On Purpose and Street Photography

Berkeley, 2014
Berkeley, 2014

I’m currently reading a book titled: “Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think”. In the book, the author defines happiness as being primarly composed of two things: pleasure and purpose. To find “optimal” happiness in life, the author encourages us to find a balance between pleasure and purpose in our life.

I have read dozens of books on the topic of happiness. When I studied sociology as an undergraduate I would ask myself questions such as: Why is it that the richest people in the world are often the most miserable people? How much money do you need to be really happy? Does more money bring you happiness? What things could I do (or change) in my everyday life to make me be more happy?

I think as street photographers (and human beings), we are all trying to seek happiness. Even though there are dozens of ways to define happiness– I think the author of the book I am talking about makes a great point: purpose is greatly tied into our sense of happiness.

Happiness: Pleasure + purpose

I think it is obvious that pleasure is a big part of what makes us happy. However, the part that gets neglected is our sense of purpose (in the search for happiness).

The author says that happiness is a balancing act between finding pleasure and purpose in our lives. So if happiness was a pendulum, it constantly rocks between pleasure (on the left), and purpose (on the right).

So to create a diagram, happiness is something like this:

Pleasure <-> Purpose

The author says that when we seek too much pleasure in our lives, it doesn’t bring us a true sense of contenment– because our lives aren’t purposeful enough. However when we focus too much on a sense of purpose, we forgo seeking pleasure in our everyday lives.

My definition of happiness (remixed)

Although the author has a convincing definition of happiness– I would modify it a bit. I do believe that pleasure and purpose do bring happiness. However, I don’t believe happiness is a balancing act between pleasure and purpose. I think happiness should be much more focused on purpose (than pleasure). I believe when we seek purpose, pleasure will follow.

Therefore to illustrate my view, refer to the diagram below:

Purpose -> Pleasure -> Happiness

I think that by seeking purpose, it will lead us to having pleasure, and ultimately bring us happiness in life.

This is similar to the idea of “flow” – that we are happiest when we are “in the zone” of our creative activities, and we lose a sense of time when we are working on something purposeful and challenging. To expand on the idea, I recommend reading my article: “On Going with the Flow and Street Photography”.

Purpose in street photography

I think many of us go out and shoot street photography because it brings us pleasure. Many of us have stressful jobs, stressful family lives– and street photography is a way for us to escape some of the bullshit of everyday life.

I think street photography is the best natural stress reliever. Street photography gives us the opportunity to go out on a walk– to connect with the world, to connect with other human beings, and to make art. It gives us a zen-like state of mind, and brings us contentment in our lives.

However what I find after a while– many (once) beginner street photographers become dissatisfied with their work. I know personally when I started shooting street photography, I was perfectly content just walking on the streets and finding interesting snapshots of everyday life. However as time went on, it felt all a bit pointless. I would ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” At the time, I was more interested in making photos to get lots of likes/favorites on Facebook and Flickr– than making a body of work that was meaningful.

The shift

I then started to study the work of the masters, and invest more in photo books (instead of gear). I soon started to realize that the photographers whose work I greatly admired were creating books, exhibitions, and bodies of work. They weren’t on Facebook, Flickr (and now Instagram)– just trying to build a large following and trying to get lots of little pink stars and hearts on their photos.

At the time, I recently got laid off my old job (working a corporate job)– and I thought of starting on a photography project. I decided to try to photograph my experiences working corporate– and started my “Suits” project, which was about my stresses/anxieties working for “the man” – worrying about making more money, “keeping up with the Jonses”, and trying to gain power and status.

The project (still ongoing) gave me a larger sense of purpose. I felt that now when I was out shooting, it wasn’t pointless or simply self-gratuitous. I had a purpose: I would go out and shoot for my “Suits” project, to ultimately share my experiences and stresses of working as a “Suit”. Through the project, I hope that other people (who currently or used to) work corporate can be influenced in a positive way– perhaps rethinking their fascination with money or power, and realizing that money doesn’t buy you happiness (or purpose).

