The Tao of Street Photography

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NYC, 2013. Click to read more.

A fun and uplifting book I recently read was “The Tao of Pooh.” To sum up the book, the author explains the philosophy of Taosim through (believe it not) Winnie the Pooh. Yeah, I know it sounds ridiculous, but the author does a superb job sewing the two concepts together– in a language relatable and easy-to-understand for the viewer. Having grown up on Winnie the Pooh, I can certainly say that it brought the concepts of Taosim to life for me.

Similarly to Zen Buddhism, Taoism is a philosophy which was first introduced by Lao Tse in a book called: “Tao Tse Ching.” The philosophy of Taoism advocates staying calm and happy in all circumstances, no matter how difficult or arduous the outside world can be.

So what is the difference between Buddhism and Taosim?

  • Buddhism sees the outside world in a much more negative light– describing “the bitter wind of everyday existence.”
  • Taoism sees the world as “…not full of traps, but valuable lessons.” Therefore through Taoism we should appreciate, learn from, and work with whatever happens in everyday life.

A great analogy explained is the analogy of tasting vinegar. Many different people often taste vinegar, and complain of how sour it is and groan. However the Taoist would taste the vinegar and regardless of the taste, still smile. The takeaway idea is that we should turn negatives into positives, regardless of the situation.

There are lots of insights I’ve gained through Taosim and especially “The Tao of Pooh” that I can relate back to street photography. Also note I am not an expert on Taosim, so please correct any mistakes I make in the comments below.

1. Go with the flow

NYC, 2013
NYC, 2013

In “The Tao of Pooh,” the author describes something called “p’u“– which means “the uncarved block.” The idea is that power often arises from pure simplicity, not from overly complicated forms. The author explains:

“P’u” is “…natural, simple, plain, and honest.”

If you have ever read (or watched) Winnie of Pooh, there is a character called Rabbit. Rabbit is a busy-body, who always has to have a plan for everything in life and constantly runs from one task to another. However Winnie the Pooh simply goes with the flow, without having any particular plans in mind— and does what he enjoys. Rabbit is constantly stressed, while Pooh is a master of leisure.

So where can we bring in the concept of “p’u” (funny enough it sounds like ‘Pooh’) when it comes to street photography?

Well the secret of the “uncarved block” (p’u) is that life is best in its simplest form. We don’t always need a reason to do something in life. We can do things spontaneously, without a motive, for the fun of things.

I know I often advocate having certain goals or projects in mind when you are out shooting street photography. However I don’t think this is necessary all the time.

Takeaway point:

I think one of the things I enjoy most about street photography is that it is a natural way to release stress, to get out of my house, and to experience life. When I am not shooting for a particular project, I like to just grab my camera, an extra roll or two of film, and just go out and wander. I don’t have a pre-arranged plan in mind– I just go where my curiosity takes me.

Remember, street photography is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun– why are you shooting? Don’t shoot when it brings unnecessary stress upon yourself. Shoot because you enjoy it, because it connects you to people in the streets, and to other people on the globe (online street photography communities).

If you aren’t having fun, perhaps you need to let go of your personal goals– and just go with the flow.

2. Cherish knowledge over scholarship

NYC, 2013
NYC, 2013

I am sure we all know that one photographer that can talk at length about the history of photography, all of the technical settings, and theories of photography– but refuses to share his/her own work (or their work isn’t spectacular).

Lao Tse shares the idea:

“The wise are not learned, the learned are not wise.”

Pretty much what he is trying to say is that the wisest people are not necessarily academics, and that academics are not necessarily wise.

In “The Tao of Pooh,” the author likens Owl as being the scholar. Owl always has the need to classify everything, and speaks eloquently for the sake of it (he wants to always sound smart, and pretends that he knows everything–even when he doesn’t). Owl has the need to look scholarly and to look superior when compared to the rest of the characters in Winnie the Pooh.

However we need to realize that just because you are knowledgeable about a certain field–it doesn’t necessarily mean you are wise. And also it is important to know that knowledge and experience aren’t necessarily the same thing. Taoism believes that knowledge that comes from experience is better than experience that comes from knowledge–which I wholly believe in.

Therefore when it comes to the philosophy of photography, I first see if the photographer produces good work– and then hear about their philosophy. I am not that interested in hearing the philosophy of photography from photographers who don’t produce good work. I think this is a good rule of thumb especially when someone critiques your work (or likes your work).

There is a caveat– a person doesn’t need to be a great photographer to give valid feedback. Take for example, museum curators. They have a great eye for art and photography, but may not be able to take a photograph to save their life. In this case, I think it is important to look into the background of the person judging your work. Did they study art/photography in school? Have they curated any exhibitions? Do they have a solid understanding in art history? You can be the best basketball coach in the world (while being a terrible basketball player). However at the same time, you need some validity to back up your statements about the sport of basketball as a coach (if you have a winning team and record). Therefore at the end of the day, peoples’ actions should speak louder than their words/opinions. Always make sure to pay attention to others’ track records.

