“Letters from a Street Photographer” #3: How to Focus on Your Life’s Work

Provincetown, 2014

There are so many distractions out there. We live in an age where it is almost impossible not to be distracted.

Our phones are constantly buzzing. We see thousands of advertisements a day that are vying for our attention. We are bombarded with emails from spammers, we are bombarded with notifications, we are bombarded by new technologies that promise to make our lives more “efficient” and “optimized.”

I read something online that the average office worker is interrupted every 20 minutes– and it takes an average of 20 minutes for a worker to re-focus on work.

Many of my friends who work in the corporate world complain of constantly being texted, IM’d, emailed, and sucked into meetings at work– which prevents them from getting any “real” work done. (As a side note– Paul Graham has an excellent essay on managers versus creative time schedules which I highly recommend).

I think focusing is easy– only if we have no distractions. But how do we escape distractions and focus on the work which is truly meaningful to us?

Focus “via negativa”

The first concept is “via negativa” in which cutting out distractions help you be more focused (than trying to add time-saving and “efficiency” applications).

The way you can focus on your photography projects is simple too: remove all distractions. Remove extraneous lenses and cameras from your collection. Remove all your extra lenses and cameras until you are down to one camera and one lens. Then when you are shooting your project, you don’t have to make the decision of which camera to use. You only have one.

Similarly, you can remove all other variables. Don’t shoot both black and white and color– just focus on one or the other. Don’t shoot film and digital– stick to one. Don’t shoot more than one type of film– stick to one film.

Are you busy and don’t have enough time to shoot? It is impossible to find more time to shoot. We can’t just create free time. However, it is easy to cut back on obligations– and remove extraneous meetings, social functions, and any other time-sucks. Once you remove appointments from your day and certain obligations– you will find yourself with a lot more free time.

If you spend more time on social media and not enough time actually shooting–perhaps you should remove all social media from your diet– which will leave you attention to shoot.

If you find yourself jumping from one project to another and not being able to focus on one project– eliminate all other projects you are working on, except the one project you are truly passionate about.

To take this “via negativa” strategy even further– if you want to become a better photographer, don’t look at bad photography (only focus on looking at great photography through photo books). Don’t associate yourself with photographers who are obsessed with HDR, selective-color, bokeh, camera gear, etc. Surround yourself with passionate photographers.

Don’t rely on getting honest feedback and critique from a bunch of random people online. Cut that back to only 1-3 people you really trust to get feedback from. And make sure that the feedback you get is in-person.

It is great to be inspired by lots of different photographers– but try to also limit the sources of inspiration you get. I think it is better to really know the work and be inspired by 3 photographers, rather than getting a little bit of inspiration from 30 photographers. Less is more.

Let’s take this further. Don’t shoot at all times of the day– only shoot during similar times. So if you want dramatic light and shadows, only shoot at sunrise or sunset (or don’t shoot at all). If you want more flat light, only shoot when it is cloudy outside to have consistent images.

Also when it comes to editing your photos (selecting your best ones) don’t try to show all your images. Less is more. Cut down the photos you decide to show. Only choose around 1 good photograph a month that can make it into your future book, exhibition, or project. You will add to your project by subtraction.

How to focus on your work: a Stoic approach

Marcus Aurelius gives us some great practical advice in “The Meditations” when it comes to focusing on our life’s work, and not being distracted by others.

What does Marcus Aurelius have to teach us? I have collected a selection of quotes from him from “The Emperor’s Handbook” (a modern-day translation of “The Meditations”) and hope these can apply to your photography (and life):

1. Ignore gossip

Let’s admit it– we love gossip. We love gossiping about our friends, relationships gone awry, and there is never shortage of gossip when it comes to entertainment magazines or blogs.

As human beings we are hard-wired to gossip. Gossiping is one of the best ways to spread information about one another. It serves a social purpose– who to trust and who not to trust. I think gossiping served as a survival mechanic in human beings, and it still helps us navigate our complex social lives today.

However even though gossiping may be “natural” it isn’t ideal if you want to focus on your life’s work (which is photography). It is easy to gossip about other photographers and their work– while ignoring our own.

