I have been a long-time admirer of the philosophies of Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism. In-fact, I have gained more insights about photography from these philosophies (than I have from any book on photographic theory).
I recently re-read a new english version of the “Tao Te Ching“– the classic manual on the art of living. It was a version written by Stephen Mitchell, and I like the flow and how it reads in English.
In my life and photography– I often feel a lot of anxiety, frustration, stress, and the need for external validation. However reading these Taoist philosophies have helped bring peace to my day-to-day life, and I hope these lessons I’ve learned can help you as well.
I am no expert in Taoism, Zen, or any of these philosophies– and I have a lot to learn. But I will share what helps me fall asleep at night– I try my best to follow these principles that I learned from the “Tao Te Ching“:
1. Embrace “beginner’s mind”
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Suzuki Roshi
In Zen Buddhism, one of the principles is to follow is “beginner’s mind”
or seeing the world for the first time like a child would.
When you are a child– everything in the world is amazing. You have no pre-conceived notions, no sense of “right” or “wrong”
and no sense of what is “good” or “bad”. The world is limitless, exciting, and has no boundaries.
However as we grow up– we are taught by teachers and authority-figures what is “good” and “bad”. We are told the difference between “right” and “wrong.” It closes a lot of our creativity
and forces us to think in boxes. Funny that nowadays we are told to think “outside of the box” when in school we are taught to simply check boxes for tests and follow standardized procedures.
When it comes to street photography, I remember when I first started. I had a little Canon point-and-shoot digital camera that my mom got me as a graduation present from high-school (I was 18 at the time). These were the days of pre-Instagram, but I was hooked. I remember taking 1,000 photos a day of everything. It would be random things, like photographing my breakfast (once again pre-Instagram), my friends, my walk to class, my surroundings, my books, my class-mates, sunsets, flowers, random people on the streets, and so on. My mind had no pre-conceived notions of what a “good” or a “bad” photograph was. Everything simply was a great photographic opportunity, and the act of photographing augmented my love, excitement, and zest of life (it also helped that I was starting off college– and the world seemed to have no limits).
However as time went on, this innocent “beginner’s mind” and child-like curiosity of mine started to die off a bit. I remember seeing some photos on the internet with this amazing shallow depth-of-field. It was unlike everything I had ever seen before– and the images looked so sharp, so rich, and so vibrant. I wanted to re-create the look (that I wasn’t able to capture on my point-and-shoot) so I did all my research, and discovered I needed a “DSLR”. I ended up saving all my pennies, got a Canon 350D, and was confused why my kit lens couldn’t produce (what I now know as “bokeh”). I then discovered I needed the 50mm f/1.8 lens, and once I got it– I shot everything at 1.8. EVERYTHING.
Time flies on, and I fall victim to G.A.S. and need to buy all the equipment. The people on the gear forum of Fred Miranda told me that if I wanted to be a “real” photographer, I needed a full-frame camera. I end up splurging on a Canon 5D, fall into a rabbit-hole of purchasing lenses that I probably only used twice (Sigma 105mm macro lens, Canon 70-200 f/4 L telephoto), battery grips (to make myself look more “pro”), and it ended up being more about having fancy gear (than the love of photography).
I also got too into the technical parts of photography– worrying too much about the post-processing and sharpness of my images, rather than this child-like curiosity I had of the world to simply wander, experience life, and capture beautiful moments.
The curse of knowledge
Fast-forward to today– I feel blessed to have a wonderful library of photography books that inspire me greatly. However they are a blessing and a curse.
They are a blessing in the sense that they have taught me what a great photo is– and have taught me the importance of creating a solid body of work (that often takes a long time).
However the curse is that now I know what makes a “good” photograph– I often take my photography too seriously. I work on long-term projects that I imagine will take me several years to complete, and it has caused my attention to become very narrow and focused. For example in my “Suits” project– I am essentially looking for men wearing suits (suit jacket and a tie are a must) looking depressed. If they don’t fit this narrow strait-jacket criteria, I have nothing to photograph. I’ve been working on this project for over 2 years, and I only have around 12 photographs that I’m really proud of and which I think are strong.
Therefore when it comes to my day-to-day, I feel a bit constrained creatively. If I see random photos which I think are interesting, I feel hesitant to make those photos, because I feel like they won’t fit into any project. The images I want to make in those situations feel a bit self-gratuitous, like there is no purpose to photograph them.
However this line of thinking is wrong. I think that it is important to work on projects (if you want to make a book), but at the same time to have “beginner’s mind” and photograph simply what interests you. I think that often photography (and art) tends to over-intellectualize, and a lot of it is bullshit. At the end of the day, I think photography should be a medium that allows you to experience life more richly, vividly, and emotionally. I know that photography has helped me be more appreciate of the beauty of everyday life, more aware, and has also given me a valuable creative outlet to express and communicate my feelings, thoughts, and emotions about the world.
I sometimes am jealous of the joy of beginner photographers. To a beginner photographer– they don’t discriminate. They simply see what they think might make a good photograph– and they just shoot it. They don’t worry about composition, the framing, the light, or whether it will fit into their future book or exhibition. They photograph purely for the joy of it.
