On Happiness and Street Photography

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Detroit, 2013

I think I can speak on behalf of all of us that we all want to be happy. In some shape, way, or form.

Over the years I have thought a lot about happiness. How to “optimize” my life to become “happier.” How to avoid unhappiness in my work, relationships, and my sense of purpose in the world.

There are countless books written on the topic of happiness, and trust me– I have read almost all of them. I am quite addicted to “self-help” books, and always looking to better improve myself. And of course one thing I wanted to increase was my own personal “happiness.”

What hasn’t brought me happiness in street photography

I went down some wrong paths in my life trying to obtain “happiness” when it comes to my street photography. I will list some of them below, and also share later on some things which have actually brought me “real” happiness in life.

1. Cameras and equipment

Detroit, 2013

One of the things I thought would bring me more happiness when it came to street photography was having newer and better cameras, lenses, and equipment.

I remember when I started off with my Canon point-and-shoot, I wasn’t satisfied with it because I couldn’t create “bokeh” with my images. When I got a Canon Rebel XT, it was a great camera– but I wasn’t satisfied that it wasn’t “full-frame.” When I got a Canon 5D I wasn’t satisfied because it was too heavy, and I needed something more discrete and lighter. When I got a Leica M9, I soon became used to it and took it for granted, and discovered film. When I got a Leica M6, I wasn’t satisfied because it wasn’t as “blingy” as a Leica MP. When I got a Leica MP, I got frustrated how heavy it was, and started to wanted a lighter camera. I got a Contax T3, and loved it for the compact size and weight, but soon got frustrated how it wasn’t as fast in taking photos as my Leica MP. I then soon started to get frustrated with 35mm negatives (for the lack of detail)– so I thought that getting a medium-format Mamiya 7II would make me happy– then I caught myself.

Every step of the way, I fell victim to what psychologists call hedonic adaptation.” It is the concept that every time we upgrade our lifestyle, our cars, our houses, our cameras, whatever– we soon “get used to it”– and take it for granted. Soon the upgrade loses its novelty, and we are hunting for the next material possession to keep on being “happy.” Then I fell into the trap of the hedonic treadmill that I kept buying new cameras and upgrading, having my standards get higher and higher and higher.

On this blog, I preach a lot about the concept of “Buy books, not gear“– and that by buying new equipment and gear won’t make us better photographers.

I don’t say all of this because I think I am “better” than anyone else– or that I am immune to it. To the contrary, I suffer from G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) as much as anyone else out there. I have just gone through all of the motions further than a lot of people. I still remember how fervently I believed the day I got a Leica M9 I would be happy for the rest of my life and satisfied with my camera. I slap myself in the face now looking back– to realize how naive I was.

Personally, I am also a huge sucker for advertising. I am currently very happy with my Leica MP and Contax T3 for my street photography (and my Ricoh GRD V for my documentary work) but every time I see an advertisement for a new camera or a new rumor– I find myself tempted. I remember when the Sony RX-1 came out, it seemed like my dream camera in the sense that I always dreamed of a full-frame compact 35mm camera. Fortunately I was able to prevent myself from caving in. Now the Sony A7r is out, which boasts inter-changeable lenses. Now I hear that Fuji is making some other new fancy X-series cameras, which I am sure are great for street photography.

Personally every time I find myself wanting to upgrade my camera is that I am insecure. Insecure about my photography and my work. I also find myself hitting a roadblock in my creativity– and I feel that buying a new camera will somehow “inspire” me into creating better images. But I found that this is never the case.

I have learned enough from my mistakes that I know now that buying new cameras and lenses won’t make me a better photographer, and they won’t bring me any lasting happiness. Sure there is the initial high of a new camera and a purchase which is always exciting, but that is a “honey-moon” period, rather than “real” happiness.

It is kind of like when you first got into a romantic relationship. When you first start dating somebody, you find them to be absolutely perfect and you want to spend every minute of your day with them. Then soon over time, that initial passion wears off– and this is where a lot of break-ups happen. True love is more than just a fleeting emotion of passion.

Ways I have been able to avoid buying new cameras:

So I have read enough psychology and have had enough experiences to know that buying new cameras, lenses, or equipment won’t make me any “happier.” But I still know that my future self will be tempted.

a) Pre-commitment

The best way I have found myself to prevent myself from buying any new cameras or equipment in the future is a technique called pre-commitment.” If you have ever read The Odyssey, Odysseus (the hero of the book) has to cross some ocean which are infested with killer sirens. These sirens look beautiful on the outside, and apparently every man who have heard them sing– are encapsulated by madness and end up jumping into the water. Once they jump into the water, they are killed and eaten alive by the sirens.

To prevent himself from jumping into his doom, Odysseus knew that his future self would be tempted and couldn’t control himself from the sirens. Therefore he commanded his crew to tie him to the mast of his ship and plug his ears with wax when they approached the sirens. And once they did approach the sirens, Odysseus (tied to the ship) struggled with all of his might to jump into the water. But because he pre-committed to tying himself to the ship, he prevented from dying.