Personally, I have found it difficult to restrict myself from gossiping about others. After all, I am a human being too– and I always love hearing the “latest dirt” on the lives of other photographers, what they are up to, and even the “beef” they have with other photographers. Believe it or not– there is a lot of “drama” in the street photography community (I wish there wasn’t).

However I am starting to realize that the more I listen to gossip, the more it distracts me from my own life– and focusing on my own photography. Marcus Aurelius shares this quote on the importance of “turning a deaf ear to gossip”:

“My tutor taught me not to take sides in circus contests, to love hard work, to limit my desires, to rely on myself, and to keep my nose out of other people’s affairs, and turn a deaf ear to gossip.”

Another quote from Marcus Aurelius– in terms of not worrying what others are saying, doing, or thinking– and focusing on your own destiny:

He never– except to achieve some great good on behalf of others– worries about what someone else might be saying, doing, or thinking. He minds his own business and keeps his gaze fixed on the pattern of his own destiny, making sure that he performs his work well and believing that his fate is good since it is subject to the universal good.”

Takeaway point:

As an experiment– try to go a week (or better a month) without gossiping about other people. See how it will make you less judgmental, more open-minded, and more loving and compassionate about other people.

Treat others how you would like to be treated. Do you like it if other people gossip negative things behind your back? If not, don’t gossip about others. That won’t necessarily stop others from gossiping about you– but it will prevent you from being distracted in the lives of others, and to focus on your own life, photography projects, and mission in life (whatever that may be).

2. Follow your heart

“Nothing is more pathetic than feverishly circling the earth and ‘probing into its depths,’ as Pindar puts it, to guess what other people are thinking, while all the time failing to realize that one only needs to attend to the inner spirit and to serve it with unswerving devotion.” – Marcus Aurelius

I sometimes think to myself: “I wish I could think what others are thinking. If I could understand their thoughts, I can prevent from being ripped off, from being cheated to, from being lied to, and to avoid misery.”

However no matter how hard we try, how many psychology and self-help books we read, and time we spend– we can never truly 100% understand the mind of another person.

But what is the point of spending your entire life, energy, and resources to discover the minds of others? I think it is a much better investment to put that energy towards tending to our “inner spirit” and to serve it with “unswerving devotion.”

We all have a mission and a calling in life. In terms of street photography, that might be capturing decisive moments, interacting with people on the streets, publishing your work as a book or online, constantly improving your craft, sharing your information and knowledge with others, or even teaching kids the art of photography.

We only have a limited source of attention, energy, time, and money. I have read that our attention everyday is like a tank of gas. The more energy we expend doing activities– the more fuel we run out of.

So we might start off the day with a full tank of gas. But once we gossip about a co-worker over a coffee with another work-mate, you might be down to 80%. Trying to understand the motivations of your insane boss might drop your attention fuel tank to 60%. Trying to talk to the CEO to get a raise (you greatly deserve) might take your attention resources to 40%. After a long commute home, you might be down to 20%. And after cooking dinner, arguing with your spouse or kids, you might be down to 5%.

Don’t waste your energy as well worrying about what others are thinking. It is once again a huge distraction as Marcus Aurelius shares:

Do not waste the rest of your life speculating about others in ways that are not to your mutual advantage. Think of all that might be accomplished in the time you throw away– distracted from the voice of your own true and reasonable self– wondering what the next man is up to and why, what he’s saying, or thinking, or plotting.”

So guard your attention fuel tank wisely. It is a limited resource. Do you want to waste your spiritual attention energy on others, or to improve yourself?

Takeaway point:

Don’t spend your attention and efforts trying to understand the motivations of others– because you will never truly understand.

Use your attention and efforts to better understand your own heart and inner-spirit, and focus on it. Don’t get distracted– give your energy, spirit, and soul to your life’s mission (making photos, improving yourself as a photographer, or giving back to the community).