Freeing yourself by shooting on a smartphone
I recently have re-invigorated my love of photography through shooting with my smartphone. I know a lot of guys who shoot street photography purely on their iPhones (or other mobile devices) and their love, passion, and excitement is boundless.
I think the great benefit for me is the sense of freedom that shooting with a smartphone gives you. First of all, you always have it on you. Secondly, you just can point-and-click (don’t worry about all that nerdy technical settings). Lastly, you can quickly edit (select your favorite images), post-process (using VSCO, snapseed, whatever), and upload it to your social media platform of choice (Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc).
I also find when shooting with my smartphone, I don’t discriminate as much. I take my photography “less seriously”
I think in a good way. Photos that I might not shoot on my film cameras, I end up shooting on my phone. And funny enough, the photos I end up shooting on my phone sometimes end up being pretty good. So if I had never shot those images on my phone, I would have never made those images.
So if you have a smartphone (and find yourself feeling uninspired with your current fancy digital camera, or whatever)– I encourage you to try shooting with it. I feel the same excitement and joy that I get shooting with my smartphone as I got when I shot first on my digital point-and-shoot. If you want to shoot with a smartphone, here are some practical suggestions:
Honestly the iPhone is the best smartphone to shoot photos on. I personally have a Samsung smartphone, and while the image quality on my camera is excellent– it still doesn’t have the same flexibility, access to cool apps, and speed of the iPhone.
I recommend using the “Pro camera” application for the iPhone– which gives you manual control over the exposure and focusing (just enough technical control without becoming too nerdy).
For processing I know a lot of people who like Hipstamatic (not available on Android).
For processing, I can’t recommend VSCO enough. I personally shoot on a Galaxy S5 (sometimes in HDR mode to get more dynamic range), and then post-process using the “Analog” preset on VSCO, then end up publishing the images on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and sometimes Facebook.
As a rule: I treat VSCO like my film cameras in the sense that I always stick to the same film preset, which is good in the sense it gives me a “consistent look”. But I recommend you trying to experiment with different ones– until you find one that really jives with you.
There are tons of other processing applications out there, but I found VSCO to be the best.
I think as a takeaway point, we should all try to embrace this “beginner’s mind” in street photography. Which means transporting yourself to when you started photography all-over-again. How excited were you when you made your first photograph? Perhaps the first time you went to the darkroom? Or when you were a kid and got back 4×6 prints that were freshly processed from the lab? Or when you first made a photo, and saw it on the back of your LCD screen (if you’re younger). Try to see how you felt emotionally at the time, and the sense of pure excitement you had– and try to re-create that.
So the next time you are out shooting on the streets, give yourself this experiment: imagine that you are your (younger) self again– and that you started photography for the first time. If someone first handed you a camera, what would you photograph? How would it make you feel? Would you discriminate as much as you do today?
2. Let go
“The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled. – Tao Te Ching
I personally have a hard time detaching, letting things go. I often fall into the “sunk cost bias” (once I invest in something, it feels irrational to pull-out) and can become very stubborn.
This manifests itself a lot of different ways in my life. Photographically speaking, it means that I have a hard time killing my babies (editing out my weak photos), killing off projects (projects that I once thought had potential, but are a bit boring and uninteresting), and also getting over frustrating times when I miss “the decisive moment.”
A lot of what Zen/Taoism talks about is the importance of letting go. The importance of not becoming so attached to something– that it creates feelings of anxiety, fear, and resentment. By letting things go can we achieve pure contentment.
Furthermore, flexibility is one of the key elements in being able to let go:
“Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
Another good analogy to be flexible, imagine yourself like water:
“Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.”
Letting go in editing
When it comes to editing our photos (selecting which photos are good, and which photos to ditch), it is an extremely emotional process. We feel emotionally connected to many of the photos we take– but we can’t simply publish them all to the internet. We need to be selective, and only publish what we think are our strongest images, what we feel will resonate most with our viewers, or what is truly deep and meaningful to us.
But it is so hard to let go of our photos.
I know personally the reason I have a hard time editing my photos is the fear of “what if?” What if the photo is a really good one, and I overlooked it? What if this photograph will really inspire someone, but I didn’t give it a chance? What if I am listening too much to other peoples’ opinions– and not enough of mine?
I think editing is one of the most difficult things in photography (more difficult than making photos). The reason is this: it is easy to click the shutter (when it comes from our guts and instincts), but it is hard to edit the images (when it comes to using the more analytical and emotional side of our brains).
I perhaps over-use the term “killing your babies” in photography too much. Rather I should say “letting go of your babies” when it comes to editing.
So when you look at a photograph that you know isn’t a particularly strong photograph, doesn’t fit in any of your projects, and really isn’t worth showing to anybody, you can tell yourself (or the photo this):
“I appreciated making you as an image, and the experience you gave me when I photographed you. But unfortunately you don’t really fit into my body of work, and as much as I appreciate you– I don’t really have anywhere to publish you. Don’t take it personally– I still love you, but I’m going to have to let you go.”
And then you edit the photo out.
