On Travel and Street Photography

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“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate” – Seneca

Over the last year or so I have been incredibly lucky to travel to over 15 cities internationally, and have met some of the most incredible people in my life.

However as much I have been traveling, I have been longing to spend more time at home (or in one place).

Seneca and traveling

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

I have been reading a lot of Seneca lately (a Roman philosopher and from the “Stoic” school of thought). In his book, “Letters of a Stoic,” he writes an eloquent series of letters to many of his friends and close confidants about his thoughts about many aspects of life.

One interesting chapter he wrote on is “on travel.” Even during those times (over 2,000 years ago) people were preoccupied with travel– having daydreams about globetrotting around the whole world.

However Seneca warns his friend that he shouldn’t get so caught up in travel as a simple remedy for feeling unhappy with his life. He states to his friend, “You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate” and reassures him that you can live a happy and virtuous life regardless of where we live. “To live well is found everywhere” he says.

Furthermore Seneca states, “The person you are matters more than the place you decide to go”– so that one should focus on building his own character in his own country, rather than thinking that the place you go to will change your identity. Especially in today’s globalized and internet-connected world, you should remind yourself, “the whole world is my country.”

I certainly have to say that traveling has benefited me in many ways:

1. It widened my perspective of the world

Dubai, 2013
Dubai, 2013

Before I started traveling, the only foreign country I ever went to was Korea (and it was already quite familiar, as I am Korean-American by birth and fluent in Korean). By traveling to different places in the world, I was able to learn to eat different foods, converse in different languages (albeit poorly), and to meet locals and experience a new culture.

Before traveling, I considered myself pretty open-minded, yet I hadn’t many other countries. And you cannot experience a place by just reading books and hearing second-hand accounts, you have to actually visit the place.

Especially when it comes to street photography (in which you walk to discover a place) you really get to the ground-level and experience life first-handedly. Rather than just hopping on a bus and going on a tour (and seeing the hot spots) you are able to take a path off the beaten road and explore life.

2. It helped me create new meaningful friendships

Pittsburgh, 2013
Pittsburgh, 2013

Through my travels, I have made some incredible friends all around the globe. I now have the peace of mind that wherever I travel to, I won’t have a meal alone and even better– a couch to crash on.

Many of these people I have met during my travels (who either helped me with workshops, let me crash at their place, or I simply met on the road) I have kept in touch with (although not as closely as I would like) through social media and email.

This is wonderful because I am able to keep in touch with their photography, help give feedback on their work (and vice versa), as well as see how everything is doing over there (in their country).

Humans are social creatures– and certainly having to create these new friends and ties are meaningful to me– both as a human being and as a photographer (for me, it is always more fun to shoot with someone else than by myself–especially in a foreign country).

3. We are more similar than dissimilar

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

I have also discovered about human nature, we are all much more similar than dissimilar. We enjoy the same things. We enjoy to eat, drink, have good company, pursue our passions, and share a good laugh.

When it comes to street photography, I generally shoot pretty closely (1-3 meters) and often use a flash. A lot of people online (especially YouTube) mention that it would work in country “A” (let’s say the United States) but would never work in country “B” (Germany) or country “C” (France).

However from my experiences– people respond to street photography mostly the same (positively). I think one of the biggest misconceptions about street photography is that it upsets and bothers the people you are photographing. A smile goes a long way, even if you took a photo without their permission. Just by smiling and waving to them afterwards (or even better, approaching them, talking with them, and offering to email them their photograph) you are able to make them feel much more comfortable. Not only that, but you have the chance to make a human connection with a stranger in the street (and find out you have more in common than you realized).

I often hear the same negative stereotypes of Germans being cold, the Swiss being too “proper,” the French as rude, Americans as self-absorbed, and the Japanese as anti-social.

I am not sure where people come up with these negative stereotypes. I presume people are exposed to these ideas through the media, movies, and simply through word-of-mouth. However I think once you are exposed to these negative ideas– it is like poison in your mind– dying your experiences a different color and hue.

In my experiences I have found the Germans to be gregarious, the Swiss being as clever, the French as friendly, Americans as generous, and the Japanese as creative. Sure there might be one asshole you meet during your trip– but don’t let that one negative impression ruin your entire trip. And remember, there are assholes in every country (being a jackass isn’t prejudiced to any certain location).

So by finding the positive in every place I visit– I let the pros shine through–while the negatives obscure themselves into the dark.

However at the same time, I have found many negatives to traveling:

1. You make a lot of acquaintances, not deep-rooted friends

Hong Kong, 2013
Hong Kong, 2013

I am a naturally gregarious person, and I am attracted to people. I long for a deep and meaningful friendship– which needs to be cultivated for many years in close physical and geographical proximity.