So rather than trying to figure out which photographer is talking shit behind your back on the internet, use that attention to read a photography book to gain inspiration. Rather than arguing about other strangers online about the definition of street photography, use that time to walk around your house and take some photos. Rather than trying to get 100+ favorites/likes on Flickr, Instagram, or Facebook– use that attention to edit your photos from your projects.

Invest in yourself– your own inner-spirit (before tending to others).

3. Don’t think idle and negative thoughts

I recently listened to a TED talk on happiness– and learned that one of the greatest sources of dissatisfaction in life is due to “mind-wandering” in which we let our minds drift (rather than focusing on the present). When we let our minds wander– we generally think negative thoughts. We think about our financial difficulties, the negative people in our life (talking shit behind our backs), worries about the future (if we will have enough money to buy a house, send our kids to college, have enough time to go on a trip), or unpleasant thoughts related to your health.

Once thing I have learned to combat mind-wanderings is to simply focus on in the present moment. To not think about the past or the future– the present moment.

Marcus Aurelius (before there were fMRI machines) already figured out that aimless and idle thoughts often lead to negative thoughts– especially worrying about what others think about us (and harboring ill will towards them):

“Purge your mind of all aimless and idle thoughts, especially those that pry into the affairs of others or wish them ill.”

Takeaway point:

One of the best ways to be happy and productive in your life is to focus on the present moment– to fall into a state of “flow.”

To fall into a state of “flow” you need to be sufficiently challenged on a meaningful task, which requires your 100% attention and energy. You become so wrapped up in the activity that you lose a sense of yourself, a sense of time, and a sense of place.

Have you ever gotten in a state of “flow” (or “in the zone”) in which you walk around the streets, aimlessly, enjoy all the sights, sounds, and views– and walk for 10 miles and it only felt like you went walking for 10 minutes? Have you ever become totally engrossed in a photography book– in which you saw what the photographer saw, felt strong emotions, and saw a moving picture (and you didn’t realize that an hour just whizzed on by?) Or have you ever met with other photographers in-person who are equally as passionate about street photography as you– and talk with them about image-making for 3 hours (and it only felt like 3 minutes?) That is falling into a state of “flow” and it is when we are the happiest, most productive, and the most fulfilled.

So don’t let your mind wander– keep it focused like a laser beam. Avoid negative thoughts at all costs.

4. Don’t care about cheaters

“How much time and effort a man saves by paying no attention to what his neighbor says or does or thinks, and by concentrating on his own behavior to make it holy and just! The good man isn’t looking around for cheaters. He dashes straight for the finish and leans into the tape.” – Marcus Aurelius

Often times I get jealous of the success of other photographers. I see other photographers with these fancy exhibition shows, these great book deals, and have tens and thousands of more followers than I do.

I then think to myself: that person isn’t that talented– he must be somehow “gaming” the system. The only reason he has a photography show is because he is well-connected. The only reason he has a book deal is because he knows how to network and kiss ass. The only reason he has more followers is because he spams the hell out of everyone else.

But when I get caught into this line of thinking– I slap myself on the face and ask myself, “Why do I care about how successful other people are– and whether they are ‘cheating’ or ‘gaming the system’ somehow?” I realize that I should rather focus on my own work, rather than caring about how others are becoming successful.

Takeaway point:

Personally– the more I have ignored the success of others (and not worried about my own success)– the more successful I have become. The more I try to get more followers the less successful I am. However when I just focus on my blogging and producing content which is valuable, I end up getting more followers organically. The more aggressively I try to market to people on social media to sign up for my workshops– the fewer people sign up. However when I just focus on (once again) creating value for others and focus on my blogging– more people end up signing up naturally.

So as Marcus Aurelius shares, don’t go around looking for cheaters (or caring how others gain their success). Rather, dash straight for the finish and lean into the tape.

If the finish line is completing a photography book, finishing your project, learning the work of a new photographer, or blogging just focus on that. Dash straight to it (ignore all distractions), and lean into the tape. When you are climbing up a mountain, you must lean forward. Keep leaning forward, and pushing on.

