“Letters from a Street Photographer” #4: Fuck Fame

Provincetown, 2014
Provincetown, 2014

I’ll admit it. I’m incredibly jealous. Whenever I see my close friends, other photographers, family, or anyone else doing “successful” things– I feel a tinge of jealousy. In the back of my head– I might think negative thoughts like, “That person didn’t deserve that recognition or success” – self-doubt myself “Why am I not as successful as that person?” and I start to sink into a hole of despair.

I know I sound a bit dramatic– but I am easily jealous of the success of others, and being an American– one of my goals in life was to be rich, powerful, “successful” (whatever that means), as well as becoming famous.

I don’t know where it comes from. Perhaps coming from a lower socio-economic background, I always wanted to overcome my obstacles and achieve “greatness.” I saw all the famous people on the television screen– and wanted to aspire to be like them. I wanted to escape my reality where I wasn’t sure if my mom could pay the rent at the end of every month– worries that I might become homeless, worries that I would never achieve anything meaningful in life, worries that I would waste my life being stuck in some cubicle somewhere.

Over the years, I always wanted to become “successful.” I saw how hard my mom suffered working as a single-mom, working 3-part time jobs (cleaning houses, waitressing, and other menial labor) and wanted to help lift her out of this life of poverty, stress, and non-gratitude. Even though I was surrounded by friends who joined gangs, did drugs, drank, all that stuff– I think it was always my mom who was my impetus to becoming “successful” in life.

Therefore while my friends were skipping classes and going down the wrong path– I (mostly) stayed on the right path, ended up getting good grades in school, getting into UCLA, getting a stable office-job– and I had my eyes on bigger and greater things. I wanted to be “successful”– make a ton of money, help my mom, sister, and family out, to buy myself a lot of nice material things, and to give myself freedom.

I read so many books on how to be “successful”, how to be rich, how to start my own business, how to gain more followers on social media, how to “build my brand”, how to achieve fame, wealth, power, and prestige.

I got sucked into all this bullshit of the “American dream.”

To take a step back– I am very grateful to be an American. Proud even. I am an Eagle Scout, got 90%+ of my education paid by the US government, and I admire the sense of individuality, freedom, and entrepreneurship this country has given me. I value all the structures, networks, teachers, mentors, and educational values which helped me to get where I am today (doing what I love, writing this blog, and meeting passionate street photographers from all around the world).

However one of the biggest things I faced in my life (still today) is chasing fame.

Why fame?

I think I often conflate fame and being “successful” – meaning that I think that if I am “famous” – then I am also “successful.”

However as time has gone on– I have begun to realize of how little importance being “famous” is– and how striving after modes of external recognition has only brought more grief, sadness, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and despair.

External vs. Internal Recognition

I think the problem with chasing “fame” is that it is all external. No matter how hard you try, you cannot get others to 100% like you. No matter how hard you try, you are not guaranteed 1 million followers. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get the guy who hates Asian people to like you (if you are Asian). No matter how hard you try, you cannot convince them to like your street photography (especially if they are into selective-color macro flower photography).

Also the problem with social media is that we are all indirectly chasing fame via the number of followers, likes, favorites, etc. that we get. Our entire self-worth as a photographer has been reduced to a single number. How sad and depressing.

No matter how hard we try in social media when it comes to marketing– we will never have the most followers in the world. There will always be someone out there with more followers than you, someone out there who will be more famous than you, someone out there making more money than you, someone out there who is more “successful” than you. Even if hypothetically you are that #1 photographer in the world, there will be millions (if not billions) of people trying to “dethrone” you and take your crown from you. That is probably the most stressful thing (imagine a King worrying about if his food is being poisoned, if his family is trying to assassinate him for his power and wealth, and the fear of losing all of his influence).

Internal recognition

I titled this chapter: “Fuck fame” for a few reasons.

