A Letter to My 18 Year Old Self: If I Started Street Photography All Over Again


Dear Eric,

You are 18 years old. You just got a point and shoot digital camera from Mom as a high school graduation present. You are super excited, as you never had a camera before. A lot of exciting things will happen in your life surrounding photography. I wanted to write this letter to you and give you some advice I wish I knew. This is coming from your 26-year-old-self.

First of all, cherish your beginnings in photography. Continue to be like a child. Embrace that sense of wonderment you have with the world. Photograph anything that interests you. Cherish this time of discovery, because it will be one of the happiest moments you will have in your photography. You won’t worry about the likes, comments, views, or “favs” you get from others. You’re also lucky you haven’t discovered “social media” yet. This means you’re only shooting for yourself, to embrace your horrible sense of memory. After all, isn’t that what you wanted?

You’re also starting college soon. What I wish I told you is to shoot more while you’re in college. You’re never going to experience college again, and I don’t think you took enough photographs. Don’t get me wrong, you’re going to do some pretty cool stuff. You’re going to discover “street photography” purely by accident by noticing you’re interested in photographing strangers. You’re also going to start studying sociology (after hating biology) and your interests in photography and sociology will combine into “street photography”.

You’re also going to make the “Photography Club at UCLA” which is going to be freaking awesome. You and two of your good friends are going to come up with the idea over a party, and go out and simply do it. Your future girlfriend and partner Cindy is going to encourage you start it. Listen to her, as she will continue to give you tons of love and support in your photographic life in years to come.

Realize in your photographic journey, you’re going to have a lot of heart-ache. You’re going to pursue your love of photography because you want to share the love you have with others. But one day, you will start a blog on street photography– and encounter a lot of resistance. You will have a lot of people who support you, and a lot of people who re going to hate what you’re doing. You’re going to be called a sell-out, someone who is “tarnishing” the purity of street photography. You’re going to be mocked, ridiculed, and given petty death threats on YouTube. You’re going to fall into a creative slump– and not pick up a camera for several weeks from all the negative feedback you get. You’re going to be afraid and nervous what other people think of you, your photography, and your intentions. You’re going to think about giving up on photography.

But Eric, don’t give up. Realize that you’re going to inspire others and help others through your writing and your work. Not everyone is going to like your work and what you’re doing, but realize that the secret to failure is trying to please everybody. Just speak openly, transparently, and don’t front– speak truthfully with your heart.

Also don’t get greedy. Don’t try to hoard all of your information to yourself. Keep it open and free. Share everything you learn about street photography, sociology, and life with others. You will be tempted to “sell out”– but embrace the barbell theory you will learn in “ANTIFRAGILE” from a philosopher named Nassim Taleb: either give away your stuff for free, or charge premium bucks for it. Don’t settle with trying to charge for everything.

Realize that your dream in life isnt to to become super famous, to pursue photography as a living– but simply to build up a sense of community in the street photography community. Realize that you’re not very important as an individual. Your job and purpose in life is to serve others. And the more you give, the more you will receive in return.

Also I want to warn you: don’t succumb to “gas” (gear acquisition syndrome). You’re going to want all these fancy and expensive cameras. You’re going to think buying that new Leica M9 will make you the best street photographer in the world. You are going to think that the gear is holding you back. You’re going to daydream in your cubicle in buying that new lens, hoping it will inspire you.

But know that is all bs. The camera you currently own is more than capable. Rather, use that money you waste on gear on experiences. Travel, attend photography workshops or classes, and invest in photography books. Realize that no matter what camera you own, you will never be satisfied. And realize money can only buy you happiness if you invest it into experiences.

Realize that at the end of the day, you’re not going to really care about the photos you take. What is going to be the most valuable is the amazing people you will meet along the way. You’re going to cherish the friendships you create with other photographers all around the world in your photographic journey. These photographers will continue to inspire you, give you honest feedback and critique on your work, and push you to become the best photographer you possibly can.

Also know, “less is more”. Spend a lot of time editing your shots (only showing your best work). Don’t upload photos online the same day you shoot them. Let them sit for a long time, and “kill your babies”. Like a nice steak, let your shots “marinate”.

Also don’t get caught up on the hype of the “social media treadmill”. There is going to be a time when you become addicted to likes, favorites, and comments and views on your photos. You’re going to care more about these stupid numbers than the photos themselves. Social media is only going to distract you from going out and making photos that are meaningful.

The best photos you are going to take are the ones that are meaningful and have heart and soul. Don’t aim to make simply funny or weird or interesting photos. Aim to take photos that inspire your viewers, through the raw emotional connection they create.

Also work on projects, not single images. Realize that single images are well suited for social media and getting lots of favorites and likes. But projects are going to define you. Projects will give you focus. Projects will help take your photography to the next level. And realize projects are going to take a long time. A good project is going to take at least 2 years, so be patient.

The day you become a “full-time” photographer is the day you lose your job at your company. You’re going to be scared. You’re going to have no money in your savings, have tons of credit card debt, and student loans to pay off. You’re going to be very scared, but know you have the love and support of Mom, family, and your loved ones. You’re going to worry about being homeless but don’t worry– everything will always turn out okay in the end.

Just remember: keep giving. Give until it hurts. Give until your body is exhausted and you want to curl up into a ball. Don’t be a consumer, be a creator. Create value for others, and aim to inspire others through the work you create.

I’ll send you another letter later. But until then, keep being a child in your photography. Explore, let curiosity lead you– and don’t forget, have fun. Use the camera you already own, avoid wasting money on gear, and embrace life to the fullest. Shoot as if everyday is going to be your last.

Love sincerely your 26-year old future self.

  • 7/25/2014, at Highlands Coffee in Saigon, Vietnam (written while waiting for your future lover Cindy studying at the archives)
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