5. Don’t worry

I know a lot of people who want to make photography a living but have a lot of things that they worry about. They worry about paying the rent, they worry about getting enough clients, they worry about marketing, PR, and gaining recognition.

I also know a lot of people who worry about what others think about their work. They worry about being criticized. They worry about being judged. They worry about making bad work. They worry about being uninspired.

Worrying doesn’t do us any good. No matter how much we worry, it doesn’t change any aspect of reality. Worrying only sends our minds into a state of inner-turmoil, in which we excrete stress hormones which ends up hurting us more than helping us.

Rather, we need to work hard at our task at hand– and I have found that things end up taking care of itself. In Taoism they call it “wu wei” action without action. Going with the flow.

Marcus Aurelius also shares the importance of not worrying– and knowing that everything will end up being okay. We are all going to die sooner or later anyways, so why not just focus at your work-at-hand?

Above all, there’s no point in worrying. All things obey the laws of nature, and before long you too will be like Hadrian and Augustus– nobody and nowhere. Then, concentrate on the work at hand, seeing it for what it is and bearing in mind your duty to be a good man. Go where your nature takes you without so much as turning in your tracks. Speak what seems to you most just, but don’t be rude, arrogant, or pretentious about it.”

Takeaway point:

Know that one day you will die. Are you really going to care if you had a BMW, had a house, more money in the bank, if your kids went to private school, or whatever?

No– you are going to only care if you dedicated your full energy, life, and being into creating value in the world, to being a loving person, and to living life to the fullest.

We live in a world in which very few people (at least in the Western world) die from hunger. We die more from diabetes and over-nutrition (from too much unhealthy foods) than from lack of food.

Ultimately we only need the essentials: food, water, a basic form of shelter, and some bare clothes to survive. Nothing else is really necessary.

So don’t worry. Everything is going to turn out okay in the end. You are still alive right now, reading this– aren’t you? Despite all of the trials and tribulations in your life– you made it through it. You are a survivor, and will continue to survive.

Live your life to the fullest– photograph every opportunity you have. Never feel guilty spending money to travel, buy photography books, film, processing, education, workshops, or anything that will further your photographic vision.

Buy experiences, not material possessions– and photograph and suck the marrow out of life.

6. Focus on the common good

“Every nature finds fulfillment in pursuing the right path. For a nature like yours endowed with reason, this means refusing to approve ideas that are false or foggy, directing your energies only to the common good, limiting your likes and dislikes to those things that lie within your grasp, and rejoicing in everything the universal nature has assigned to you.” – Marcus Aurelius

A lot of people have dissatisfaction in their lives because they feel like they have a lack of meaning and purpose.

What does it mean to have meaning and purpose in life?

I think it is pretty straight-forward: to invest your time, energy, and resources into helping the common good (society).

As a social creature, we become sad, depressed, and anxious when we disconnect ourselves from society and the common man. Most people are most engaged and happy when they are spending time with family and loved ones, when they are playing sports or any other interactive activity, when they are volunteering or spending time at a charity, or helping others.

We were made for one another.

I once read a quote that “He who lives for himself is truly dead to others.”

Takeaway point:

When it comes to your photography– think about how you are helping the common good. Are you making images that inspire your viewers? Are you making photos that show the beauty (or suffering) of everyday life to your viewers? Do your photos make your viewer appreciate the world around them?

By being a photographer, does it uplift your heart to become a more positive person– which causes you to spread more joy and happiness to others? That is helping the common good.

Are you volunteering your time or resources to help other photographers in their own journey? That is helping the common good.

Are you sharing your knowledge and wisdom about photography openly and freely– and adding value to the lives of others? That is helping the common good.

When you aren’t sure how to best focus your time and attention ask yourself: through this action, how am I helping the common good?

7. Focus on one action at a time

We might all have lofty goals and expectations of ourselves in terms of our work– like having a book published, having an exhibition, or to create a body of work we are proud of.

So how do we prevent getting distracted (or discouraged) and make slow but steady progress forward? It is easy: focus your life one action at a time (as Marcus Aurelius shares):

Build your life one action at a time and be happy if each act you perform contributes to a fulfilling and complete life. No one can prevent you from doing this.