Personally I don’t think you have to delete photos when editing (I personally just let them all hang out on my hard drives)
and I find it emotionally easier than the fear of deleting images. However if you do have enough discipline, it isn’t a bad idea to delete photos (to prevent having to look through hundreds of thousands of images in the future).
But what if the photograph might have potential, and you aren’t sure whether you should edit it out, or keep it?
In those instances, I have a “maybe” folder that I export all of these photos that I’m not sure about– and keep them on my smartphone or my iPad and show them to other photographers whose opinion I trust to get their feedback on. Through this method, I have uncovered two strong images (which I didn’t think were good)– which include my “Marseille” photo of a guy sunbathing at the beach, and a photo of a bored couple inside a restaurant for my “Suits” project.
Here are some more specific examples of letting go of things in street photography:
a) Letting go of projects
Not every photography project you embark on is going to be a great project. I think it is important to cut your losses short, even though you might feel heavily invested.
I have worked on about 20 different projects the last 2 years, and the only ones which I feel have promise is my “Suits” project and my “Only in America” series. Both I think have promise– and are still in its infancy, but will take a long time to nurture and grow to become mature bodies of work.
The reason we have a hard time cutting our losses is once again– from the “sunk coast fallacy”. The analogy is this: if you’re playing poker and you started off with $100 and suddenly you are “pot-committed” by having $80 of your chips inside a hand, you feel that it makes sense to simply “go all in”
even though you might not have a good hand. This is a mistake, because it is better to simply keep the remaining $20 you have, then to simply throw it away. Once we feel committed, we feel like we need to go all the way.
However like everything in life– we need to know when to cut our losses, let go, and simply move on. This includes many things in life. For example, toxic relationships. If you’re in a toxic relationship for 10 years that is making your life miserable, you shouldn’t stay in the relationship just because you have invested so much time, energy, and emotion in it. You need to let go and move to become a more positive person. If you’re invested in a business that loses a lot of money
it is best to go out before you lose all of your money. Similarly if you’re committed to a photography project that isn’t going anywhere, it might be a good chance to re-evaluate the project, and think whether moving on can be the best option for you.
b) Letting go of lost-photo opportunities
I have about a hundred photos I can vividly remember wanting to photograph, but I didn’t– because I either didn’t have my camera with me, because I was scared, or because I was too slow in capturing the images. These images haunt me, and make me frustrated.
I remember wanting to make this one photograph recently, but I didn’t have the guts or courage to take it. I then (after a long day of shooting), go to bed– and kick myself for not shooting it (which leads to inner-frustration and turmoil).
But I then had the realization that no matter how diligent I am as a photographer, there will be millions or billions of “decisive moments” happening at every second at every corner of the globe that I won’t be able to capture.
There will always be lost opportunities in photography (and life) that we can’t control. The only thing we can control is to move on.
Perhaps we had a really good business deal (or a job offer) that has a ton of promise, but ends up not working out– which causes us to lose a lot of (potential money), and leads us to become resentful. Perhaps we had a really good date with an attractive (physically and mentally) person– but they end up running off with someone else. Perhaps we see a dude doing a backflip over a puddle and there is a double-rainbow in the background, but we left our camera at home and couldn’t capture the moment.
Nowadays when I miss “decisive moments” in street photography– I simply smile and tell myself, “Even though I didn’t make a photo of that– I am blessed to have seen it and experienced it” and move on.
I think ultimately as photographers, we should be more focused on the experiences and beauty of everyday life (rather than frantically always trying to capture it). Some things in life are better unphotographed.
3. Don’t compare or compete
“When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”
I think social media is a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that you can now reach a potentially unlimited audience. A curse in the sense that our self-worth and validation as photographers and artists are distilled into the number of followers, likes, favorites, views, and comments we get.
I think it is really hard not to compare or compete with others. After all, it is human nature. As a social species– we thrive on trying to out-do one another, and we always love the challenge of a competition.
However I think in the case of photography– the only person we should compete with is ourselves. Compete with the photographer you were a year ago. As long as day-by-day, you become a slightly better photographer (by taking more photos, editing your photos down into better series, or learning about photography via books and the internet)
you are doing your job.
I personally find myself depressed and dissatisfied whenever I try to compare myself with others. No matter how hard I try, there will always be someone with more followers, fame, fortune, power, and status than me.
Regarding competition– it is pointless. Photography isn’t a competition.
There are no clear winners or losers (like in basketball, football, tennis, etc). It isn’t a zero-sum game. There is no real way to “keep score”
except via the number of books you’ve published, the shows you’ve had, how prestigious the other photographers you know, etc. Also the danger of trying to “compete” with other photographers is that there is no clear indication whether you have “won” or not so you continue to strive towards becoming more and more “successful” and it is just a negative spiral downwards after that.
Furthermore, don’t make photographs for the approval of others– do it to please yourself, something deeply intrinsic that needs to be satisfied. Another quote we can paste onto our walls from the Tao Te Ching:
“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
If anything, we should be happy for those who are doing better than us– we should just photograph because it makes us happy and we enjoy it:
“The best athlete
wants his opponent at his best.
The best general
enters the mind of his enemy.
The best businessman
serves the communal good.
The best leader
follows the will of the people.