I have found that through my travels, I have made many acquaintances (who are awesome) but yet very few uber-deep and meaningful friends.

I certainly don’t want to disparage any of the people I met– but I feel that my deepest friends are still the ones that I have met from childhood as we had many years enjoying lunch on a daily basis, going to church together, and hanging out constantly.

As Seneca states in Letters from a Stoic,”When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends up by having many acquaintances, but no friends.”

The downside of travel is that you don’t often have enough time in each place to truly get to know it. I have found through my experiences living in Michigan (temporarily) that one needs to live somewhere for at least a year or two (minimum) to get to know a place and the people there. Otherwise we are simply tourists going in and out.

How can one really get to know and understand a place or people in a few weeks or even a month– when even people who have been living there for several decades still have barely scratched the surface?

2. It is difficult to work on photography projects

Tokyo, 2013
Tokyo, 2013

I often have photographers exclaim to me how awesome it must be to constantly travel and see every corner of the globe. Once again, it is a truly fresh and amazing experience– but I have found to constantly travel to be detrimental to my photography, rather than beneficial.

When I first visit a new place, I take the first few days with the “tourist syndrome” in which everything is amazing, unique, and refreshing. But the downside is I end up taking the same touristy photos that everyone else takes when they first visit. This prevents me from going deeper into a place– and going past the cliches– into what is truly unique and authentic in a place.

I still long the days when I would visit Downtown LA on a nearly daily basis, visiting my close fellow street photography friends there, shooting together, eating and drinking together, and sharing each others work and critiquing and giving feedback to one another.

Therefore constant travel has been distracting to my photography. I want to spend more time (at least a year or more) to get to know a place really well– and explore the city photographically.

I have been lucky to make some adjustments though. Through my “Suits” project I have been able to photograph businessmen any corner of the globe I have visited. Furthermore, I have been photographing “stuff on the ground” I find during my travels– and hope to add those to a more coherent set in the future.

But once again- realize that if you are able to stay in one place for a long time that you are lucky. You have the opportunity to get to know a place really well, photograph all of its nuances, and you most likely to steer clear of the cliches.

3. You are away from your loved ones

Hong Kong, 2013
Hong Kong, 2013

I have found through my travels that every time I hit the road, it is painful to part with my loved ones (girlfriend, family, close family-friends).

There is nothing more rewarding and meaningful to spend time with those closest to you. To travel and visit exotic places is amazing, but at the same time I can’t wait until I go back home, kiss and hug those closest to me, and even better– sleep on my own bed.


New York, 2013
New York, 2013

So the purpose of this essay is to make the point that travel certainly has its pros, and its cons. But on a even deeper note– one doesn’t need to travel to make great photography.

I know many photographers live in traditionally “boring” places such as suburbs or even in a more rural area.

However realize that photographers such as Lee Friedlander was able to create great photos (in places without any people) by self-imposing himself into his photos (with his “Self Portrait” series), as well as being able to capture the urban landscape.

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

William Eggleston (one of the most famous living photographers), photographed his own town in the south for his entire life and has managed to make fascinating images of mundane places and things.

Even Martin Parr (when asked for advice from students) he tells them to focus on making “interesting photos of boring things.”

So it doesn’t matter really where you live. If you are discontent with your situation or position in life– travel isn’t a cure. It might remedy a few of the symptoms, but it isn’t a lasting antidote. Once again, “You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.”

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

Dig deep inside and if you are unhappy where you live– truly think what causes that discontentment. Is it because you don’t have enough time to photograph? Then try to get off work at exactly 6pm (no need to stay late just to try to impress the boss for that promotion) and dedicate your weekends to photographing. Or even better, take a bagged lunch (eat it quickly) and then spend the rest of your lunch break shooting.

Do you think the places that you visit are boring and mundane? Rather than having that disappoint you, try to focus on its boringness and mundaneness. Take a closer look, take photos of the boring details, and try to make interesting photos of boring things.

Mumbai, 2013
Mumbai, 2013

And don’t be fooled into thinking that photographing Paris or New York is inherently more interesting than the place you live. Many photographers I know who live in Paris say that all the scenes are cliche and are bored of it, and the photographers I know in New York say that everything has “been done before” and they feel inadequate to live up to making original and unique work.

So appreciate where you live, and make a unique project of your city or hometown (however uninteresting you might think it may be). And the upside is that the more obscure the place you live in– the better. This will give you the opportunity to make unique work and non-cliched images.

Now go forth and photograph! I bid you farewell.

What are your experiences shooting street photography and traveling? Share your comments in the comments below.