But what if an outside circumstance prevents us from focusing on those actions? Regardless of our external situations, Marcus retorts:

“Not even that can stop you from acting justly, wisely, and reasonably.”

But what if that blocks you from doing something you want to do? Marcus shares practical advice: know that welcoming obstacles in our life (and adapting to it) can flow in harmony with our lives:

“Yes, but by welcoming the obstacle and by calmly adapting your action to it, you will be able to do something else in harmony with your goals and with the sort of life you are seeking to build.”

Takeaway point:

One of my favorite books this year is “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday. Ryan Holiday is also a big proponent of Stoicism– and wrote a book in which the obstacles in our life often help us become stronger, more creative, and more inspired in life. We shouldn’t be afraid of obstacles in our life. Rather, we should try to re-think the obstacles in our lives, to see how they can help improve our lives.

So for example, you might feel that your camera isn’t good enough for street photography– because the autofocus is too slow, the high ISO-performance is poor, or because the camera is too big or heavy.

But these things might come to your advantage. Having a slow autofocus might force you to use the manual focusing mode (which will cause you to capture more “decisive moments”). Having a camera with crappy high-ISO performance (I’m looking at you Leica M9+ME) will force you to keep your ISO relatively low (ISO 400) which will force you to only shoot when the light is good (and end up taking better photos). If your camera is big or heavy– perhaps it will prevent you from being sneaky when shooting street photography, and force you to interact more with strangers.

We always have the option to focus on building towards our goals one action at a time.

If you want to publish a photography book, just focus on making more individual images. If you want to have an exhibition (and have a completed body of work) just send another individual email. If you want to improve your photography, try to read at least one individual photography book– or attend one individual photography course or workshop.

If you focus on adding one brick a day to an empty plot of land, after a few years, you will have a solid house. Even a 1% improvement in your photography (every day) can compound to huge returns. One action at a time.

8. Don’t seek approval

“Do what nature demands at this moment. Just do it, if you can, and don’t be looking around to see if someone is watching. Don’t look for Plato’s Republic either. Be content if you can take a small step, and know that even this is no mean feat.” – Marcus Aurelius

One of the most distracting things to achieving greatness in life is waiting for approval. For waiting on someone to nod their head and give you approval.

You don’t need approval. You can do what you need to do right now, at this moment.

Wanting to have external recognition or validation for the work you do is a sad life to follow. You can never 100% control whether someone likes your work or not. It comes down to individual taste. If someone is lactose-intolerant (like me) there is no amount of “convincing” that they will like milk.

Another analogy: let’s say you are an amazing photographer, but you are Asian. And let’s say the curator happens to be racist and doesn’t like Asian people. No amount of convincing, bribing, or ass-kissing is going to have your photos exhibited. Because the curator is just a racist. That is something you cannot control.

I also read something about donating money from Jesus: do it anonymously, and don’t ring a bell when you give a donation. He had a quote that said something like, “Don’t let your left hand know that your right hand is donating money.”

Similarly, the reward of doing a virtuous act is the act itself. You shouldn’t do charitable things or good things for others only for a pat on the shoulder.

Similarly with your photography– don’t just make photos for approval for others. First aim to please yourself through your photography– and then if others happen to like it, so be it.

Takeaway point:

You don’t need approval to be a street photographer. You are currently a street photographer– right now in this present moment.

Own it.

I hate it when people say stuff like, “Nowadays everyone thinks they’re a photographer.” The truth is– they are.

I hate elitism when it comes to photography– especially street photography (which should be the most democratic and open form of photography out there).

So don’t let your own self-esteem as a photographer be held hostage by the opinion of other photographers. Say, “I am a street photographer” and say it proudly. Sure you might not be the best street photographer in the world, but who gives a fuck. Work towards being the best photographer you can become– everything comes secondary.

9. Fear that your life will never begin

“Now that you are about to depart this life, ignore everything else and attend only to the guiding light of reason and the inspiring spark of divinity within you. Fear not that life will someday end; fear instead that a life in harmony with nature may never begin.” – Marcus Aurelius

I think when it comes to life– one of the most difficult things is simply starting. To start something takes a lot of courage– and it takes a lot of momentum to get anything started.

Imagine a rusty car that hasn’t been turned on for a few months. When you try to turn it on, it will first sputter, exhaust fumes, and then after a few more cranks (and kicks on the motor block) it finally starts to chug along. It still spews out black gas from the exhaust, but at least now it is running. And with an oil change, some cleaning, and continual running– it will continue to run like a champ.

Similarly, I think getting into the flow of photography is one of the most difficult things.

When I go out and start shooting, I feel cold. I need to get my street photography engine “warmed up.”

The best way I personally get warmed up in street photography is by giving myself the permission to make bad photos. So I will start clicking my shutter for things that are halfway interesting– and try not to be too judgmental on myself by saying, “Awww– Eric why are you taking these boring photos?”

I think perfection is one of the worst things when it comes to street photography. This is because scenes in the streets are rarely perfect. If you don’t take a chance and start clicking– you will never take any photos. The pursuit of “perfection” is more realistic during the editing phase– when you are choosing your best images. Then you can be more selective. But when you’re shooting on the streets– try not to discriminate scenes too much. Just photograph whatever you find interesting.

Perfectionism is also what prevents us from starting anything in life. We think that an idea must be fully-formed before we start it.

For example, let’s say you want to pursue a certain photography project– but you aren’t 100% sure what kind of concept it is, and how you want it to turn out.

A perfectionist would try to map out the entire project– by writing down how long he/she is going to work on it, how he/she is going to pitch the idea to publishers or gallery owners, the equipment he/she is going to use, the number of images they want in the final project, where they are going to shoot, etc. But all this planning might become overwhelming, and this photographer might never even start his/her project. This is a damn shame.

Rather– we should simply start an idea and see where it leads us. We need to be flexible, like bamboo. Strong, but flexible. We need to follow the road, and see where it takes us– whether we face obstacles, bridges, road-blocks, or windy roads.

So as Marcus Aurelius said earlier– don’t fear that your life will end, fear that it will never begin.

So in photography– don’t fear that you will make bad photos (or one day you will die with regrets) fear that you will never really begin to start your photography projects, fear that you will never travel, fear that you don’t give photography your entire energy and soul.

Takeaway point:

I heard a quote recently, “Done is better than perfect.”

I think psychologically we are much happier when we complete things that we set out to do.

I also once read something in psychology which I believe is called the “Zeigarnik effect in which things that we haven’t completed often dig themselves in the back of our subconscious, and haunt us. For example if you have a photography project or a concept and you don’t finish it– it will continue to haunt you (until you complete it).

Like the prior point– don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to become a street photographer or to pursue your photographic projects and endeavors. Do it right now– and let the fear that you will never start your projects (and complete) them be the impetus that drives you forward.

10. Regard our opinion of ourselves the highest

I think there is a funny irony when it comes to our human behavior and thought:

As human beings, we are quite greedy– and we are reluctant to help others. We first want to help ourselves (financially, economically, spiritually) before we reach out and help others.

Similarly, we want others to help us (before we help them).

Therefore we always think about our own preferences and thoughts first (before others).

The irony is this: although we love ourselves more than we love others– we tend to overvalue the opinion that others have of us (rather than valuing our own opinion of ourselves the most). In other words, we care more about what others think of us, than how we think of ourselves.

Marcus Aurelius shares his similar thoughts– saying how ironic that although we love ourselves more than others– we disregard our own opinion of ourself:

“Often I marvel at how men love themselves more than others while at the same time caring more about what others think of them than what they think of themselves. For example, what if some god or wise counselor instructed us to give immediate utterance to every thought and design that popped into our heads? None of us would put up with such a regimen for a single day. Is this not further proof that we have a higher regard for what our neighbors think of us than for what we think of ourselves?

Takeaway point:

We all have an inner compass– in terms of what direction we think we need to take our lives, and the self-esteem we have for ourselves.