First of all, it was just a phrase that came to my mind (randomly) a few weeks ago– and it has stuck. Whenever I personally find myself falling into the rabbit-hole of wanting more power, wealth, influence, and fame– I repeat to myself, “Fuck fame”. It also helps that both of those words start with “F” – so it is a pithy phrase that has stuck well for me (might stick well with you too).

Also I like the idea of “fuck fame” because it helps me focus my energies inwards.

Once again, fame is an external game (others confer it onto yourself). But you cannot control it.

Rather what we can control is our own inner-self of worth.

So sure you might have 100+ favorites on one photograph– but do you really feel it is a great photograph? Do you think you can do better? By your inner barometer or ruler- do you think that image is strong?

Using a different ruler

I think in our photography– we should always judge our images by our own internal ruler. We should dictate what we think is a “strong” and what is a “weak” image. Nobody else should be able to dictate that.

I also like the idea of being completive in photography – but not against others– only against yourself. You are your best competitor.

I also randomly heard a quote from Tony Robbins in which he said, “Progress is happiness.” The moment we stop growing and advancing forward– we fall into despair.

The great thing about competing against yourself in photography is that you will always have a worthy competitor (who you know better than anyone else in the world). I once read something like, if you aim to change your behavior by 1% day-over-day – it will compound into huge changes over years, and your lifetime.

So a practical suggestion is to compete against yourself by doing the following: Improve your photography by 1% everyday.

1% Improvement Everyday

So how can you improve your photography by 1% everyday?

Some simple suggestions:

  • Take 1% more photos today (than you did yesterday).
  • Look at 1% more inspirational images (preferably from the Masters) than you did yesterday.
  • Spend 1% more time shooting today (than you did yesterday).
  • Edit away 1% of your photos in your portfolio, Flickr, social media site, whatever.
  • Give 1% more critiques/feedbacks/comments on the photographs of other photographers

Imagine this as a snowball effect. When you start rolling your own snowball, it starts off as tiny. But the more you roll it, the more weight it packs on, and after a while– the momentum causes it to roll itself, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. If you want a good investment strategy also invest in index funds (that compound slowly, but steadily, over decades).

Similarly when it comes to going to the gym, I do only 3 lifts: deadlifts, squats, and dumbbell press (bench-press has injured me too much in the past). Every workout (once a week) I just try to improve my maximum lift by 1%. It is a small but manageable goal, and over the years, I have been able to add hundreds of pounds to each of my maximum lifts.

So imagine what is the 1% of your photography you can improve on a daily basis? I also like improving your progress daily because it is a lot easier to track, and it will give you dramatic improvements in the long run (rather than tracking weeks or months).

Advice about fame from Marcus Aurelius

One of the biggest break-throughs I had on “fucking fame” was through Marcus Aurelius.

Not only is his advice solid (he had haters, worried about his legacy and fame) hundreds of years ago– but also they are practical.

Based on my research from his book: “The Meditations” (I used the translation, “The Emperor’s Handbook”) I compiled them into two sections.

  • First of all, ignoring the praise of others.
  • Secondly, realizing how useless it is to seek fame.

I think both of these are important points when it comes to fame.

Firstly because when it comes to gaining positive feedback– it can actually be worse than negative feedback. Getting too much positive feedback and flattery is dangerous, because it makes us fall into complacency– and misleads us into believing that we are great. Once we think we are great, it stagnates our mind into thinking we know everything. This locks out opportunities for additional growth.

Secondly, realizing how fleeting and useless fame is gives us focus in doing our greatest work (while we are still alive) and not worrying about our legacy. Who better to consult regarding this than Roman emperors who were once at the apex of power in the entire world?

Section 1: Ignore the praise of others

When reading a lot of books from the ancient Romans, I was actually quite shocked to read that one of the people who were deemed to be the most dangerous were the flatterers.

Why were flatterers considered dangerous?

Well– flatterers were the most coy and deceptive people around. They were dangerous folks– who used praise and flattery to gain the favor of those in power. And when most unexpected– they would stab them in the back.