Note that I am also bound to the same concept. Everything I write on the blog is my own opinion and not fact. Therefore I encourage you to disagree with me, rip apart my arguments, and disregard with what I say. Judge what I talk about based on the images I end up creating– and if I follow my own advice (I don’t always — after all I am human too). If you think my photos are horrible and I don’t know what I am talking about, please feel free to think so and safely ignore what I write about!

Takeaway point:

If someone likes your photo, take a look at their portfolio. If they don’t have good work– their comment probably doesn’t really show that your photo is good at all. However if their portfolio is great (and they say they like your work)– there is probably more validity in their feedback.

The same goes with critics of your work. If someone doesn’t like your photography–take a look at their own photography. If they don’t like your street photography (and you see they are a wildlife photographer) you can probably safely ignore their feedback. The same goes with if you don’t really think their street photography is very good. But if they critique your work (and their portfolio is strong) you can probably accept their feedback.

But still remember– keep an open mind and don’t reject all others’ criticisms. We hate hearing critiques of our own work– but the key is having a balance of accepting criticism and also judging where it comes from.

3. Know our limits and cultivate our strengths

NYC, 2013
NYC, 2013

In today’s day and age, we think we can do anything. We are told that there are no limits to anything, and that if we simply work “hard enough”–we will be able to overcome and achieve.

However if you think about nature–that is simply not true. No matter how hard a fish tries, a fish will never be able to whistle. A tree cannot branch out wings and fly. Similarly, a human cannot expect to out-run a Cheetah (unless he is in a car).

Taosim shares that we should know our physical limitations, and not be frustrated by them– and simply accept them. We shouldn’t do things we aren’t necessarily designed for. Fish don’t live in trees for a good reason.

In “The Tao of Pooh“–the author brings up Tigger as the figure who thinks he can do everything. However if you know Winnie the Pooh, you know that Tigger often finds himself in trouble and dangerous situations. Tigger is a metaphor for the individual who doesn’t know his/her own limits–and lives dangerously in a blind way.

I think the way we can apply this way of thinking to street photography is to know who you are. What I mean by that is all of us have different personalities. Some of us are more outgoing and extroverted, and some of us prefer to keep to ourselves and are more introverted. Although Western society champions extraversion as being a positive trait (and introversion as a negative trait) that simply isn’t true. They are just two different personality types– neither better nor worse.

I know lots of street photographers who are more timid who try to go out and aspire to be like Bruce Gilden and shoot super-close with a flash with a wide-angle lens. Although I think it is advantageous for introverted street photographers to build more courage and be better at interacting with subjects, they shouldn’t be who they aren’t.

For example, I see that most introverted street photographers prefer to keep their distance from their subjects, and not interrupt them. They also tend to focus more on the composition of the scene and spend more time trying to create a more deliberate and purposeful shot. I think that introverted street photographers should cultivate this part of themselves, and not feel that they are inadequate by not being able to have “huge balls” and getting in-your-face to their subjects.

I think the same goes with more extroverted street photographers. I find most extroverted street photographers aren’t very patient, and like to run around and “hunt” for photography opportunities–rather than waiting around and letting the opportunities come to them.

Takeaway point:

I advocate that impatient street photographers should cultivate more patience when it comes to their photography. However at the end of the day, I think if your natural state is to move around a lot and not stay around in one spot for a long time– you should realize that and cultivate that part of yourself.

If you like to talk with your subjects, interact with them, and even get them to pose for you– know that is what you like and continue working with that. Don’t feel like you have to be like Henri Cartier-Bresson and never “disturb” the scene and “interfere.” Rather, let this side of yourself flourish and interact with those you photograph and really become a part of them. Don’t shy away from conversations–embrace them.

Of course at the end of the day, it is all about a balance–of knowing who you are and also striving to step outside of your own comfort zone.

4. Don’t rush things

NYC, 2013
NYC, 2013

In today’s society, we love instant gratification. No longer do we have patience. We want things delivered to us quicker and more efficiently.

Think about fast-food. We no longer have the patience of shopping for our own groceries, letting the food defrost, marinating our food, cooking it, and cleaning up afterwards. We want our food to come out in a matter of minutes, scarf down our food (often forgetting to chew or inhale), and then continue to go on our busy lives.

Think about the same thing with books. We no longer have the patience to read novels. Rather, we would prefer to watch the 1.5 hour condensed version, complete with sexy scenes and over-the-top explosions. Who has the patience to read a 300+ page novel anymore?

