On Jealousy and Street Photography

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

The other night before I went to sleep, I was reading a book on my iPad and then wanted to post an inspirational quote onto Facebook. So I logged into Facebook, shared the quote– and suddenly got sucked into the news feed. I started scrolling through the activity of all my friends– and started to feel pretty down. It seemed that all the other photographers I follow online are doing things much more exciting than me: they are traveling to places I have always wanted to, are doing big exhibitions, publishing photography books of their own, and doing interviews for big-shot media companies.

As I kept scrolling through my news feed and clicking around– I started to feel sick in my stomach. What am I doing here sitting on my ass here in Berkeley– and not achieving as much as these other people? After all, I work hard in my photography, in my blog, making connections, and all that jazz.

I then caught myself: I was being jealous. Jealous of the success of other photographers– and not being satisfied with what I had.

When I realized this, I instantly jumped into the shower and blasted it to ice-cold, and let the shock of the cold water put my life back into perspective.

I have an amazing life. I have traveled to many exotic places that I dreamed of when I was younger, met fascinating people, own the camera of my dreams, have a strong following online, and am able to make a living doing what I love.

I then started to have a flash-back of when I first started off in photography. I was far more jealous back then. Everyone I admired online had far stronger images than mine, had more followers, more favorites/likes on their images, been published more, had exhibitions, etc. I felt like a loser in comparison to them.

And now that I have a strong following, have done exhibitions, and make street photography my living– I should be wholly satisfied, right? Wrong.

We are never satisfied

One thing I have learned through cognitive science is that we are hard-wired to never be satisfied. After all, it makes sense. When we were hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago– it wouldn’t make sense for us to be satisfied with what we had. We had to be greedy with food and resources to survive. Our ability to not be satisfied with what we had encouraged us to travel, explore new places, and make a better life for ourselves.

Now we have the same modern dilemma. We are never satisfied with the cameras we own. We are never satisfied with the car we drive. We are never satisfied with the clothes we wear. Everyone always seems to be doing better– and we simply adjust to what we currently have.

Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill we get used to the standard of living we have, and make that a new base-line to judge everything in our lives.

For example, when I got my first entry-level DSLR (Canon Rebel XT or 350D) I thought it was the best thing in the world. I was so amazed by the high-quality of the images and how I would be able to create “bokeh” with my 50mm f/1.8 lens. However as I got used to the camera– I wanted a camera even more advanced and better. I then lusted after a Canon 5D with the “full-frame” ability to create even better images at high-ISO and with “creamier bokeh”. I then got that camera. Then I got used to the 5D. Then I wanted something even better- and lusted after the Leica M9 and thought it would be the end of the road. Wrong. Once I got that, I soon got bored of that– and now I am onto my film Leica MP. I still very much appreciate the camera I own, but every once in a while– I get tempted by something else.

So realize the madness never ends. We get used to escalating standards in every way when it comes to photography. We get used to the cameras we own, the lenses we own– the following we have online, the number of favorites and likes we get on our images, and so forth.

Cutting jealousy by the throat

So how can we get over this sense of jealousy we have of other photographers and better appreciate what we have (rather than just adjusting our standards?)

Well there are several techniques I personally use:

1. Imagine a former you

One psychological technique I use to better appreciate what I have is to pretend like I stepped into a time capsule and became a former me.

So whenever I have a lust for a new camera or piece of equipment, I imagine my 19 year old self– with my Canon Rebel XT. How amazed and jealous would I be of my future self– with a Leica MP and 35mm Summicron? I would be pretty damn jealous.

I then warp myself back to my current self. I then look at the stuff I already own, and am amazed by what I own and I appreciate it.

The same goes with social media. I remember when I first joined Flickr when I was 18. When I uploaded photos, I would be lucky if I got more than 50 views per photo, and 1-2 favorites. If my former self saw my future self (with thousands of followers and hundreds of favorites/likes on my images) I would be jealous of my future self. Once again, I shift perspectives back to my current self, and realize how much I have to appreciate.

2. Realize that the people you are jealous of are also jealous of others

Jealousy is a normal human trait and emotion. We can’t control that we get jealous. However what we can control is the amount we get jealous of others– and over time, we can become less and less jealous of others.

One way I become less jealous of others is realizing that they are jealous of others as well.

I have heard some of the most famous photographers in the world are often jealous of their colleagues. For example, when I read the history of Magnum– I was shocked to see how all of these world-famous photographers would be jealous of the success of their peers.

So realize that jealousy is a never-ending chain. So cut the chain loose early-on (with yourself). Realize that nobody is ever satisfied– and jealousy affects us all.

3. Disconnect

The last piece of advice I have when being satisfied with what we have and being jealous of others is to disconnect from the internet. What does that mean? Spend less time on Flickr looking at the photos of others (there will be lots of photographers with more favorites than you). Spend less time on Facebook (there will always be friends and other photographers doing more interesting things than you). Spend less time on Instagram (someone will be on some exotic beach sipping a Pina Colada while you are bored at home).

Funny enough, even though I owe my livelihood (and this blog) to social media– personally I try not to spend too much of my time on social media. I rarely check my personal Facebook, and even less frequently my Twitter, Instagram, and other social media channels. I find the more time I spend on social media, the more jealous I get of others (I find myself always comparing myself to them) which puts me in a depressed mood.

I am not saying never go on social media. It is very important to stay connected to other photographers and what is going online.

However a simple rule which I have incorporated into my life: don’t use social media after 6pm. Surf Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter all you want when you are bored at work or sitting on the bus– but once you go home, disconnect.

What I do is put my phone to “airplane mode” to block the temptation for me to surf social media late at night and become sad about how boring my life is. I then use this quiet time to read books, look and edit my own photos, and spend time to be present with Cindy.


You might think to yourself: sure Eric, you suggest all of these techniques but you already have a strong following online, own expensive gear, and have the freedom to do all of this.

It is true– but that doesn’t mean that I am immune from being jealous from other photographers and people. There are many photographers far more popular than I am, have more expensive equipment, and even more freedom than I do.

And even you– realize how lucky you are. Even if you own a camera (any camera) realize that there are millions of people out there who don’t even have enough food to put on their plate everyday. Our brothers and sisters are dying from disease, famine, and war– and we (myself included) dream of the next purchase we are going to make.

So let us all be satisfied with what we have, and realize how blessed and lucky we are to even have the ability to take photos (and even see). Imagine all the blind people out there who don’t even have the luxury of seeing the world in the way we do– with all the visual beauty and complexity.