I think nowadays I have taken this advice to heart. Don’t get me wrong– I love and appreciate praise and flattery as much as anybody else, but now I am much more suspicious of it. I actually dislike it when people flatter me too much (aka “kissing ass”) because I wonder to myself: “Are they just trying to grease me up because they are trying to take advantage of me?” Other times when the flattery is genuine, I try to ignore it and disarm it– because it makes my head too big, causes me to become self-indulgent, and causes me to become complacent to my work (whether it be photography or blogging).

Similarly– I tend to give a lot of compliments (because I genuinely want to show love and admiration to others). But there have been many times that I have found myself using flattery as a form of deception (being extra-nice to a waiter to get better service or really nice to a barista to get an extra free shot of espresso). In these times, I slap myself in the back of the head and remind myself not to do that. I am fallible, and a selfish-human being after all.

So what does Marcus Aurelius have to say about flattery? Well– the first lesson he got from his father was to refuse public applause and eschew all forms of flattery in the first place:

“My father taught me to refuse public applause and to eschew all forms of flattery.”

Why flatter?

One of the first things that come to mind is thinking about flattery itself. What purpose does flattery serve?

Well, flattery serves the purpose of inflating the ego (of the person receiving the flattery). This gives that person a sense of joy, the butterflies in the stomach, and a sense that he/she is doing the right thing. This is a form of positive reinforcement.

When you flatter someone, it is psychologically shown to make the person like you more.

So for the flatterer, the point of flattering someone is to get him or her to like you more. It is a form of persuasion, and sometimes deception.

Not only that, but flattery doesn’t change the reality of anything.

If you have a damn strong photograph, no amount of flattery (or negative feedback) is going to change the fact that it is a damn strong photograph.

Marcus Aurelius brings up a good point– that beautiful things are beautiful into itself– and doesn’t need any external forms of recognition (for it to exist as a beautiful thing):

“Whatever is beautiful owes its beauty to itself, and when it dies its beauty dies with it. Praise adds nothing to beauty– makes it neither better nor worse. This is also true for commonly praised objects, natural wonders, for example, or works of art. What does anything that is truly beautiful lack? Nothing! No more than does moral or natural law, truth, kindness, or self-respect.”

Marcus Aurelius also stresses the point that a beautiful thing also won’t be affected by negative criticism:

“Which of these is improved by praise or marred by criticism? Does an emerald’s beauty fade because it is not praised? What about gold, ivory, porphyry, a lyre, a sword, a flower, or a tree?

Another good strategy that Marcus Aurelius used to deflect the affect of praise and flattery was to break it down into objective action.

For example, what does it really mean to be “liked” on the Internet? It is simply someone pushing a button on his or her laptop that says “like”. Or it is a double-thumb tap on a photograph on Instagram. Who cares if someone clicks a button that says that they “like” you? Does that really mean anything? If they saw you in person, would they feel the same way? Probably not.

Marcus Aurelius brings up the point that getting praise and attention is just the clapping of hands, or the “clapping of tongues” (when it comes to praise). Who cares if people physically join their hands together and make a clapping sound? It doesn’t change the fact whether you are a great person or not. It is just our human reaction to it, which causes our ego to swell up:

“What then deserves our attention, invites our admiration? […] What then? The clapping of hands? No, and not men’s praise either, for praise is merely a clapping of tongues. And without glory and honor, what’s left? Just this: to act or not to act according to the needs and dictates of your own constitution.”

Also remember– where you get the praise (or criticism) matters. For example, if there is a photographer (who is a good friend of mine and rarely gives compliments) and he/she likes my photograph– it means a lot more than a stranger on the Internet simply “liking” my photograph on Facebook.

Also whenever people “like” your images (in person or online) think about their motivations. Are they someone who genuinely loves and supports your photography, and wants to give you constructive feedback and criticism? Or is it someone random online who simply “likes” your photo (expecting for you to “like” their photos in return). This is kind of like how on Twitter, there are a bunch of spammers out there who simply follow thousands of people (expecting a “follow-back” in return). Avoid these kinds of circle-jerks:

“Reflect carefully on those whose good opinion you covert and on what motivates them. If you examine the reasons for their likes and dislikes, you will not blame them for failing to speak well of you, nor will their praise mean that much to you.”