I know personally I try to help myself before I help others. The Roman philosopher (and once slave) Publilius Syrus once said something like, “You must water your own lawn before watering the lawn of others.”

However personally I tend to care what others think of me more than the opinion I have of myself.

For example, let’s say that I am working on a project which I truly love– and I think it is a great project. I might show that project to other photographers, and they might all think it is trash.

While their feedback, opinion, and thoughts are important– ask yourself: who are you ultimately trying to please? Your audience, or yourself?

I have worked on many projects (which I never show anybody) which have personal value for me (the “Cindy” project in which I photograph the love between me and Cindy) and I ultimately don’t care what others think of the project. Because it isn’t for them– it is for me, Cindy, and our future family.

I know that a lot of the photos in the “Cindy” project just look like boring snapshots– and that is okay with me. I want to first please myself, before I please others.

On the other hand– I have some photos on Flickr which I think are pretty boring or average– which have the most favorites/likes in my entire stream.

Now the question is– is the opinion of others “wrong”? Not necessarily. It is merely their opinion of my work.

But do I want to live a life in which I make photographs which pleases my audience– but fails to please myself?

I think not.

So as a general principle: first aim to please yourself with your photos, then if others like it– so be it. If they don’t like them– so be it.

11. Don’t be pretentious

I think a lot of photographers once they become famous, important, or influential they forget where they came from, and start becoming pretentious and arrogant.

We all started as newbies one point in our photographic lives– so I think it is important for us to stay kind, open, loving, and un-pretentious to others.

Know that once you achieve some level of success or fame– it can actually hurt and cripple you. You want to stay focused on your life’s task (be a prolific photographer) and becoming “drunk with power and self-importance” will merely delude and distract you.

Marcus Aurelius shares his thoughts:

“Don’t be a Caesar drunk with power and self-importance: it happens all too easily.

Rather, he tells us to be open-hearted, kind, and sincere towards our fellow man:

“Keep yourself simple, good, pure, sincere, natural, just, god-fearing, kind, affectionate, and devoted to your duty. Strive to be the man your training in philosophy prepared you to be. Fear God; serve mankind. Life is short; the only good fruit to be harvested in this earthly realm requires a pious disposition and charitable behavior.”

Takeaway point:

Don’t chase fame, power, or notoriety in your photography. Simply aim to do your job well as a photographer, and everything else will follow.

And once you do gain success as a photographer– don’t be distracted by your fame, wealth, and popularity. Keep striving to be the best photographer you can– avoid complacency, big-headedness, and a sense of self-importance.

Continue to be the best photographer you can, and keep your heart and mind open and pure– and willing to help others. We all needed help and guidance to get to where we are in terms of our photography. Give credit where credit is due– and keep paying it forward.

12. Play your role well

Imagine life is a play. We are all given different roles. Some of us are the lead-actors, some of us are the court jesters, some of us are the backstage hands, some of us sell the popcorn, some of us let the guests in, some of us manage others, some of us do the marketing, some of us do the dirty work of cleaning up afterwards.

We are all similarly given different roles in life and photography. Some of us have a particular aptitude to being good at image-making. Some of us are good editors. Some of us are good at bringing other photographers together. Some of us are good at marketing photography. Some of us are good at organizing photography.

But realize at the end of the day– we are all on the same team– all working towards the same goal.

Similarly in a football team, it is often the quarterback who gets all the credit– but everyone on the team is working towards one singular goal: to win. And without every member on the team, nobody could win.

So know that regardless of your position in terms of the photography world– or your particular aptitudes in photography, you were born into this world for a certain purpose, and you participate in your own unique way.

Put your talents to good use– and don’t waste them.

Marcus Aurelius shares the thought how we are all working together for “one great end” and that we are all going to be put towards great use:

“All of us are working together toward one great end, some knowingly and purposefully, others blindly. I think it was Heraclitus who said that even in our sleep we labor to build the world. Everyone participates in his own way, critics included, as well as those who dig in their heels and imagine they are resisting change– the world needs us all. So choose your side. But know this, whatever side you choose, the One who governs all will know perfectly well how to put you to good use and position you amongst his workers. Be sure, in this great drama, to be more than a throw-away line or a coarse jest.”

Takeaway point:

It is easy to become jealous of the position of others in life. I know some friends who are high-paid lawyers, who have tons of money to buy cameras, equipment, film, trips, workshops, etc. But their downside is that they don’t have much time to go out and shoot. I know some friends who work in freelance and have a lot more free time on their hands to shoot, but unfortunately don’t have as much money for equipment, travel, and film.

We are all given different positions in life– none of them are any “better” than others. They are merely different.

I think it is a matter of knowing your role and position in life– and using it to the best of your ability.

Remember in the stage of life, it isn’t your role which matters– it is how well you play that role.

13. You aren’t here to have a good time you exist for a purpose

There is a certain philosophy called “hedonism” in which some people (I think wrongly) believe that the purpose of life is to just be as happy as you possibly can, and to make maximizing your pleasure in life the sole purpose.

However this can lead down a black hole. This can lead down to drugs, sleeping with prostitutes, alcohol, and other self-destructive pleasures.

While I do believe that we should all seek pleasure in life– I think that pleasure should be a by-product of living a purposeful life. Meaning– we will gain happiness and pleasure from helping others, doing our life’s work and living a purposeful life.

Marcus Aurelius shares the thought that we all exist for a purpose– and we should always remind that we have a job to do. We exist to help others, to be prolific, and to bear fruit– not to simply “have a good time” in life:

“Everything–horse, vine, anything– exists for a purpose. Is it any wonder? Even Helios the sun-god will say, ‘I have a job to do,’ and the rest of the gods will say the same. So what will you say?” ‘I’m here to have a good time?’ The very thought is beneath contempt.”

Takeaway point:

Know that as a photographer you exist for a purpose. You are here to capture the world as you see it– and to share that beauty and vision with others.

I mentioned earlier that you should first aim to please yourself (before pleasing others). While that is true– you should still know that the ultimate aim of photography is to inspire others and the viewer. Otherwise, why would we make images (if we couldn’t share them?) Even Vivian Maier made photos with the intention of one day showing and exhibiting them (watch “Finding Vivian Maier” to discover this fact). I don’t think any photographer truly makes images without even a tiny intention to someday show it to others.

So while I do encourage you to have a good time when it comes to making photos– know that having “a good time” isn’t your ultimate goal. To inspire, wonder, evoke emotions in your viewer– and change their thoughts, perspective, and theories about the world is your goal.


We were all put on this earth for a reason. There is a reason why you discovered street photography– and why your soul is drawn to it.

Know that there are a lot of distractions, detractors, and bullshit out there which will deter you from fulfilling your life in photography.

There will be moments when you will doubt yourself, moments where you will feel without direction, and moments when you will let the negative criticisms of others get to you.

But know that you are a grape vine– and your purpose in life is to produce fruit. And your fruit as a street photographer is your photographs. Your fruit is the warm connections you build with your subjects. Your fruit is what fulfills you– gives you purpose, makes you feel whole– which makes you feel alive.

Live a purposeful life as a street photographer and as a human being– and nothing can stand in your way.

My favorite books on Stoicism

If you want to learn more about Stoic strategies, I recommend reading the following books:

1. “The Emperor’s Handbook” (A modern translation of “The Meditations”)

Currently one of the most valuable books in my library. I have read this at least 5 times (especially in times of pain and suffering).

There are tons of translations of “The Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, but I have found this version to be the easiest to read and comprehend.

You can also find tons of free translations of “The Meditations” online.

2. “Letters from a Stoic

Also another of my favorite books of all-time (written by Seneca). If my house were burning down and I could only carry 5 books, this would be one of them.

You can also read an excellent version of “Letters from a Stoic” the Kindle for only 99 cents here.

“Letters from a Street Photographer” book

I plan on producing a book (available online for free) titled: “Letters from a Street Photographer.” Each chapter will be published regularly to the blog. Here are my prior posts: