5 Lessons for Living in Street Photography (and Life)

Mumbai, 2012
Mumbai, 2012. Click to read more.

One of the articles I read a while ago (and recently re-read) was the “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.” To sum up, a nurse who took care of the elderly and dying kept a record of her patients’ top regrets in life.

The top regrets of the elderly were:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I think we can apply this same mentality to street photography to prevent regrets in our life.

Recently I wrote an article by Paul Graham titled “The Top of My Todo List” in which he mentioned the article above in how to live a fulfilling life.

He mentioned how we are always so busy and caught up in our to-do lists. He used the article above and used the opposite maxims to create his own list (to prevent regrets in life):

  1. Don’t ignore your dreams
  2. Don’t work too much
  3. Say what you think
  4. Cultivate friendships
  5. Be happy

This made a lot of sense to me– as they gave me direct action steps to prevent regret in my life. And what better mentors to give life advice than the elderly who have already lived their lives–and are ready to pass away?

Mumbai, 2012
Mumbai, 2012

From the Farnam Street Blog, I also came across the book: “30 Lessons for Living” in which the author interviewed thousands of elderly for their life lessons.

Their thoughts echo very similarly to what the nurse mentioned above. Here are some excerpts:

1. Happiness is Your Responsibility

“Young man,” she said “you will learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are. Why in the world would I be unhappy? People here complain all the time, but not me. It’s my responsibility to be as happy as I can, right here, today.”

2. Don’t work so hard

No one— not a single person out of a thousand— said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.

3. Don’t compare yourself to your peers

No one— not a single person— said it’s important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it’s real success.

No one— not a single person— said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.

4. Cultivate your Interpersonal Skills

Their consensus: no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant— you must have interpersonal skills to succeed.

5. Travel more

“We always thought we’d do a lot of traveling when we retired, you know? But then Lynne passed away, and it was too late. I went on a couple of trips and I guess they were okay, but it’s less fun going alone. I took a bus through the Canadian Rockies, and I actually turned once to talk to her– I was sitting in a seat by myself and it was beautiful, and I wanted to tell Lynne, “Look at that light, the color, that light.” But of course she wasn’t there. And I just want to share things with her when I travel, but we waited too long.”

Not having any regrets in street photography

1x1.trans Shoot Every Day As If It Were Your Last
My grandfather’s study — he pursued his art (chinese calligraphy) until his death. A true inspiration to me.

We never know when we are going to die. My grandpa passed away at the ripe age of 91 and lived a full life. However I have had a childhood friend named Simon who tragically died in a car accident from a drunk driver when he was 16 years old. We don’t know when we are going to die. I write about this a bit in one of my past articles: “Shoot Every Day As If It Were Your Last.”

Certainly I am only 25 years old, and I hope that I have a long and fulfilling life ahead of me. However who knows if the next day I might die in a car accident, or if I fall sick to some rare illness. Below are some thoughts I have distilled from our elders and those close to death, to prevent a life of regret in photography.

1. Don’t work too hard

Mumbai, 2012
Mumbai, 2012

This is one of the things that were echoed the most by the elders. Nobody on their deathbed ever says, “I wish I worked harder, earned more money to buy more BMW’s.”

Many of us have day jobs to support our families and ourselves. We also need to deal with the “real world” of paying our bills, credit cards, and student loans.

However many of us (especially in America) have huge problems of workaholism. I know it certainly was ingrained in me from a young age. If every second wasn’t spent “being productive” I would feel guilty.

Ironically enough, even though I teach street photography workshops for a living–even I find it hard to find time to shoot. Like you, I have to answer emails, moderate my social media channels, take care of bills, taxes, and other not so fun logistical/accounting stuff. However if I spend my entire day blogging, making videos, planning workshops, answering emails– I often find little or no time to shoot.

So even I have made a vow not to work so hard. One of the things I loved about working my old day job is that when I was off at 6pm, I could do whatever I wanted– I never brought work home. Now that I am self-employed, it is hard to set your working hours (you freelancers out there might relate to this).

So now I set my own “working hours.” I generally turn off my WIFI on my laptop and my phone until noon (so I can focus writing without getting distracted by social media) and also don’t work after 6pm (and also turn off my internet access then). I also don’t work on the weekends anymore (sometimes I cheat, but I generally don’t).

This has helped free up a ton of time for me to pursue more of my photography–by getting out of the house and shooting, spending more time with my girlfriend Cindy, and more time to relax and read books.

If you have a day job and work a typical 9-5, my suggestion: Don’t take your work home with you. Turn off your work email on your phone and don’t check it at home. Make it clear to your peers that you won’t answer any emails after work. Then use that time to pursue your photography and other interests. Also if possible, try not to work on the weekends either.

I also know some people who take on extra work at job, staying late, and putting in extra hours– in pursuit of getting that next pay raise or promotion to earn more money. But at the end of the day, time is your most valuable asset– and freedom is what you should crave. Why put in more hours at work, when you can work less (and less hard) and focus more time into your passion (photography)?

I know we all have different life circumstances and surely we need to work hard. But remind yourself that it is okay to take a break, and that workaholism isn’t good for our health (or productive in our photography).

2. Travel more

Mumbai, 2012
Mumbai, 2012

One of the things that people regret the most is not traveling more. I know travel can be expensive, but I think that many of us have at least some opportunities and a bit of cash tucked away so we can travel.

For example, I was talking with my buddy Josh White about one of his most regrets in photography and it was spending too much money on cameras and equipment– and not using that towards travel.

We all fall victim to GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) at one point or another. However instead of lusting after that new camera or lens that can cost $500, $1000, $2000, $5000, or even $5000 and up– put that into terms of travel.

$500 can take you on a nice weekend getaway somewhere near where you live. Surely it won’t take you overseas to Paris, but the best travel is sometimes the place closest to us. Rather than buying that new Leica M for $7000, why not use that money towards travel? If you budget accordingly, that can be a 6-month trip across southeast asia (if you backpack and live in hostels). What would bring you more happiness, a new camera which you will simply get used to (and eventually sell), or a trip of a lifetime that you will cherish forever?

Once again to emphasize, travel doesn’t need to be super far away or even overseas. Even driving a few hours or taking a short flight a few states or countries away (if you live in Europe) can create some incredible memories.

I remember I took out a $3000 loan in university my 3rd year and I backpacked across Europe for a month through Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Cinque Terre, Prague, and London and it is still a memory I cherish and hold dear to my heart. My old $7000 Leica M9? I sold it after about an 8-month fling.

So once again, invest in travel and experiences.

3. Shoot for yourself

Mumbai, 2012
Mumbai, 2012

I believe when it comes to photography, it is extremely important to get critical feedback on your work. Criticism will help you take your work to the next level, in terms of finding your flaws and what you can improve on.

However at the end of the day, you should be taking photos that you enjoy taking (rather than what other people enjoy).

For example, I often find that my personal favorite images are that ones that don’t get a lot of “likes” on Facebook or “favorites” on Flickr. However photos that I don’t think are very interesting have tons of likes and favorites.

The negative thing about this is that I found myself striving to get more shots that would give me a lot of “likes” and “favorites” on Facebook and Flickr (read my article: “How Many “Favorites” Or “Likes” Are Enough?“. Rather than shooting to please myself, I was shooting to please my audience.

So once again, if there is a type of street photography that you enjoy pursue it and ignore what others may say. For example, I like to shoot a lot of close-up portraits of people in the street. However I get a lot of criticism from people telling me that it “isn’t street photography” or interesting– and that I should stop shooting that way (and shoot the old way which I used to shoot).

Nowadays I also find myself shooting a lot of “still life street photography” of simple mundane objects and things in the street (without people). Once again, I have had some people tell me that if it is going to be “street photography” it has to have people in it.

So at the end of the day, enjoy the type of photography that you enjoy the most. Remember, don’t shoot for the “likes” or “favorites” or for external recognition. Shoot for the intrinsic rewards (for yourself) and whatever interests you. Don’t even worry about definitions– who the hell cares if it is “street photography” or not. Just make photos you enjoy.

4. Cultivate friendships

Mumbai, 2012
Mumbai, 2012

I interviewed Josh White recently in Toronto and one of the things that struck me the most was when he answered what he enjoys most about street photography. He told me it was all about the new friendships he made, and the people he has been able to meet. I got the warm and fuzzies when I heard him say that–but it is totally true.

I have met some absolutely phenomenal people in my world travels– people I would never have the opportunity to meet if it weren’t for street photography. Not only that, but people from all walks of life. Computer engineers from India, artists from Stockholm, waiters in LA, doctors in New York, and even random strangers in the street.

Remember the saying: “No man is his own island.” We are social beings and social creatures. We need social interaction and contact with one another. This can be not only people you have met through the internet (and in person) when it comes to street photography– but also random people in the street you might meet and hear their life stories.

I know in the previous point that I mentioned you should shoot for yourself but I very much appreciate getting honest feedback and critique from close friends and peers in the street photography community. They give me a guiding hand and help me see the flaws in my work which I am totally blind to. Of course I make the final editing decision at the end of the day, but it is their feedback which helps me tremendously.

I would disagree with the Vivian Maier approach of shooting your entire life, and not ever showing your work to anybody. I feel that photos are meant to be taken to be shared, not to just be hoarded to yourself. Especially street photography which does show “the human condition”–we should use our images to inspire others.

So if you don’t have many friends in the street photography community– I urge you to try to cultivate friendships. If you literally live in the middle of nowhere, reach out to about 3 photographers you admire and keep in close contact with them. Give honest feedback and critique on their work, and they will most likely reciprocate. Send them an email or Facebook message, about how you admire their work.

If you want to meet photographers in person, check out a local meet-up group or post to one of my Facebook “Streettogs” groups asking if people want to meet up (see the list at the bottom here.

5. Be happy and have fun

Mumbai, 2012
Mumbai, 2012

This one sounds obvious–but it is actually one of the things that philosophers have debated and had difficulties with for millennia.

One of the sayings I heard which made a lot of sense to me is something like, “We don’t know what makes us happy, but we know what makes us unhappy.” Therefore in order to strive for happiness, perhaps the best way is to avoid unhappiness.

Therefore if you are working on a project and you no longer have passion for it–drop it and move onto the next project. If you are bored with your photography and it no longer brings you joy, switch it up. If you find yourself shooting mostly architectural/geometrical street photography at a distance (like Cartier-Bresson) perhaps take a step closer and embrace the William Klein approach.

If black and white no longer interests you switch it up a bit and embrace color. Study the work of Alex Webb, Martin Parr, and William Eggleston.

One of the ways I guide my life is to avoid boredom. Have fun, be happy, and always stretch your creativity to new heights.


Mumbai, 2012
Mumbai, 2012

We never know when we are going to die– so we should embrace every day like it were our last. Avoid regrets in life (and especially in your photography) and have fun. Nobody who dies regrets not having more cars, a bigger house, or more money in the bank. However people do regret not cultivating their friendships, traveling more, and pursuing their passions (photography).

For further reading on how to prevent regrets in life, I recommend reading below: