Street Photography and The Human Condition

My grandfather's grave, from my "Grandfather" series. Busan, 2013
My grandfather’s grave, from my “Grandfather” series. Busan, 2013

I always think about the meaning of life— and you can probably notice that this blog has become heavily philosophy-based the last few months. This is due to the fact that I have been thinking much more about living a purposeful life as a photographer. Not only that, but I have also had a few close encounters with death— which always prompts myself to ask why I shoot photography, and what kind of life I want to live.

In this “search for meaning” — I recently came across the Wikipedia page for “Human Condition.” I never really considered or thought what the phrase “the human condition” referred to. I know it is often thrown around in street-photography circles, so I inspected the page closely. It defines the “human condition” as the following:

“The human condition encompasses the unique features of being human, particularly the ultimate concerns of human existence. It can be described as the unalterable part of humanity that is inherent and innate to human beings and not dependent on factors such as gender, race, culture, or class. It includes concerns such as the meaning of life, the search for gratification, the sense of curiosity, the inevitability of isolation, and the awareness of the inescapability of death.

Here is another apt definition of “the human condition”:

“The existentialist psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom has identified what he refers to as the four “givens” or ultimate concerns of human existence: meaning, loneliness, freedom, and mortality.

So let’s break down the “ultimate concerns of human existence”:

  1. Meaning
  2. Loneliness
  3. Freedom
  4. Mortality

The pursuit of understanding “the human condition”

As street photographers, I think we are trying to capture “the human condition” (what it means to be uniquely human) through other strangers. However at the same time, I think the pursuit of street photography and meaning of our lives is far more important. I think street photography should be much more inwards looking (than outwards looking).

Therefore, I wanted to write this article to see how we can better find meaning in our lives in street photography. I wanted to also write this article to share some of my personal thoughts, and articulate some things, which have been on my mind for a while:

1. Meaning

We all shoot street photography for a reason. We want to discover more meaning in our street photography.

For the longest time, I have been concerned with making “good” photos instead of “meaningful” photos.

“Good” vs. “meaningful” photos

What is the difference between “good” versus “meaningful” photos?

  • I think a “good” photo is how others judge your photos
  • I think a “meaningful” photo is how you judge your own photos

Of course these two aren’t mutually exclusive (you can have a “good” photo that is also “meaningful”).

However at the same time— I think we should focus more on taking meaningful photos (to us), rather than trying to take “good” photos (trying to appease others).

How to take a meaningful photograph?

So a question you might also think to yourself is how can you take more meaningful photos— photos that speak to your heart and soul?

Of course this isn’t a question that I can answer for you.

Personally I think that a meaningful photograph is a photograph that fulfills a deeper purpose for you.

This can be related to your life’s experiences, your personal memories. It can be an image that speaks to your heart and soul for one reason or another. It sometimes can be inexplicable— but the emotions you get from the photograph are real.

What will a meaningful photograph do for you?

A meaningful photograph will become more important as time goes on. It also becomes better as time goes on. A meaningful photograph can be sentimental— you can look back at these images and warm feelings from the past may arise.

Imagine that you’re 80 years old, and you’re looking back on your life. A meaningful photograph is something that makes you feel fully human. A meaningful photograph adds a sense of purpose and direction in your life.

Learning more about ourselves

I feel the more we shoot street photography (photograph strangers) the more we discover about ourselves. The days that I feel lonely and depressed and go out and shoot— I feel that I can channel my emotions into my photography. I then end up seeing more lonely and depressed people on the streets. I empathize with their emotions. I empathize with how they must feel.

Therefore I also feel that a meaningful photograph connects us to others — and challenges us to make photographs for a higher purpose.

2. Loneliness

I once read the quote, “Solitude breeds anxiety.”

When we are alone, we feel anxious. We start thinking negative thoughts, we start questioning the meaning of our existence, we start worrying about financial troubles, we start to concern ourselves more and more of how others see us.