I use the same technique to cameras and equipment. Sometimes I know that I am weak and prone to impulse-buying sprees. Therefore I have a rule: I can’t buy anything (over $500) without permission from my girlfriend Cindy. She is much more logical and rational than me. When I wanted to buy a new iPad Air (even though my iPad 3 is awesome) she put down her foot and told me how stupid I was being. I then snapped out of my trance, and realized how much I was being suckered by advertising.

b) Avoiding gear review sites and rumor sites

I used to be a gear review site, gear forum, and gear rumor site addict. I used to work in IT when I was in college– and I didn’t have much time to actually go out and take photos. I somehow talked my way into thinking that if I bought a new camera or a lens, it would give me the inspiration to go out and take more photos.

This was never the case. I just found myself getting sucked into this black hole of sharpness tests (lots of brick walls), comparisons (nobody is ever satisfied with what they have), as well as rumors (what we have sucks, what is coming next?)

I know that personally I am not strong enough to avoid these sites– so I installed a Chrome plugin (Stay Focused) which blocks these sites (as well as other gadget sites like Engadget and Techcrunch). The more I look at new cameras, equipment, and gadgets– the more tempted I become. As a side-note, I also find myself spending way too much time on Reddit (and not enough time writing for this blog), that I blocked Reddit as well (the ultimate time killer).

I would say at first blocking these sites were incredibly painful, but soon the urges to check them wear off. I still get temptations every now and then, but my Chrome blocker plugin prevents me from slipping into that black hole again.

c) Being grateful for what I have

Another way I try to prevent buying new cameras is to be grateful for what I have. I often get suckered into wanting more things– but I have a technique in which I practice “negative visualization” — which is pretending like I lost something valuable to me.

So for example, whenever I want a new camera– I try to imagine how I would feel if I lost my camera that I currently own, and how much I would miss it and end up valuing it more. Like the saying goes, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

2. Fame and status

Detroit, 2013

Another way I thought I could gain happiness in my photography was to become “recognized.” To be featured in galleries, exhibitions, social media. To be “famous.” To have a ton of followers, “Likes”, “Favorites”, comments, and page-views.

But over the years, I have had exhibitions all around the world, collaborations with big-named brands, built a popular bog, and gained lots of followers on social media.

But that wasn’t enough. I soon fielded for more and more fame and status. I wanted more exhibitions, features, and for my blog to get more popular. I have always been an insecure person as well– I wanted to prove to all the “haters” out there that I was the “real deal.” That I wasn’t just a “wanna-be” photographer, but I was someone who was recognized and respected.

I went down this dark path for a while, and soon found it wasn’t making me any happier– it was making me more miserable. No matter how much “accomplishments” I was able to rack up– I still felt inadequate compared to other photographers who were doing much bigger shows, getting book deals, and were better “recognized” in the street photography community.

By chance around the time I found myself miserable, I discovered Stoicism, a philosophy which has taught me to not care about the outside world and others’ opinions about me– but for me to care about my own personal opinion of myself.

One quote that stuck with me is by a Roman philosopher named Publilius Syrus (not a self-described Stoic, but still relates deeply to Stoisim): “To depend on another’s nod for a livelihood is a sad destiny.”

I realized that I was depending on my own happiness and livelihood off the affirmation and praise that I got from others. And of course, you can’t fully control what people think and say about you.

For example, even if I became the “best” photographer in the world– there would still be people out there who wouldn’t like my work. Nobody in history has ever gotten 100% admiration from others. Not even the Beatles, Picasso, or even Henri Cartier-Bresson. Other photographers in history (some of the best) were highly controversial and had a lot of people hate their work, including Garry Winogrand, William Klein, Bruce Gilden, and Martin Parr.

Ways I have been able to not worry so much about fame and status:

I am still not 100% impervious to being affected by the opinions of others. Contrary to popular belief, I have a very thin skin– and negative things which people say about me really do burn me deeply. I am the type of person who tries to please everybody. But to try to please everybody is to please nobody.

Once again, I go back to psychological tricks employed by the ancient Stoics to prevent myself from worrying about fame and status:

a) Disconnect from social media

Even though I spend a lot of time blogging, I rarely check social media anymore (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, and other blogs). Why is this? It isn’t because I want to become a recluse or that I don’t like other people. Rather, it is because whenever I am on social media, I always find myself comparing myself to others, in bad ways.

I sometimes find myself boosting my ego by comparing my number of followers and the number of likes/favorites I get to other photographers. Obviously this is a douche-bag thing to do– but subconsciously (or perhaps consciously) I can’t help myself.

Not only that, but no matter how many followers, likes, or favorites I get– there will always be someone with more than me. Someone more popular than me. Someone who is doing more “exciting” things than me. Someone who travels more than me. Someone who takes better photos than me. Someone who is more favored than me.

So I found by cutting myself off social media more or less completely– all of these negative emotions and feelings have mostly dissipated.

I still stay in contact with a few close photography friends (through email, meeting in person, or by phone) and I found myself much happier. I am able to better concentrate on the people who matter most to me, rather than worrying about status and fame when it comes to the internet.

b) Aim to please myself first

Another danger I found of social media is that whenever I upload an image, I sometimes judge my images on how good they are– based on how many likes, favorites, or comments they get. But this is certainly the wrong way to think about it.

Should I be taking photographs to please others, or to please myself?

Of course I like pleasing other people– and I want others to like my photography. But I know if I keep shooting to please others– I will fall into mediocrity. I will keep creating the same formulaic images to get a lot of favorites and likes on social media, which will prevent me from experimenting, developing, and growing as a photographer.

I think some of my best and most recent work have been when I focused on not uploading them. I see myself as a mostly project-based photographer now, and I try to avoid “single images” that get lots of favorites/likes on social media. Of course I still upload single images, but it is more to show people I am still alive than anything.

What has brought me lasting happiness in street photography

Now that I have written a little about what has made me miserable in street photography– I want to write some things that have brought me lasting happiness in street photography:

1. Connecting with other street-photographers (in-person)

Brian Day, one of my closest photography friends in Detroit.

One of the things that brings me the most joy is when I meet other street photographers in person. It is much more intimate than simply communicating with other photographers online. You are able to see other people in the flesh– and share this passion with others face-to-face.

Whenever I meet other street photographers, I gain energy from them– and positive vibes. I enjoy talking about photography with them, eating and drinking together, and sharing images in-person. I also really enjoy shooting with other street photographers (I dislike shooting alone, I get quite lonely).

I know myself enough that being an extrovert, I need to constantly be around other people to make me happy. Of course not everyone is this way but we all need some sort of social contact to be fully happy and fully human. No man is his own island.

2. Being “in the zone”

Detroit, 2013

One of the foremost experts of the study of “happiness” is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who said we are “happiest” when we fall into a state of “flow” (which is like being “in the zone”). When we are in the state of “flow” we are so focused on the task at hand that we lose a sense of ourselves and time. It is almost an out-of-body experience.

For me, I fall into this state of “flow” when I am writing for this blog (like I am now). I can spend 3 hours writing, and it feels like I have only been working on it for a few minutes. I find writing stimulating, challenging, and exhilarating. I feel “happiest” in those kind of moments.

Furthermore, I discover “flow” when I am out shooting on the streets. When I am shooting, all of the problems of my life disappear. I don’t worry about problems regarding my relationships, finances, or other peoples’ opinions of me. I am just 100% focused on the task at hand– taking photos. I can walk for hours and the time zips on by like they passed in just a few minutes. I also love talking and interacting with strangers on the street, which makes me feel connected with the rest of society.

3. Focusing on Virtue

Lansing, 2013
Lansing, 2013

When we think of “happiness”– it is generally this emotion or feeling that we get. That we are joyful and euphoric– the feeling of serotonin hitting our brains.

However a more convincing definition of “happiness” is from Aristotle in his book “Ethics.” He refers to “happiness” by using the word: eudaimonia.” Eudaimonia is roughly translated as “human flourishing.” Aristotle considered eudaimonia as the “highest form of human good” and something that we should all strive towards. And to be specific– Aristotle takes the concept of “virtue” to be the most important part of eudaimonia.

Now we can define “virtue” however we would like. Personally, I define virtue as “promoting collective and individual greatness.”

The most happiness I have gained hasn’t been through my own accomplishments in my photography and life. Rather, they have been in helping others.

I derive probably the most joy from working on this blog– because I feel that it is helping other people and the genre of street photography for the greater good.

Of course I am still a student in street photography and learning a lot. I don’t have all the answers– and I know I never will.

However knowing that I am able to build a community for other passionate and like-minded people to connect helps me sleep at night. To me, my most valuable asset has been playing the role of a “connector” or “social glue” to bring others together and helping them stick together.


Detroit, 2013

Happiness is a tricky thing– and I am still trying to figure out what brings me the most “happiness” in my life. I often spend too much time trying to “optimize” my happiness– by adjusting different variables (how much money I make, how much time I spend with others, and the feeling of satisfaction I get from my work).

But ultimately I think that I am missing the point. I shouldn’t strive to be happy for myself. I should be rather focusing my life’s energies to helping and supporting others. To help the street photography community at large. To spend more time profiling others (than just helping myself).

Even though I am still not a 100% sure what will bring me “true and lasting happiness” in my life and in my photography– but I certainly know what will prevent me from getting there (worrying about wealth, fame, cameras, followers, likes, and external recognition). As long as I make my mission statement to help the collective good– my short time on this world will be accomplished.