whenever I can (I use it on my Contax T3 with autofocus) as it allows me to not worry so much about my settings– and focus more on the photography. I find that a lot of photographers shoot in manual mode when its not really necessary– simply for the sake of it and to show to others that they aren’t a “noob.” After all, only noobs shoot in auto modes, right?
Believe it or not, Steve McCurry shoots with his Nikon D800 with a pretty standard kit zoom lens and in “P” mode. He doesn’t waste his precious energy and effort into always fiddling with the settings. Rather, he uses his energy to connect with his subjects, consider his light, frame his shots, and take the photos. The less things we have to worry about, the more relaxed we will be.
Another suggestion: Don’t always feel that you need to take all your street photography candidly. If you feel a little insecure or nervous when shooting on the streets, start warming yourself up by talking to strangers and asking for permission to take their photo. Once you connect with someone else and perhaps share a few good laughs, you will find yourself much more relaxed when shooting in the streets– which I guarantee will help you make better photos.
5. Focus on the journey, not the destination
When Eugen Herrigel was training to learn the art of archery, it took him 4-5 years of practice before he was was even permitted to aim at a target. That is like the equivalent of practicing taking photos of random things around the house before you were “permitted” to take photos of strangers in the street.
Understandably, after all those years of practicing with his bow and arrow (without even having something to aim at)– he got a bit frustrated and asked when he was able to advance to the next step.
His master responded by telling him not to worry about his progress or goal by saying: “…the way to the goal shall not be measured.” The master emphasized by telling him to focus on the journey, and not the destination– while also realizing how long it takes to reach mastery. He shared the proverb: “He who has a hundred miles to walk should reckon 90 miles is half.”
In the west, we are obsessed with goals, progress, and measuring everything. Once again, this goes with the idea that the west wants us to become more productive, stronger, faster, smarter, and better. How do we know if we are getting “better” if we can’t track things?
I believe in goals to a certain degree– in the sense that it is good to know what your priorities and passions are in life and heading that way. However the more specific you get in terms of goals, the more detrimental it becomes.
In personal fitness when I try to get stronger, I find myself less stressed and happier when I go to the gym for the hell of it– and for the fun. When I start getting too obsessed with tracking how much stronger I get, I feel more stressed out (when I can’t meet my goals) and enjoy the process less. Ironically enough when I don’t track my progress and simply “go with the flow” when I am in the gym– over time I find myself getting much stronger and healthier (than when I am obsessed with tracking everything).
I think we can apply the same concept to street photography. Many of us have goals to become renowned for our photography and hopefully one day sell prints, get exhibited all around the world, and become famous. I have personally had a few exhibitions internationally, have several thousands of followers on all of my social media channels, and have been recognized in the streets and I can share– it hasn’t really made me any happier in life.
I find that when we reach our destination, it is often less glamorous and amazing than we imagined it to be. Once again, I remember when I started photography I dreamed of all of these goals. However I reached all of these goals for myself, I found myself quite unhappy. Sure the initial jolt of reaching these expectations I set for myself was wonderful, but after a week or so, things went back to normal. I always convinced myself: once I met these goals, I would be happy for the rest of my life. I learned through my experience that this certainly wasn’t the case.
Now that I reached all my goals (and had no more goals for myself)– I got quite glum and wondered to myself: “Now what do I have to look forward to?” I suddenly felt lost, despondent, and confused what to do next.
After sulking around for a bit, I did what I knew best– I left my house and just started to take photos in the street. I instantly found solace, and a feeling of losing myself– and enjoying the process of shooting (and forgot about all my concerns, shortcomings, and feelings of hopelessness).
Take your time with your photography. When you are out shooting in the streets, try to be as present as you can be. Don’t think about the photos you are taking, but think about the interactions you have with people on the streets, the beauty of the architecture around you, and the sounds and bustles of the environment. Don’t worry about how your photos turn out (to be good or bad)– rather, enjoy the feeling of your feet on the pavement and the joy of being able to do what you love.
Set goals for your photography, but make sure they don’t dictate your life. Feel free to bend the rules, to change your goals, or even get rid of them all-together. Enjoy yourself, let go of the stress, and have fun.
I would say that street photography and zen certainly go hand-in-hand. Both are about cherishing the experiences, rather than worrying about the outcomes– and the importance of inner-reflection. In-fact, one of my good friends Rinzi Ruiz goes by “Street Zen” online– finding street photography to be a great way to meditate and self-reflect.
Don’t worry about becoming a famous photographer, or even taking great photos. Enjoy the experience of shooting on the streets– and don’t feel the need to force anything. Take things as they come, and go with the flow.
For anyone interested in learning more about Zen, I highly recommend reading Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery.” Another book I have read recently which is a nice companion (also a pretty short and quick read) is “The Tao of Pooh“– in which the author links Taoism (a similar philosophy to zen) to Winnie-the-Pooh (it sounds weird, but trust me– it is really good).
Zen in the Art of Archery
What do you feel and experience when you are out shooting in the streets? Any other ways you can link zen and street photography? Share your thoughts below.
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