However Taoism advocates the total opposite. Think of the analogy of a river. The river knows what direction it is heading, but doesn’t try to rush it. It will get to its destination sooner or later.

Taosim describes this as “wu wei or action by inaction. It is “without doing, causing, or making.” It is not forcing things and without egotistical effort. When it comes to a river, we shouldn’t try to swim upstream. No matter how much effort we put in, we will drown and always lose. Rather, we should let the river guide us– and take us where we need to go.

A quote from Taosim:

“Tao does not do. But nothing is not done.”

When it comes to our own development in street photography we should take the same mentality. Don’t feel that you have to rush or force things. We often look at the photos of the great photographers, and feel frustrated that we can’t produce great work like them. However what we often forget is the years of hard work that these photographers put in, and how many bad photos that the great photographers didn’t show. They edited down their images to only their best.

Think about the analogy of a tree. A tree that is over a hundred feet tall often smalls from a seed smaller than a centimeter in length. The tree doesn’t grow to be a hundred feet tall overnight. It has probably taken decades for the tree to grow that tall, slowly, and progressively. With lots of light, water, and nutrients from the ground.

Takeaway point:

Apply this philosophy to your own street photography. You won’t become Henri Cartier-Bresson overnight. Rather, it will take decades of hard work, perseverance, and gradual progression. The more you photograph, the more comfortable you will get with your camera, focal length, and approach.

The more photo books you read (like nutrients in the soil) you will enrich your visual vocabulary–which will influence the output of your images.

The more time you spend time interacting and getting critical feedback from other street photographers, you will be able to prune your weak points and grow stronger (think about the gardener that removes weeds from plants). And with enough positive energy (sunlight)– you too will grow into being a great street photographer.

5. Enjoy the journey over the destination

NYC, 2013
NYC, 2013

We are suckered into thinking that if we work hard enough our entire lives and make huge sacrifices that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

However we need to remember, it is always the journey that we enjoy the most– not the ultimate destination.

If we could use Pooh as an example, the anticipation of eating honey is often more enjoyable than the actual act of eating honey. The same can be used when thinking about anything else in life. The anticipation of buying your first car is generally more exciting than once you actually buy the car. The chase of trying to court your first girlfriend or boyfriend is generally more exciting than when you are in a stable relationship. Trying to get that job and going through the interview process is generally more exciting than once you actually get the job.

One of the key things that Taoism advocates is the importance of being aware of the small moments in life– and cherishing them. Rather than always keeping our eyes fixated on our destination, we should keep our eyes on the road directly in front of us– cherishing each step of the way.

I remember that one of my biggest goals in street photography was to have my first solo exhibition. I dreamed of the day it would come and worked hard towards achieving this dream. However once I did have my first solo exhibition at the Leica gallery in Seoul, it wasn’t as great as I expected it to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I was overjoyed by the honor of having my solo exhibition, I was so grateful for all the people who coordinated the prints and the space, to the friends and family who attended, and the great food and drinks and laughs we had– but once the exhibition was over– I once again felt empty. Now what? It didn’t bring me enduring happiness or a sense of self-gratification for the rest of my life.

I realized it was the process of getting my first exhibition which was the most exciting (not the exhibition itself). The hard work I put in to capture my images, post-processing them, collaborating with others to have the exhibition, advertising it, and finally having people come and enjoy the work.

Takeaway point:

So whatever goal you may have in your street photography (whether it be having your first solo exhibition, getting a book published, or even getting your work recognized by others)– remind yourself to cherish every step of the way.

Certainly don’t try to rush it either— because you will arrive at your destination sooner or later. Life is sweet. Ice cream tastes much better when you slowly lick it, rather than eating it all in one gulp.


NYC, 2013
NYC, 2013

Taosim has taught me lots of great philosophies in everyday life as well as street photography. It has taught me not to rush things, to enjoy the process, and to ignore complexity & pretentiousness in my everyday life.

Just because something is simple doesn’t mean that it is stupid. Winnie the Pooh (although simple-minded) isn’t necessarily stupid. He has a huge and loving heart for his friends, is a master of his leisure, and goes with the flow. He is essentially the embodiment of the Tao philosophy (in a cute and cuddly, cotton-filled form).

Don’t feel the need to rush your street photography or try to be someone you aren’t. Know your personality when it comes to shooting in the street, and cultivate your own unique approach. Enjoy the sweet encounters you have on the street, the times you get your work critiqued by others, and strive to get better– but don’t rush it.

If you want to learn more about Taosim, I highly recommend reading “The Tao of Pooh.” I also recommend reading the “Tao Tse Ching” which is available readily as a free epub or PDF you can download for free here.

The Tao of Photography


Several years ago, one of my good friends Justin gave me “The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing” — which is another great resource for photography philosophy. Also highly recommend this book!