Also the problem of flattery is that they are often tied into titles. So for example, when I worked into my old company– my self-worth was tied into my title. Sure I had the title of “manager” – but I wanted to be at least a “senior manager” or a “director”. I felt that my title was a definition of who I was as a human being.

But how stupid and useless thinking that was is. In theory, I could have simply printed out a plaque (for 99 cents at a store) that said “ERIC KIM: DIRECTOR” and had it plastered on my desk. It wouldn’t change anything.

Another good psychological trick that Marcus Aurelius gives us is realizing that those who are really divine (aka the Gods) don’t care about the titles that anyone bestows upon them. They simply are great:

“Lest you become distracted with the titles others give you and the noble attributes they ascribe to you, you should bear in mind that the gods themselves are not interested in this sort of flattery. They desires instead for all rational beings to imitate their attributes for the purpose of becoming like them, just as the fig tree does the work of a fig tree, the dog the work of a dog, the bee the work of a bee, and the man the work of a man.”

Marcus Aurelius isn’t telling us to try to be God-like– but for us to simply stick to our role (being a photographer) and do it well. Fuck the titles– just be you.

Section 2: Seeking fame is useless

One of the best ways I have structured my life recently is thinking to myself: How will my decisions, actions, or thoughts matter 100,200,300,400,500, or even 1000 years from now?

Whenever I get an email, which I feel is super-urgent, I remind myself: this won’t matter in 1000 years.

Whenever I get in a fight with Cindy, I remind myself: this won’t matter in 1000 years (not even a day).

Whenever I sit down and write, I realize that this might be useful for possibly a decade or so (but probably won’t exist 1000 years from now).

I think I once heard a quote from Steve Jobs that said something like– remember that one day you will be dead, and just focus on doing your best on a daily basis. This has helped give me tremendous focus in terms of my day-to-day living, and has made me not care so much about what will happen in the future.

Marcus Aurelius had similar issues– he worried about what others thought of him, and how others might think of him in the future. His strategy? Realize that over time– everything will soon be forgotten:

“Are you tormented by what others may think of you? Look then on how soon everything is forgotten, and gaze into the abyss of infinite time. Hear the hollowness of the applause, and ponder the fickleness of those who are applauding you while you consider the narrowness of the stage on which you pant after their plaudits.”

Even the entire planet is nothing but a speck of dust in the universe– we don’t really matter that much at the end of the day (so let us not take ourselves too seriously):

“The entire earth is but a piece of dust blowing through the firmament, and the inhabited part of the earth a small fraction thereof. So, in such a grand space, how many do you think will think of you, and what will their thoughts be worth?”

I know a lot of people out there who want to “make history” – and to go down in the history textbooks. For a long time, I wanted to leave behind a “legacy” of being a great photographer, to be written in history influencing the trajectory of street photography, and to be remembered as someone who wrote lots of insightful things about street photography and life.

But honestly, that is a bunch of crap. None of what I do really matters in those regards. It will soon be forgotten. But perhaps some of what I photograph and write might slightly influence others (in a positive way) while I am alive. And at the end of my life, I’m not going to give a damn about how famous, rich, or powerful I was. I am only interested in being remembered for being a loving individual who did his best to spread that love as far and wide as he could.

Even the most famous people in history have been forgotten, as Marcus Aurelius shares:

“The man who pants after praise and yearns to ”make history” forgets that those who remember him will die soon after he goes to his grave, as will those who succeed the first generation of them that praise him, until after passing from one generation to the next, through many generations, the bright flame of his memory will flutter, fade, and go out.”

Even hypothetically if you would be remembered forever– what is the point? All of that positive praise won’t do you any good when you’re dead. Just focus on being the best photographer you are while you are still alive:

“But what if those who praise you never died, and they sang your praises forever? What difference would that make? That the praise will do nothing for you dead isn’t my point. What will it do for you now that you’re still alive, except perhaps to offer a means to some other end? Meanwhile, you neglect nature’s means of achieving the same ends directly while worrying about how you’ll be remembered after you’re dead.”

