Photos in this article are outtakes/shots I am considering from my on-going “Suits” project.
One of the things I love most about street photography is how open and democratic it is. Anybody with any camera can shoot street photography. You don’t need anything fancy. Not only that, but street photography is accessible to everybody. You don’t need to be in Paris– you can simply shoot in your backyard.
However one problem that plagues street photography and life in general is this need for status.
In this article I will touch upon two aspects of status when it comes to street photography: 1) Status via cameras/equipment, and 2) Status via social media:
Why do we crave for status?
To be human, we naturally seek to gain or elevate our status. We do this in many different ways:
First, we can try to gain dominance in a social circle by becoming the “alpha male” (or alpha female). Secondly, what we often do is seek material things which raise our status. This can be buying a BMW, having a Louie Vuitton handbag, buying a bigger house, or as a street photographer– owning a Leica.
When I started street photography around 6 years ago, I remember googling “street photography” and coming upon Henri Cartier-Bresson. I heard that he used a Leica most of his entire life– and was blown away by his images. The sucker in me was lead to believe it was because he shot with a Leica– that he was able to create such amazing images.
Therefore started my black hole into lusting after a Leica. I remember reading countless amounts of reviews on Leica’s– and how amazing they were. I started to imagine myself–looking cool, Leica slung over my shoulder, casually strolling the streets of Paris– snapping away like the master himself.
Unrealistic expectations with a Leica
Back to reality. I recall contemplating taking out a large student loan (while eating ramen for a really long time) to afford a Leica. I tried to rationalize it– that shooting a Leica would suddenly make me more “inspired” in my photography.
I also felt quite timid when shooting in the streets at the time, and I felt that the Leica would magically solve all my insecurities and problems. I thought that if I had a Leica, I would become more confident, more “invisible”, and less “disruptive” when shooting in the streets.
The amount of time spent on Leica review sites, dreaming about Leicas, and trying to figure out how to afford a Leica spent a lot of time and mental energy. I regret all of that time I spent– I should have spent that time actually going out and shooting with the great equipment I had, looking at great photography, and perhaps considering saving up money for more valuable things (like traveling or buying photo books).
Not only that, but I liked the idea of me to “look like a serious street photographer” (by owning a Leica). I think owning a Leica is equivalent to driving a (really nice) Lexus versus driving a Toyota. Technically a Camry will do the same thing as a high-end Lexus (get you from point A to point B), but the difference is mostly cosmetic. Similarly, a DSLR will do the same as a Leica (take photos)– but not look as cool or sexy.
I think there is a lot of mystique behind Leica’s– and at times I feel kind of guilty owning one. I remember how much I lusted after my Leica– and when I finally got it, I felt on the top of the world. Whenever I went to photography “meet ups”– I would feel the confidence of having a Leica, and everyone would always gush over it– wanting to test it out or even hold it.
Leica and status?
Frankly speaking, shooting with a Leica hasn’t really made a better street photographer in any regard. At the end of the day I do prefer shooting with a smaller and more compact camera over a DSLR
but I haven’t technically made any “better photos” on a Leica.
Not only that, but I think my initial urge to purchase a Leica was to raise my status. I think I secretly wanted to be seen by others as a more “serious” street photographer– and there is nothing that calls you a “serious street photographer” than having the dedication of owning a Leica.
Sadly enough, I do notice that when I do meet other photographers and they see that I shoot with a Leica, they respect me more (and might erroneously think I am a better photographer) than when I simply owned my DSLR.
I also hate some of the snobbiness that surrounds Leica’s. While I do shoot with a Leica, I never refer to myself as a “Leica photographer.” I think it sounds as silly as calling yourself a “BMW driver” or a “Rolex time-reader.”
I have often heard that buying expensive cameras and lenses is like “men’s jewelry”. You own it to show it off to the rest of the world– which will help elevate your status.
This is one of the main reasons why people will instagram their new fancy watch or designer handbag– to brag to their friends and family, and elevate their status.
Status and GAS?
I have written extensively (and still now) about GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). It is a “disease” in which we want to keep buying more and more cameras merely for the sake of it– feeling that the equipment we have isn’t sufficient enough. GAS also leads us to believe that purchasing more cameras will suddenly help us become “better” photographers. People inflicted with GAS (myself included in the past)– will spend more time reading camera reviews and looking at camera rumor sites than actually going out and taking photos.
I have written ways in how to cure GAS– but haven’t talked too much about what I think are the roots or the causes of GAS. Below are some thoughts on what I think cause GAS (speaking from my personal past experiences):
I think a lot of us photographers (especially those of us starting off) are insecure about our photography– and we want to become better photographers.
I remember when I first started to get serious about photography, and I only owned a Canon point-and-shoot. I felt insecure that the camera wasn’t “good enough” to create professional-looking quality images.
Therefore I searched the internet and I found the fancy cameras that create “bokeh”
and invested in a Canon Rebel XT (350D). I loved the camera to death, but after spending a lot of time online– I felt I was “missing out” on full-frame. Apparently all the “real” photographers shot on full-frame, and the image quality, bokeh, and high-ISO capabilities would help you become a better photographer.
So I think that caused me to become insecure about my crop-sensor DSLR, and to foolishly use some of my student loans to splurge on a Canon 5D. But that wasn’t enough. Now that I had a full-frame camera, I “needed” Canon L-lenses, or else I would be “disrespecting” the full-frame sensor (or something like that). I somehow felt that my images weren’t going to be as good as they could without having nice lenses, so of course I splurged on some L lenses (and lusted after even more).
Even after getting a Leica M9, I somehow wondered if getting a more expensive lens (35mm f/1.4 ASPH Summilux FLE) would help me get better images. My older 35mm f/1.4 at the time seemed lacking, and perhaps didn’t create the same “creamy bokeh” of the more expensive lens.
But through all this– I realized that my wanting of a newer camera or equipment was due to my lack of confidence in myself. I wasn’t confident in the images I was creating– and always had that “what if?” question looming in my head. What if I bought that new body– would it help me get better image quality? What if I bought that new lens– would it help me capture more interesting scenes? What if my gear is holding me back from creating even better images?
I found through going through a point-and-shoot, crop-sensor DSLR, full-frame DSLR, a Leica M9, then a film Leica that no one camera (or lens) made me a better photographer. Sure the image quality would differ as well as the ergonomics of the camera– but none of these cameras made me create more emotionally powerful images.
The only thing that would help me become a better photographer was to spend more time shooting, investing in photography books, thinking about photography, editing brutally, getting honest feedback and critique from my peers, and from (of course)– shooting more.
Another big thing which I think causes GAS is advertising. Advertising often creates a sense of dissatisfaction with the material things we own– and tries to subversively get us to purchase new things we don’t really need.
We are often bombarded by advertisements for new cameras and lenses– either directly through banner ads on the internet (or even more commonly) through gear review sites and rumor sites. Whenever a blogger (myself included) receives a camera from a manufacturer to review– he or she is advertising the camera to the masses.
I don’t think there is a problem buying new cameras. I think we should purchase new digital cameras once every 2-3 years or so (about the shelf life of a computer or smartphone). But what I think is unhealthy is once you have a relatively new camera (or even a brand new camera)– worrying about if there might be something better out there.
In theory, imagine if you bought a new camera today. It would have all the best technology you ever wanted. An optical/EVF viewfinder, a light and compact body, high megapixel count, superb low-ISO performance, and an attractive design. If you then never looked at another advertisement for a new camera or gear review site, you would never become dissatisfied with your new camera.
You might find some quirks with the camera you own, but you would probably learn how to live with it. But if you are constantly looking at gear review or rumor sites– you would never become satisfied with the camera you own and learn to live with it. And you might be less inclined to shoot with the camera you already own.
The last part of what I think causes us to feed into GAS is due to status.
I have been to some photography meet-ups in which 90% of the conversation is about cameras, with everybody’s camera proudly displayed on top of the table. Everyone shows one another the “newest purchase” they made– whether it be a new camera or lens. Everybody then fondles the camera and lens, and “tests it out.”
The person whose camera everyone is envious then increases his/her status. They either gain the admiration (or jealousy) of their friends, peers, or acquaintances– through this new camera purchase. The similar thing could be said about buying a new Porsche and getting your status elevated.
We may therefore consciously (or subconsciously) want new cameras or equipment for this boost of status and recognition that it will bring us. The same I have noticed is that when it comes to photographers who own a Leica. Having a Leica is a status symbol as well as a camera. But it doesn’t take any better photos than any other rangefinder– but it has the brand name and status attached to it.
I have met some photographers who shoot with Leica to be quite snobbish and aloof. Some of them look down on other photographers (especially photographers who shoot with Fujis
which they call “wanna-be” Leicas).
Nobody likes being looked down at. When I had my Canon 5D– I didn’t feel it wasn’t a “serious-enough” street photography camera. And that I “needed” a Leica M9 for more people to take me more seriously.
I would have to say that once I purchased a Leica M9 I did have that short-felt feeling of elevation and being “on top of the world”
having the camera that everyone else dreamed of owning. But that high of buying the camera only lived a short period of time– I soon became used to the camera, and it wasn’t anything special anymore. But I still did notice that when I was at photography galleries with my Leica strapped around my neck, people would stare at my camera– or even approach me, ask me about my camera, and start chatting with me.
Status in social media
I feel there is also a lot of status when it comes to the social media world. In the “real world”, status can generally only be shown through material things or dollar amounts. We measure status based on what job you have, how many cars you own (and which cars you own), what clothes you wear, how much your salary is, and how big your house is.
it is also a numbers game. In social media, we keep vigilant look on the number of followers, likes, favorites, comments, and page views we get from others. I feel that social media is an even more destructive status symbol than in the real world– because the number of followers you have is open to the public to see. In the “real world”– we never (or very rarely) show our salary or how much we have saved up in the bank to the public to openly see.
For example, a photographer who has 10,000 followers will be seen as having a higher status than a photographer who only has 100 followers. A photographer will be seen as a better photographer if he/she has 100 favorites/likes on a photo, rather than the photographer who has only 10 favorites/likes on a photo.
