On Legacy and Street Photography

Tokyo, 2012

One day we are all going to die–whether we like it or not.

I have been thinking a lot about death lately– which I know might not necessarily be healthy for a 25-year-old, but still feel that it is something important to consider.

Regarding death, I often think about the legacy I am going to leave behind. How will people remember me? Did I use all my abilities to the fullest? Did I help contribute to society? Will people remember me after I die? How will people remember me after I die? Will I have finished my life’s “task” (whatever it may be?)

All of these thoughts can be quite stressful. I make it a point to think as if everyday was my last. Steve Jobs said something similar that when he wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror and he isn’t doing what he was meant to be doing for a long time he reconsiders his life and realizes he needs to make some drastic changes. Therefore when I am in bed before I go to sleep, I ask myself: Did I do everything in my ability to make this day worth it– to help society and the photography community at large? I then doze off to sleep, pretending like the next morning will never come (imagine the last scene of the movie A.I.).

But fortunately I (have until now) waken up every morning– greeted with the sun with a new day.

There are certain days which I feel incredibly productive (write a lot of articles, answer a lot of emails, am active on social media) and other days I just want to curl into a cocoon, read books, and not go on the internet at all.

But still the burning question is: What is the purpose of my photography, my blog, my writings, my life– and what legacy do I want to leave behind?

“To base your life on the opinion of another man is a very sad existence.”

One of my favorite philosophies in life is “Stoicism” the art of living with serenity (regardless of what negative or good things happen to you). Philosopher Nassim Taleb explains a “Stoic” not as someone without emotion– but as a buddhist with an attitude (or something like that).

But anyways, one of the books I am currently re-reading is “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca. Seneca was a practicing stoic and wrote many letters to his friend Lucilus advising him on a range of topics.

One of the topics that he frequently talked about was fame, power, and legacy. What does Seneca say about these topics?

Well, Seneca says we should totally disregard fame, power, and legacy– because they are things outside of our control. No matter how hard we try, it is not guaranteed that we will achieve fame, power, or leave a lasting legacy in our lifetime. It is a better use of energy and resources to focus on what we can control– which is, what is internal. So for example, controlling our anger, living with virtue, and having an exemplary character. These things, regardless of our situations and circumstances in life, we can always control.

When he talks about leaving a legacy (mind you he was writing this around 2000 years ago) he said it was absolutely pointless. Some things he shared was something like: “Who cares if you become famous and leave a legacy? What does it matter if people write your name in history books? You can simply carve your name into a stone and have the same effect.”

Another practicing stoic (by the name of Marcus Aurelius) writes this in his book: “The Meditations” (a modern translation “The Emperor’s handbook” is excellent as well): “Realize that fame and legacy is like the sand at a beach. They are constantly being swept into the sea, to make room for the new.

So in a nutshell, all of these Stoic philosophers say that things out of your control aren’t worth trying to control.

Publius Syrus (another Roman philosopher, also former slave) shares the idea: “To base your life on the opinion of another man is a very sad existence.”

So pretty much I think us as street photographers can learn the following lesson: don’t worry about favorites, likes, followers, exhibitions, fame– or anything of that jazz. After all, these things are mostly out of your control. You can be the most talented street photographer in the world but if you don’t have a strong social media following – you won’t end up getting a lot of recognition on the internet (without the right connections). I am not the best street photographer out there, but the only reason I have hundreds of favorites on Flickr is because I run a popular street photography blog. Rather, focus your energy on what you have control over: enjoying the freedom and liberating feeling of exploring, wandering, and shooting on the streets and making photos you are proud of.

So after reading the philosophy of the Stoics, I have pretty much lost all interest in the idea of leaving behind a legacy (or being written in some history books after I die). After I die, who cares if people talk about me– I will already be dead and not alive to appreciate it anyways.

What I will do is to continue to pour my heart and soul into this blog, in writing articles, featuring other street photographers, and traveling and teaching street photography workshops to anyone eager enough to learn. That is the purpose of my life– and I just need to do it one day at a time.

What do you want to leave behind as your legacy as a photographer, or do you not care? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.