All of them embody
the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don’t love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
In this they are like children
and in harmony with the Tao.
Lastly, a great point on helping other people (and photographers):
“The master has no possessions.
The more he does for others,
the happier he is.
The more he gives to others,
the wealthier he is.”
There is no point to compare yourself to other photographers, or to compete with them. We all have a different life story, and a different background. Some of us have limited abilities in our photography– but we can always work hard to stretch out own boundaries and limits.
Rather, I think we should work more on collaborating with one another— than competing with one another. Street photography is a tiny niche, and not really well-respected in the global sphere. Not to say we need to work to become “respected” in the art world– but we should band together like a bunch of misfits against the world.
I have personally found that the more I help promote other photographers and their work– the happier it makes me, and how it ultimately ends up benefitting me too. Not to say you should merely help other people (to expect something in return)
but I have often found that positivity and support amongst photographers is much better than competition, negativity, and criticism.
Spread the love.
4. Have no expectations
I have a problem: whenever I am out with my camera, I feel disappointed if I don’t get any “keepers” by the end of the day (especially if I invested a lot of time, energy, and effort to make photos).
However one thing that the Tao Te Ching has taught me is the importance of having no expectations. To quote:
“Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.”
Furthermore, the more expectations you put on yourself– the less flexible, fluid, and open your mind is (to photographic opportunities). There is a nice tidbit from the Tao Te Ching on this as well– “cleansing your inner vision, until you can see nothing but the light”:
“Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?
I often find that if we go out and shoot with too much pre-conceived notions of what we should photograph, we don’t end up making any good photographs.
For example, when I first went to Paris I had all these pre-conceived notions and expectations of the photographs I wanted to make. They were all Henri Cartier-Bresson-esque, with pretty Parisian architecture, people kissing in Cafe’s, and majestic light. But to my horror, the streets of Paris were just mobbed with Asian tourists and loud and obnoxious Americans. I spent an entire week there trying to hunt out “Parisian life” (as I imagined it in my head)– and ended up empty-handed.
Now looking back on the experience, I should have documented what I witnessed (the Un-Paris) rather than trying to create some figment of my imagination (the romantic Paris I had in my mind). This would have helped me create much more interesting images.
The tricky part is that often when you’re working on a project and it is about certain subject-matter (like photographing guys in suits, old people, pink ponies) you can get locked. You don’t have the openness, flexibility, and spontaneity to simply embrace what is before your very eyes.
Another great example of the benefit of flexibility is having space in-between, that negative space that will help you be more creative:
“We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being, but non-being is what we use.
Also by not having any expectations, you will never be disappointed:
“The Master’s power is like this.
He lets all things come and go
effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results;
thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed;
thus his spirit never grows old.
I think there are many different ways to work on projects:
a) One good way to work on a project is to go out with a rough sense of what you want (which sometimes works, but often fails).
b) Another good way to work on a project is to go out and simply photograph what you find interesting, start to analyze the subject-matter you are photographing, then focus on finding the story (while you are actively photographing it).
Frankly speaking, I think the second method is a more robust way to work on a project– because it gives you a combination of flexibility and focus.
Also as a practical tip– I don’t recommend traveling to a place to photograph with any sort of pre-conceived notions. I think going in a place with purposeful ignorance is a good way to stay open to new experiences, new sights, and new photographic potential.
Furthermore, going to a new and exotic location for just a few days or a few weeks won’t net you any great photographs. I think most street photographers are lucky to just get 1 good photograph a month.
So when you’re traveling, keep your expectations in your photography modest. Don’t expect to create the definitive body of work you’ve always wanted to after a 1-week trip in Tokyo or Venice. Just go there for the experience, have fun, and try to make a couple of good photos along the way.
If you end up making some good photos, it is good. If you end up taking bad and boring cliche snapshots, it is good too.
5. Be still
I have another problem: When I am out shooting on the streets, I have zero to little patience. I am like a pigeon trying to chase after shiny stuff. I pace up and down the streets furiously, hunting out “decisive moments.” Rather, what I should do is be more patient– and let the photographic opportunities come to me.
Another great quote form the Tao Te Ching regarding the importance of patience (it still amazes me how much of this ancient philosophy can relate back to street photography):
“Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The secret is being present, and letting the photographic opportunities arise naturally:
“The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”
Another good excerpt on being patient:
“The generals have a saying:
‘Rather than make the first move
it is better to wait and see.
Rather than advance an inch
it is better to retreat a yard.’
A good photographic exercise I have heard is this: Find a street corner that you find interesting and there are a lot of people coming in and out of. Then stand at that one street corner for an hour, don’t move, and simply photograph what you find interesting.
I have done this exercise myself– and it is fascinating how much more effective it is to simply stake out an interesting intersection, and letting the photographic opportunities come to you.
This is beneficial in several ways:
- a) It helps you conserve energy. You don’t need to walk for hours on end to see photo opportunities.
- b) You have a sea of people coming in and out of your frame, and you never know what combinations of people will collide.
- c) Constraints breed creativity: by being restricted to one spot, you will force yourself to be more creative to make interesting photos from that one location.
I think often when we are out shooting street photography, we simply hunt for interesting characters or subjects, quickly photograph them, move on, and just hope that the background is okay. However this mostly fails, and the background is messy and distracting.
I think the opposite technique works better: start with the background (an interesting or clean background), and letting the subjects enter your frame. Sure this can be a bit one-dimensional and flat at times (just a simple juxtaposition “one-liner” cliche street photograph)
but just try to do it better than you have seen before.
So don’t always run around the streets like a chicken without its head on. Find a good spot, be patient, and let the mud settle and then your vision will become clear.
6. Don’t travel far from home to photograph
I love to travel. I love the opportunities it gives me, I love the people I meet, the food, sights, smells, and experiences I ingest.
However I often fall victim to “FOMO”
fear of missing out. I feel that if I am not in exotic city “X” I am missing out on the action photographically.
For example, I currently live in Berkeley, California (home of the hippies and counter-movements)
which is a very fascinating place to photograph. But I always want to be in “the city” (San Francisco) because I think I can make much more interesting photos there, because Berkeley feels too mundane and boring for me (because it is so familiar).
However I have discovered over time– the best photographic opportunities are in your own backyard (neighborhood, city, community) and staying true to your roots is really important. There are tons of photographic opportunities waiting to be shot where you already live. Rather than being a tourist in a different place, travel where you already are. Lao Tzu shares the following in the Tao Te Ching:
“The heavy is the root of the light.
The unmoved is the source of all movement.
Thus the Master travels all day
without leaving home.
However splendid the views,
she stays serenely in herself.
Traveling too much can often be a distraction, which will make you even less satisfied with where you live
and cause you to lose your roots:
“Why should the lord of the country
flit about like a fool?
If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.
I know it is hard to find your own city or neighborhood interesting to photograph. We easily become adapted to where we live (regardless of how interesting our city). For example, I have tons of friends in Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong, Paris, and San Francsico who are bored of the city. The grass is always greener on the other side.
So photograph your own backyard with the same zest as you would as if you were traveling. Imagine yourself as a tourist in your own city. What would you find interesting, fascinating, and weird? I think one of the best ways a photographer can make images is to find the ordinary and mundane, and make it extraordinary.
Personally in Berkeley I don’t find the people all too interesting– but I have found a great deal of interest photographing the urban landscape here. Furthermore, I am very close with my girlfriend Cindy– and I photograph her everyday (as well as my friends and those who I care about). There is always photographic material all around you near home– don’t feel that you need to be in Venice to make interesting photographs.
7. Be a flaneur
Below is probably the best chapter (27) in the Tao Te Ching:
“A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.”
There is a French word, “flaneur”
which is essentially someone who wanders around aimlessly, with a kick of gusto and suave-ness that can only be illustrated by people who wander effortlessly and fashionably (without looking like a lost tourist).
I think a photographer’s most important body-part is his/her feet. Our feet is what allows us to wander, explore, and to get lost. I have often found my best photographic opportunities in the least-expected places (grocery store, restaurant, gas station, gym) when I kept an open-mind (and had a camera-in-hand).
We never know when a great “decisive moment” will happen– so wandering and being flexible and open to ideas is important. Another excerpt continuing from Chapter 27 in the Tao Te Ching:
“Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn’t reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn’t waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.”
Don’t feel that you always need a destination in life, just take in what comes your way:
“The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.
Let your intuition and curiosity lead you. If there is a certain photographer whose work you like (but cannot explain why)
research them to death. Buy all of their books, read all of their interviews, and try to deconstruct why you like that photographer. Even try to imitate that photographer– and create images that you like (that might resemble that photographer’s).
If you are walking on the streets and simply want to go down an unfamiliar street or alley– go down it (unless it is midnight and you are in a dangerous neighborhood).
If you are interested in shooting film, try it out. If you shoot 35mm film and are interested in medium-format, try it out. If you shoot digital and want to shoot more with your iPhone, just try it out. Lead where your intuition takes you.
The more open you are (like an empty bowl)– the more you can receive and take in whatever comes your way.
8. Do your job
I think that taosim and Zen Buddhism get a bad rap– that you should just be lazy and do nothing, and let everything be done itself.
However that isn’t the way I interpret it. I think it is about not forcing things– but still working hard on what you are passionate about, and what you feel like is your calling.
For example, you can work very hard in your photography (shoot as often as you can, make tight edits of your work, and educate yourself as much as possible), but you can’t control whether people will like or appreciate your work.
So focus on what you have control over, and disregard the rest (if others approve you or not).
The Tao Te Ching shares the importance of doing your work (and simply taking a step back, and not worrying about the reaction from others):
“The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn’t try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts himself.
Also the Tao Te Ching encourages us to don’t simply talk about our ideas and projects– just to go out and shoot it:
“The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.”
So once again, don’t worry about others and the photographic projects they are doing, how popular they are online, or how many books or shows they’re having. Focus on improving yourself and your photography:
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
Look inwards, rather than externally. Know the job you need to do, and disregard what others are doing.
Another great excerpt on focusing on your work:
“The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from ti,
yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn’t hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.
Focus on the results of your work:
“The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.
Also don’t hold back from your work– work hard enough in your photography that you can go to sleep at night at peace (as if it you were going to die tomorrow):
“The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.
9. Avoid desire (or wanting more)
“If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.”
In photography and life– I am constantly tempted by GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). It is the false belief that buying a new camera, lens, laptop, smartphone, tablet, car, etc will make me a more creative, effective, and happier person.
However if psychology has taught me anything– is that happiness can only be bought if you spend it on experiences (and not physical possessions). Not only that, but we fall into “hedonic adaptation”
in which the fancy things that we buy just end up being commonplace.
So what is the secret to being happy with life and the physical things we own? According to the Tao Te Ching, it is finding contentment and appreciation for what we have.
By removing desire for things we don’t need (or own)
like buying that new camera or lens that comes out, we can find more inner-peace:
“When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.
It isn’t always desire for material things
but sometimes desire for fame, power, and influence. Another insightful quote from the Tao Te Ching:
“The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The more we goad for power, we become even less satisfied (and find we always need more).
So how do we find fulfillment? Well, we should find contentment by rejoicing in the way things are– and that we don’t lack anything (and that we have everything):
“Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?
If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
then the whole world belongs to you.
The more we desire things, the more troubled we will be:
“If you close your mind in judgements
and traffic with desires
your heart will be troubled.
If you keep your mind from judging
and aren’t led by the senses,
your heart will find peace.”
Avoiding temptations is hard. Really damn hard. Especially when we are being constantly bombarded by advertisements from camera companies, magazines, and blogs telling that we need the newest and baddest camera system out there. Suddenly the cameras and things that we own no longer seem appealing (even though they were phenomenal when we first bought it).
I think finding contentment with what we own is one of the most difficult things in the consumerist world that we live in.
Some psychological tricks I employ to better appreciate things in my life:
- a) If I lost the camera (that I already own, or it got stolen), how would I feel? Then imagine myself regaining the camera– imagining the joy of recovering my camera.
- b) Imagining how excited was I when I first dreamt of buying my camera, and trying to re-live that experience.
I think being grateful for what we have is one of the best antidotes to wanting more.
Another technique I employ is keeping a daily “gratitude journal” in which I write down (or say) 3 things that I am grateful for. So in photography these are some things I am grateful for:
- Having my eyesight and healthy legs so I can photograph and walk around.
- Having the access to internet to help connect me to photographers from all around the world.
- Living in an era where I could share my photos with an unlimited audience with social media.
- My photography book library, and the ability to access all the great photos on the MagnumPhotos.com website
- The friends I have made through photography.
- The freedom to photograph whatever I want in a public space.
- To have friends and colleagues in photography who will give me brutally honest feedback and critique on my images.
I feel the best things to be grateful for aren’t the external things (like having lots of cameras, lenses, whatever)
it is much more about what everyone else in the world has access in, and most importantly– the social connections.
10. Avoid extravagance
“The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn’t glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.
I know a lot of people who treat photography like a fashion. People buy all these fancy leather cases, straps, camera bags, and aesthetic accessories to “pimp out” their cameras.
I think it is find to appreciate aesthetics and craftsmanship– but I think when photography is more about how fancy you look as a photographer (in terms of your image) and less about the photo-making, it is a problem.
I think ultimately cameras are there to be used and abused– to make photographs. Nothing else about a camera is important.
For example, I know a lot of guys who want to buy Leica cameras, but they want them in pristine mint-condition A++++++ rating or whatever. I then tell them they could buy really affordable banged-up “user-condition” film Leica’s for under $1000, but they don’t look as “pretty.” But is a camera ultimately there to be looked at an adorned, or to be used and abused?
I personally bang around my Leica MP a lot
and I actually take great pride in “brassing” or wearing out my camera around the edges. I feel the scratches and wear marks on my camera add more character to it– and I feel pride in “using” my camera, rather than just babying it around.
Avoid luxury when it comes to photography (and life) at all costs. Do you really need that $500 bag to tote around your camera in, or will a simple $20 messenger bag with an insert do just well? Think about how many rolls of film, photography books, or educational opportunities you can get with that $50.
If you are purchasing a camera and it isn’t the color you want (but it is a good deal)
just go for it. If it is banged up, has a few scratches, who cares. As long as mechanically it works well– it is all good.
11. Avoid perfection
“True perfection seems imperfect,
yet is it perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is truly present.
True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.”
I think perfectionism is a disease in the world– because all I see that it manifests itself into sadness, misery, and anxiety.
Of course you can make the case that some of the best art, advancements, and innovations have come from perfectionists. And with that– I do agree. I do appreciate the obsessiveness that Steve Jobs had in creating the iPhone, iPad, and all the other revolutionary products Apple has put out. But even Steve Jobs would sometimes screw things up by being too much of a perfectionist. And at the end of the day, he still said: “Real artists ship.”
The problem with perfectionism is that there is no objective ruler for what is “perfect.” For example, you can use a protractor and measure a “perfect circle”
but you can’t put a ruler against a photograph and say it is “perfect.”
I think so much of photography and art is subjective– that what is “perfect” to you, won’t be “perfect” to others. So trying to aim too much to be a perfectionist and please others will never work.
Rather, I think beauty often comes from the imperfections. Some of the most beautiful models have buck teeth. Some of the most beautiful statues have chipped faces (or are missing arms). Some of the most appealing street photographs have cut off-figures at the edges of the frame, and are slightly crooked– but that is what makes it feel more real and authentic. I love my girlfriend Cindy for all of her beauty and imperfections– it is what makes her a human being. I think a dent in the side of a camera is aesthetically appealing.
In psychology they have a term “maximizer”
of someone who is a perfectionist. These people are generally a lot more miserable (and get less work done) than “satisficers” (people who are happy with “good enough”).
I think in my photography I tend to be more of a perfectionist– that I don’t want to put out bad work. I only think I make one decent photo a month, and perhaps one memorable photograph a year.
However at the same time, I take a lot of risks and chances when I’m out on the streets. If I see a good scene, I will shoot from the gut and fire off 10-20 photos really quickly, if I think it has potential. I then try to be more critical when it comes to the editing phase of photography.
And I also realize that at the end of the day when working on my photography projects– none of my photos (or projects) will be perfect. There is a certain time when I am about 90% satisfied with it that I end up publishing it. The same thing with this blog– no matter how much I try to write, edit, and revise, none of my articles will ever be “perfect.” So I try to get it about 80%-90% good (by my internal standards, which are constantly moving)
and then just publish it.
Avoid perfectionism in your photography. Sometimes we are all looking for the “perfect photography idea”
and never execute because the stress of perfectionism overwhelms us.
Don’t aim to make mediocre art– aim to make the best work you can. But balance that fine line between getting shit done and having lofty unattainable ideas– and focus on execution (making photos).
“In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is removed.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.”
I think photography (and life) is much more about subtraction than addition.
For example, to make a great photo is easy– simply remove everything from the frame that isn’t a good photo.
A frame in a camera is there for a reason– because it limits and constrains us. There is only so much of reality we can (and should) put into a frame. Being specific by knowing what not to show in a photograph makes a photograph more interesting, mysterious, and appealing.
This is why I think that 99.9% of photos with fisheye lenses (or super-wide lenses wider than 21mm) don’t work in street photography. There is simply too much clutter in the background and messiness– and not enough focus.
I think the best street photographs are the ones that are simple–straight-forward, and emotional. Less is more.
I think we can employ subtraction and “less is more” in photography in many ways:
- a) Remove cameras/lenses from your kit. Try to keep paring down until you are down to “one camera and one lens”
and these constraints will help you thrive in your photography
- b) Remove distracting photography blogs, gear-equipment sites, and rumor sites that cause you to become dissatisfied with the equipment and gear you own.
- c) Remove negative critics and photographers from your life. If people are negative and don’t support you, you don’t need them. One rotten apple spoils the bunch.
- d) Remove influences. I think it is important to have influences in your photography– but stick to a few inspirational photographers (or artists) in your life. Quality of inspiration over quantity.
- e) Remove social media. I think social media is like sugar– use it in moderation. It does add spice to life, and value– but if you constantly consume social media, it will cause you to become overweight and obese and unhealthy.
- f) Remove distracting elements from your photographs. Watch the background, and try to remove distracting faces, cars, poles, trees, etc.
13. Don’t rush things; take your time
“The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.
Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a projection to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
Therefore the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm
at the end as at the beginning.
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.”
Another strategy to employ in photography (and life) is to take your time.
I think with social media, we always feel like we’re in a rush. We need to hurry up, shoot, post-process, and upload. I think especially with digital technology, the demands are higher. People are less patient– they want things done uber-quickly.
However one of the biggest benefits I have personally gained from shooting film is the patience it has taught me. For example, I have around 150 rolls of Kodak Portra 400 film that I haven’t processed over the last 10 months, and I don’t feel in a rush to get them processed. They will all eventually get processed in the right time.
The same thing with photography projects. Don’t feel like you need to be in a rush to complete them. The more you try to rush it to publishing, the lower the quality. Some of the best photography books and projects I see have taken around 10 years– but are all incredible bodies of work (Josef Koudelka’s “Gypsies“, Jason Eskenazi’s “Wonderland”, and David Alan Harvey’s “Divided Soul”).
Take your time in street photography. Don’t try to force things to completion. Know that it is very rare that you will make a great street photograph, so don’t feel pressured or rushed to constantly publish new work. Less is more.
I see photography projects like the “365 project” where you photograph everyday. I think that is a great idea– but just don’t feel pressured to publish everyday (if you don’t think the photographs are any good).
Be calm– take your time.
14. Practice selective ignorance
“What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.”
“The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate the people
but kindly taught them to not-know.”
I think avoiding looking at bad photos is better than looking at great photos.
We are all influenced by what we see. If we are constantly bombarded by mediocre photographs, those images will seep into our mind and influence us in a negative way.
Therefore I think we should all practice “selective ignorance”
purposefully trying to be ignorant and remove certain outside influences from our lives.
This also goes back to “beginner’s mind”
that sometimes people who are too educated are the least creative ones. They let all these “rules” corrupt their minds– and put it into a strait-jacket, which prevents them from flourishing as a photographer.