However social media can be very deceptive when it comes to these numbers. I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently– and he told me how one of his friends would favorite the photos of 100 other people on purpose (to get lots of favorites on his photos). Even though that photographer wasn’t a great photographer– he would artificially inflate his number of favorites on his images (through kissing ass to all these other photographers).
The same happens on Twitter. Some people try to purposefully follow a ton of people, hoping that some people will “follow back.” Then once they have an un-even ratio of 5000 people they follow (but only 500 followers)– they will begin to “un-follow” people to have a more even ratio of follows to followers (for those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, your follows/followers ratio should be around 1:1).
So don’t get caught up in the numbers game when it comes to social media. You can be the best photographer in the world and not have that many followers, favorites, likes, or comments on your images. That doesn’t mean you’re not a great photographer. It simply means you don’t have a lot of followers on social media– or you don’t know how to effectively market yourself online.
For example, I am not the best street photographer online– but it is only because of my blog and strong social media presence that I get a lot of followers, favorites, and likes on my images. It isn’t necessarily that I am a great photographer. I know a lot of more talented street photographers than me who don’t get as many followers as me– because they don’t have a strong online presence.
Cutting free from status in street photography
As I mentioned earlier in this article– I think one of the most beautiful things in street photography is how open, egalitarian, and democratic it is. You don’t need a fancy camera to shoot street photography– and anybody can do it in his/her backyard.
But like everything in life– status gets in the way. Rather than going out and shooting and enjoying ourselves– we sometimes get caught up in what cameras we own, and how many followers we have on social media.
Don’t let status in street photography (and life) distract you. Who gives a damn if you have the most expensive camera in the world or a million followers. If you enjoy shooting in the streets and creating images that please you– who cares what other people think?
When it comes to ignoring status in street photography– here are some practical tips I offer:
1. Block gear review sites/camera rumor sites
I think that we have weak human will– and we need to place external restrictions on ourselves in order to control our impulses and urges. For example, I am easily distracted by email, blogs, and my phone. Therefore in order to be more productive in writing for this blog– I have a rule: I keep my phone switched to “airplane mode” (blocking all phone calls and data) until I have written for at least 3 hours in the morning. I also turn off the wifi on my laptop (like I have it now) when I am writing. If I need to use the internet to research, I use a Chrome plugin to block reddit and a bunch of other tech blogs I often frequent (Engadget, Techcrunch, etc)– and of course, Facebook.
I also have a practical tip when it comes to looking at camera review sites: block them entirely (with a browser plugin)– and only access review sites when there is a camera you are considering purchasing. I think if you have a Fuji x100 and you would like the faster autofocus of the x100s, it is fine to Google the differences and read a review. But if you already have the x100s and are simply bored at work, refrain from visiting a gear review site. That will simply create an urge for you to purchase new cameras. As for camera rumor sites– they are as bad (or even more addictive) than trashy gossip magazines. I would say block them entirely (if you find yourself frequenting them too often).
By cutting yourself off from these sites– you will better appreciate the camera you already own, hopefully shoot with it more in the streets– and not worry so much about how fancy or good your camera is (in comparison to) all of those other cameras out there.
2. Watch the company you keep
I think there are two types of photographers: photographers who use their cameras to go out and shoot, and camera collectors (sometimes there is overlap– but generally you can distinguish people in one camp and another). I would say watch the company that you keep.
If you find that the photography buddies you have only talk about new cameras and lenses
try to hang out with other photographers who talk more about photography. If you spend enough time with other photographers who are obsessed with gear, you might become dissatisfied with the gear you already own, and
end up buying something you don’t need (simply to fit in with the group).
For example, I knew some guys who shot with DSLRS/Micro 4/3rds who hung out with guys who collected Leicas– and ended up buying one simply to fit in.
There is a saying that you are the average of the 5 closest people to you. Be careful about those 5 closest photographers you keep close to you– they will have an immense impact on you (whether you know it or not).
3. Disconnect from social media
One of the best ways to escape the status and numbers game in social media is to simply disconnect. If you find yourself checking the number of favorites/likes you get on your photos too often– take a hiatus from social media (whether it be one month, 6 months, or even a year). Perhaps set all of your photos on Flickr and social media to private– and simply focus on one photography project for a year.
When I took a 8 month break from uploading photos on the internet– it was the most refreshing purge and cleanse ever. It gave me more clarity to focus on my work– rather than worrying about what others thought about me and my photography.
This doesn’t mean you can’t get feedback or guidance on your photography. Simply rather than trying to get feedback online– try to do it in-person with other photographers. You will also find this feedback to much more helpful than any other feedback you might get online.
I think at the end of the day street photography is something you should do as a passion– rather than a sport in which you are comparing numbers to one another. There are no winners and losers in the street photography arena– we are all brothers and sisters. We shouldn’t let status via the cameras we own or the number of followers we have distract us.
So ignore status when it comes to street photography (and life). Give a middle finger to comparisons and feeling inadequate. Go out there, embrace life, and shoot to your heart’s content.