As human beings, we are hard-wired for connection with others. If we spend too much time in isolation, we go insane. Of course, a little bit of “personal time” away from others is good for our energy, but too much time in isolation makes us sad, depressed, lonely, and utterly despondent.

My feelings of loneliness (and how to avoid it)

I know personally, if I spend too much time with myself, feelings of gloom and misery set in. I crave the connection with other human beings.

Also personally in my street photography, I don’t like to shoot alone. I always prefer to shoot with the company of a friend or someone who matters to me.

Sure I might not get the “best” shots when I’m out shooting with a friend, but I get something much deeper and more meaningful— a human connection with someone I have a deeper relationship with.

The importance of community

Ultimately I feel that street photography appeals to me because of the amazing community (not just the photography). I have made some of the most incredible friends though street photography. These friends have been some of the best confidants, encouragers, and life coaches I have ever met. We share this common love and bond of capturing life and humanity— and this common love that we have is what bonds us closer together as human beings.

I think when I’m older, I won’t give a flying fuck about any of the photographs I took. I will care about the experiences I had making those photos, the people that I met along the way, and if I happen to make a few decent photos— I will die happy.

3. Freedom

We also crave freedom in this search for “the meaning in life.” I think one of the most important things to fulfill the “human condition” is to inject a sense of freedom into our lives.

So what exactly is “freedom” in regards to photography and life?

Well, I think it is many things. It is freedom to take photos in a public space. It is freedom to have “free time” to actually go and make photos. It is freedom to photograph what we find interesting (not what others find interesting).

I think one of the biggest difficulties that I know most people struggle with is having freedom of time. Most of us work 40+ hours a week, and have other obligations— such as family, friends, and extracurricular activities. Most street photographers I know bemoan the fact that they don’t have enough time to shoot street photography.

How to have more freedom in photography (and life)

I once read the quote, “If you are to put a high value on freedom, you must put a low value on everything else” (I think it was Seneca).

Not everyone has this option— but some of us might have the option of working less (and earning less money) in order to have more time for our photography. I think it is quite silly how we work like slaves to earn more money (to buy fancy new cameras and lenses), instead of working less to have more time to photograph.

I am constantly tempted by new cameras and gear myself (don’t get me wrong). But whenever I have the urge to spend $2,000 on some new equipment, I always tell myself: “Perhaps I should save that $2,000 and work less, and use that time to actually travel, shoot, or do things that I enjoy.”

Time: the ultimate ticket of freedom

Some people say that “time is money.” I think this is partly true, but rather it should be: “Time is much more valuable than money.

Time is the ultimate scarcity, the most important non-renewable resource that any of us have as human beings. If you lose $100 from your wallet, you can eventually earn that $100 back. If you lose 1 year of your life (or worse, 10 years)— no matter how hard you work, you can never gain those years again.

Our lives are a ticking time bomb. When the clock hits “0” (we never know when that will happen), we will be dead. We don’t know if we will die in a week from now (car accident from a drunk driver hitting us), we don’t know if we will die a year from now (perhaps we have a heart attack, stroke, or we discover that we have a rare form of cancer), we don’t know if we will die 10 years from now (due to some other complications).

We don’t know when we will die but one thing is certain: we will eventually die, and everyday we gain fewer days of life (not more).

So what price are you willing to pay for your freedom? Freedom of thought, freedom of time, freedom of life?

Living a life true to yourself

Live a life true to yourself— and if you want to see a photographer who really lived a life fully to himself, I recommend studying the life of Josef Koudelka.

Of course not all of us can just quit our jobs, travel, and become photographers— but we can start to say “no” to obligations that suck our energy, free time, and attention (I recommend reading the book, “The Power of No” by James Altucher on the topic). And the more we say “no” to others— the more freedom we will ultimately have in our lives.

4. Mortality

One of the quotes I hear recently (and also from a reader of this blog) is the following: “Write your own obituary.

So imagine that you are going to die, and then write how you want to be remembered.

I think if I could write my obituary, it would go something like this:

“Eric Kim was a loving father, son, and human being. He dedicated his life, energy, and soul in helping others— and promoted the concept of “open source photography”, which empowered photographers from all around the world. He never hoarded ideas, wisdom, or knowledge to himself. He wanted his ideas to spread as far as they could, and to ultimately help other people find love and meaning in their lives.

Eric Kim will be missed, but his writings, ideas, and acts of kindness will live on.”

Damn that would be good.

Shit I’m kind of sad now.

But anyways, sorry for getting all sentimental there for a second (I need more coffee) — but seriously, think about writing your own obituary. This will give you focus in terms of what things aren’t important in your life.

I realized that in writing my own obituary, these are the things that I didn’t include (or care about):

  • Eric Kim died leaving behind 1,000 Leica’s and Noctilux’s.
  • Eric Kim died with $1,000,000 in his bank account.
  • Eric Kim died and is remembered as one of the most famous and celebrated street photographers of his generation.
  • Eric Kim died owning a Pink BMW M3.
  • Eric Kim died with 1,000,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
  • Eric Kim died having made one of the greatest photography books in the last 50 years.

Ultimately, I don’t really even want to be remembered for my photography. I think the ultimate impetus which keeps me going in photography is wanting to teach, guide, and inspire others. Not to say that I am the best photographers out there, but I am certainly insanely passionate about sharing the love of photography with others. My heart is also in education, and I want all the lessons I’ve personally learned about street photography to help all photographers out there from young to old.

What will you write in your obituary? Perhaps you can type it out, leave it in the comments, or share it on Facebook with your friends. There is nothing better than that to give you direction and purpose in life.

Conclusion

I hear the phrase, “capturing the human condition” in street photography a lot— but never really pondered what that meant.

I think the more I think about— the “human condition” is less about others, it is more about myself. As a street photographer, I am constantly trying to find meaning as a human being. I want to discover what my “human condition” is about— and how to fulfill it.

There are still many days that I feel directionless and purposeless for taking photos. Sometimes I think to myself, “Who gives a fuck about these photos I take?” This helps me focus to take more personally meaningful photographs for myself, rather than trying to make “good” photos that will appeal to others on social media.

I ultimately want to be happy, to surround myself with positive and loving friends and family.

I want the freedom to shoot, and have freedom over my time and attention.

I want to also constantly consider my own life and mortality— to give me a strong moral compass in which to live my life.

How to fulfill “the human condition” in street photography

Below are some practical lessons or things you can focus on in terms of fulfilling your “human condition” in street photography— which I practice myself:

  1. Meaning: Make street photographs which are meaningful to you. Take them for yourselves, and not others. Imagine looking back at your life on your deathbed, and ask yourself, “Will these photographs be meaningful to me?”
  2. Loneliness: Avoid loneliness. Surround yourself with positive photographers, share love, feedback, and passion. Build up (or join) a community of other photographers. Share photography books, insights, cameras, film, whatever. Don’t try to do it alone.
  3. Freedom: Value time, attention, and moments in your life to focus on your photography and what is valuable to you. Don’t trade time for money.
  4. Mortality: Know you’re going to (one day) die. Write your own obituary. Think about what you want others to remember you by. Then stick by those principles, and live a life of love and meaning.

Books on the meaning of life

Below are some books I recommend on discovering more of your life’s purpose, living a life true to yourself, and the meaning of life:

  1. The Power of No“: Great book which shows us how to better say “no” to bullshit which doesn’t really concern ourselves– and to say “yes’ to ourselves.
  2. On the Shortness of Life“: A great collection of thoughts by Seneca, in terms of thinking about death. You can see a free version online here.
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning“: One of my most life-changing books, in terms of being happy (regardless of all the pain and suffering that can happen to you).

Letters from a Street Photographer

If you are interested in philosophy and street photography, I recommend reading my series: “Letters From a Street Photographer“:

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