Finding purpose in your photography

I think ultimately you should shoot street photography because you enjoy it– it brings you pleasure, and brings you happiness. However if you are having some sort of “mid-life” street photography crisis– I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why do I shoot street photography?
  • Do I shoot street photography to please myself, or others? Or perhaps a bit of both– but which way do I lean?
  • Ultimately how do I want to publish my work? Online on my website? On my Flickr, Facebook, or Instagram? In an exhibition? In a book?
  • How does my street photography show my subjective view of the world?
  • How is my work unique from the work of other photographers?
  • What do I ultimately want my viewer to gain from my photos? Do I want to emotionally effect them? Do I want to intellectually stimulate them?
  • What does my street photography say about human nature, society, and the world at large?

I don’t have the answers in terms of how you can find purpose in your street photography– it all comes down as a personal thing. We will all have different answers, reasons, and a sense of purpose in our street photography (and life).

What brings me purpose

Every morning when I wake up drowsy, roll around in bed, I think to myself: How can I best use my energy, time, and attention to create the largest impact in terms of helping others?

I then rock out of bed (slowly and painfully)– take a icy cold shower, (still) groggily head over to my espresso machine, cook myself up an espresso, bust out my writing device (currently an iPad and external keyboard), and get to writing.

I feel that writing is what gives me the largest sense of purpose in my life. I experience a lot of stress, frustration, and disappointment in my photography (and life)– and a lot of what I learn in photography (and philosophy books) teaches me to gain more contentment and happiness in life. And my purpose is to try to share as much as this knowledge that has worked well with me with others– hoping it will be of some help.

Not everything I write is helpful, useful, or original. However at the end of the day: if at least one person reads what I have to say and is changed in a positive way (learns something new, changes their way of thinking, or inspires them to change their actions)– I have done my job.

Street photography is ultimately what I am passionate about– because it is the perfect way for me to express the way I feel about the world (in a visual way), but also trying to tie in my sociology and philosophy through my projects (and also through the writing on this blog).

Slowly but surely– I’ve been trying to cut out and remove all sources of external distractions which distract me from my life’s mission. Whenever I am writing, reading, or doing research for this blog– I turn off my phone, turn off my internet connection, and try my best to stay focused at the task at hand. We only have so much attention and time. Why waste it with distractions like negative people and their comments (YouTube is the worst), the media (which feeds off of fear and surprise), and the need of external validation (being addicted to social media).

To be frank– I don’t think that my photography is the ultimate purpose-driving factor of my life. I would rank my purpose in life as the following:

  1. Teaching (via writing, workshops, conversations)
  2. Spending time with loved ones (family, friends, Cindy)
  3. Researching (reading, engaging conversations, and learning)

I ultimately want my photography to impact people– for it to challenge their ways of thinking. I just want to avoid one thing in my street photography: I don’t want to be boring. I want my photography to affect people in a positive or negative way– ultimately I want people to feel something.

But once again, my greatest love, passion, and sense of purpose is through this blog.


So to move forward– ask yourself the question: “What brings me purpose in my street photography?” Perhaps it can be working on a photography project, a group exhibition, a book, or even volunteering your time helping high school students learn photography.

I can guarantee you– if you seek out purpose in your photography, it will ultimately bring you great satisfaction and happiness in life.

Further reading on happiness

For further reading on happiness, I recommend my following articles:

And some more philosophical articles on happiness:

Books on happiness

1. Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think

Currently the book I am reading on happiness, explore more of the idea that happiness is a combination of pleasure and purpose.

2. The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More

One of my favorite books on happiness– how having fewer options in life brings us greater happiness (and less stress).

3. The Cynic Philosophers: From Diogenes to Julian

Even though these philosophies were written 2,000 years ago– what they have to say still rings true today. Talks a lot about happiness– as focusing on internals (how you think, how you act) rather than externals (how others think about you, your life situations).

4. Antifragile

My favorite book of all-time. The author Nassim Taleb writes how to live happily (and thrive) in a world with randomness and uncertainty.

5. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance

A must-read that shows we are happiest when we are fully-immersed in engaging activity (rather than just vegetating on a couch and watching Netflix). To seek happiness, we have to get in “the flow”– by challenging ourselves in a purposeful and challenging activity.

So what ultimately brings you a sense of purpose (or happiness) in your photography? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.