Practice selective ignorance when it comes to ignorance by avoiding 99% of images online. Honestly, I have probably only seen around 20 photographs on the internet that are truly phenomenal. The really great photography I see is always in photography books from the masters.
Not to say that there isn’t great photography online. There are tons of great photographers online, especially on Flickr in the street photography community. But rather than following thousands of people on Flickr– follow 3 photographers whose work you truly admire and gain inspiration from. Try to de-follow as many people as you can, and watch the company that you keep. You are the average of the 5 closest people to you (even in terms of inspiration).
15. How to concentrate on your work
There is a lovely Taoist story– which is one of the most inspirational stories I have read about a woodworker who created beautiful pieces of art, and shared how he was able to do it:
“Ch’ing the master woodworker carved a bell stand so intricately graceful that all who saw it were astonished. They thought that a god must have made it. The Marquis of Lu asked, “How did your art achieve something of such unearthly beauty?” “My Lord,” Ch’ing said, “I’m just a simple woodworker— I don’t know anything about art. But here’s what I can tell you. Whenever I begin to carve a bell stand, I concentrate my mind.”
Ch’ing then shares his secret of how he concentrates his mind:
“After three days of meditating, I no longer have any thoughts of praise or blame. After five days, I no longer have any thoughts of success or failure. After seven days, I’m not identified with a body. All my power is focused on my task; there are no distractions. At that point, I enter the mountain forest. I examine the trees until exactly the right one appears. If I can see a bell stand inside it, the real work is done, and all I have to do is get started. Thus I harmonize inner and outer. That’s why people think that my work must be superhuman.”
I think today’s superhuman power is being able to not be distracted. We live in a world of over-abundance of information and media. To avoid distractions can sometimes feel nearly impossible.
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of productivity books on how to concentrate and be more “efficient” and “optimize” our lives. However the secret to concentration is quite easy: simply remove your distractions.
For example, when writing this article
I fasted from all outside forms of media. I’ve uninstalled all the RSS readers from my phone, email, and social media applications. I’ve purposefully limited checking my email only 5 minutes a day (to avoid distractions), and when I’m writing– I put my phone to airplane mode (so I don’t get interrupted). Then after putting on my noise-cancelling headphones and blasting Yo-Yo ma, it is easy to concentrate.
Furthermore I have found that not uploading photos to Flickr or social media helps me focus on my photography projects. When I get into an uploading spree on Flickr (or Facebook), I am too anxious about how many favorites/likes I will get– that I become too focused on numbers, rather than just focusing on my photography. So I have found that not uploading photos from my projects (and working on them until they are complete) gives me more focus and concentration on my projects rather than trying to constantly upload and share.
When it comes to photography or life, try to remove distractions. Rather than trying to do 1 more thing a day, try to figure out 1 thing you can remove a day.
Some practical suggestions:
- a) I have tried to uninstall one application from my phone a day. Everyday I am closer to the bare essentials.
- b) I try to remove one source of media from my life a day, this includes certain blogs, news sites, social media, etc. I am currently down to only reading books and listening to podcasts in the car.
- c) When you’re trying to write or get any “real” work done– turn off your phone. I either put my phone to “airplane” mode– or better yet, just turn it off completely. This is also a great way to avoid being distracted when you’re out shooting in the streets and you’re “in the zone”. Also when my smartphone is on– I disable all social media notifications, pings, and push-messages.
- d) Single-task: do one thing at a time. When you’re reading a photography book, don’t check your email at the same time. When you’re out shooting, don’t be making phone calls.
- e) When spending time with loved ones and friends, don’t text while having dinner with them or spending time with them. Give them 100% of your attention.
I am not a master on Taoism, Zen Buddhism, or any other philosophy out there. I am just an eager student who wishes to share what I’ve learned with others.
This article isn’t meant to guilt-trip anyone or for me to share to the world how “enlightened” I am. I still face constant struggles in my photography and life– and writing this article is also a form of self-therapy (and giving myself advice that I need).
However I do hope that this article does help bring peace into your life– photographically and also generally.
If I can have the biggest takeaways it is this: remove distractions from your life, focus on your photography and what makes you happy, and be appreciate of what you have. Seek for inner-contentment, rather than what others think of you. Everyday when you’re out walking on the streets, exclaim how beautiful life is– and pretend like you’re a photographer just starting off again, and see how exciting life is. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and remember to have fun.
Recommended reading on Taoism
If you want to learn more about Taoism, I recommend reading:
- “Tao Te Ching” — the fundamentals of Taoism (this translation isn’t 100% accurate, but it is a more readable version)
- “The Tao of Pooh”
a lively (yet insightful) view on Taoism via Winnie the Pooh.
If you liked this article, I recommend reading my other articles on philosophy and photography, and specifically these articles:
- Zen in the Art of Street Photography
- How to Be Grateful for What You Have
- The Tao of Street Photography
Respark your passion for photography:
- SF BAY AREA STREET PHOTO ADVANCED WORKSHOP (November 13, Saturday 2021)
- LEARN FROM MASTERS ONLINE WORKSHOP (December 11, Saturday, 2021)
Be notified of when new workshops are live here.