Nowadays we remember all the names of the great photographers who have passed: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Garry Winogrand, and many more. However to be honest– most young photographers I know (the Instagram generation) have no idea who these master photographers are. It is a bit of a shame (because we should study history and the greats)– but the reality is, no matter how famous you are as a photographer, you will soon be forgotten.

Marcus Aurelius brings in the example of forgotten Romans (who were once the most famous in the world). Once you are dead and “out of sight” – you will also be “out of mind”:

“Words that everyone once used are now obsolete, and so are the men whose names were once on everyone’s lips: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and to a lesser degree Scipio and Cato, and yes, even Augustus, Hadrian, and Antonius are less spoken of now than they were in their own days. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried in oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon as a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

Also remember, when you die– the people who remembered you (and once praised you) will also die. We will all vanish like smoke:

“Everyone disperses and vanishes like smoke, both the rememberer and the remembered.”

For time is fleeting– and constantly moving like a river. Whatever is tossed into the river eventually gets washed away, and nothing ever stays static and still. The only thing constant in life is change, and we can never expect for good things to last forever. Like Vivian Maier once said– once you’re gone, you need to move to the side and make way for others:

“Think often of how rapidly the stuff of existence sweeps past us and is carried out of sight. Being is like a perpetually flooding river, its currents ever changing, its causes numberless and varied. Nothing stands still, not even the water at our feet that plunges into the infinite abyss of the past behind us and the future ahead, plunges and disappears. In this situation, isn’t it foolish to put on airs, to strain at the bit, to get worked up as though any fame or notoriety might last for long?”

Even if you are famous in your lifetime, you will soon be forgotten. Just think about all the famous “has-been” actors, athletes, “one hit wonder” musicians and so-forth. Nothing great can ever last forever:

“Soon you will have forgotten everything, and everyone will have forgotten you.”

So what is the ultimate antidote for chasing fame? What is the secret to happiness and contentment? It is focusing on the present:

Give yourself the present. Those who chase after future fame fail to realize that the men whose praise they crave tomorrow will be no different from the men whose opinions they despise today, and all these men will die. What do you care whether tomorrow’s men know the sound of your name or say nice things about you?”

But wait, aren’t you a hypocrite Eric?

I think one of the common responses I expect to get to this chapter is this: “But wait, Eric– aren’t you being a hypocrite? You’re telling us to ‘fuck fame’ – but you already have thousands of followers and teach workshops all around the world? You wouldn’t be where you were if you weren’t ‘famous’ – what do you expect the rest of us to do if we want to live a similar lifestyle?”

That is a great question.

To clarify– I have so much debt and gratitude towards all of you (my dear readers) who have helped me get to where I am. I am eternally grateful to those of you who consistently read my blog, tell your friends about the blog, attend my workshops, encourage others to attend, or for anyone in general to be interested in street photography.

However I have found a funny observation: the more followers and “fame” I try to gain– the less it comes to me. But when I focus on what I do well (I think blogging and adding value to the street photography community)– this “fame” has come to me organically (without me forcing it).

So my practical conclusion and advice to you is the following: focus on what you are passionate about, speak and shoot with your entire soul and heart, don’t censor yourself, don’t give a flying fuck about what others think about what you’re doing, aim to please yourself, and live everyday as if it were your last. Sooner or later, you will find a following (read Kevin Kelley’s article, “1000 true fans and will be able to make a living out of what you are passionate about. Even if you never are able to make a full-time living out of what you’re passionate about (Einstein wrote the theory of relativity when he worked in the Swiss patent office) just continue to thrive– create images that speak to you, images which inspire you, and constantly push yourself forward to become the best photographer you can. Make those small 1% increments in your daily activities– and greatness will follow.

Related readings

If you liked this chapter, I encourage reading the following articles on my blog:

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: