Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

I just finished a book called “10% happier”, which preached the benefits of meditation and mindfulness in everyday life.

There is a lot of pain and anxiety from everyday life, and one of the main causes of that is longing for something. Wanting something that we don’t have. By focusing too much on the future and the past.

However according to the book (and Buddhism), one of the best ways to overcome this is by not striving. By focusing on the present moment.

I think there are a lot of things we can focus on in being present and mindful in street photography. Here are some things that come to mind:

1. Being focused on the streets

It is easy to let out focus shift too much when we’re out shooting. We might focus too much on the stresses we have, whether it be financial, emotional, work related, or anything else.

When were out shooting, we should be focused on the present moment. The joy to be outside, experiencing life with our camera. We should enjoy the breeze of the cool air, the sounds of people interacting on the streets, and the joy of clicking the shutter button on our camera.

So as easy it is to drift away from the act of shooting on the streets (and think about random things)– try to focus on the present moment. The second you let your mind wander, focus on the sensation of your feet in the pavement, the weight of the camera around your neck or hand, and focusing on what you see before you.

2. Being pleased with the gear we own

One of the things that is very difficult (in an age of marketing and advertisements) is to be satisfied with what we have. Especially when it comes to photography and cameras. They call this “GAS” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) in which we are getting new cameras, lenses, and equipment with the hope it will inspire us and help us become better photographers.

I was very much like this in the past. I would always be dissatisfied with the camera and lenses I owned, and I felt that the next purchase would make me a better and more inspired photographer. I spent far too much site on gear forums and camera rumor sites. I listed after the newest, shiniest, and trendy camera.

It happened with every camera. From my Canon point and shoot, to my Canon Rebel XT, to my Canon 5D, and finally to my Leica M9. Now I’m shooting mostly film so there is less GAS on my part (film is already outdated), but I still struggle with not getting tempted by all these new and sexy cameras.

My biggest regret is spending all that time, energy, and money on all these new cameras and gear. I wish I invested my time and money into experiences, not physical possessions. I wish I spent the money to travel more, to buy more photography books, and invest in my education as a photographer.

So the moment you ever feel dissatisfied with your gear, the best remedy is to simply go outside and take photos. I find I am rarely dissatisfied with my camera when I’m outside actually making images. I’m only dissatisfied with my equipment when I’m comparing myself to others on the Internet and what they own.

Another solution to spend less time on gear review sites is to block them with a browser plugin, and rather set magnumphotos.com as your bookmark. Study the masters, consume their images, and be inspired.

And if you do have the money, invest it into travel, books, workshops, education, and self learning. It will pay far higher dividends.

3. Enjoy the process, not the destination

When I’m working on photography projects, sometimes I can be so caught up in wanting to see the final product, rather than simply enjoying the process.

There is a saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination”. I think we should apply the same thought to our photography.

Many of us aspire to become great photographers, to have our works exhibited internationally, to have a strong social media following, and to have our work be appreciated by others. However by focusing on those external goals, we can sometimes lose sight of the joy of actually taking photos.

So whenever you feel frustrated with your photography, remember to enjoy the process. The journey of learning, improving your work, and sharing that passion with others is the most valuable thing.

4. Chew on photographs slowly

One of the problems I suffer is that I often look at photographs too quickly. I’m quite impatient, so if a photograph doesn’t initially interest me, I’ll quickly disregard it and move on.

However I feel that the best way to enjoy a photograph is slowly and mindfully. To take at least a minute to look around the frame, observe the light and shadows, to inspect the content in the frame, and to look for small details in the image. It is like eating a nice meal – by slowly chewing, noting the flavors, and consuming it with joy and delight.

So imagine photographs you look at as food. Don’t just simply inhale the food, trying to shove more into your mouth. Rather, treat it like you were at a nice restaurant. Chew and digest photographs slowly, mindfully, and graciously.

5. Focus on your breath

One of the main things I’ve learned from meditation, yoga, and Buddhism is the importance of focusing on your breath. When we get angry, or upset, our breathing goes through the roof. I’ve found personally when I’m anxious or stressed, focusing on my breath helps me calm down tremendously.

So a practical way you can apply this in street photography: if you ever upset somebody or face a confrontation on the streets, don’t panic. Focus on your breath. Be mindful of the situation, and calmly explain to your subject why you took a photograph of them. Smile politely and apologize.

If you are feeling generally nervous or anxious when shooting on the streets, you can do the same thing. Know that taking photographs of strangers can be seen as a form of aggression. And when we are noticed taking photographs of strangers, we often get the “fight or flight” reaction – in which we sweat, our adrenaline escalated, and our heart rate goes through the roof. We adapted this way in ancient times or prevent us from angering others which could lead us to dying.

Fortunately in the modern world we rarely encounter such life or death situations. Our environment has changed, but our physiological responses have not.

So whenever you’re stressed, anxious, or nervous when out on the streets or taking photos– just take a second to breathe deeply, in and out. Focus on your breath, and let everything melt sway.

Conclusion

I’m not a zen master or Buddhist, but these philosophies have helped me gain more peace and tranquility in my everyday life, and in street photography. By letting go of the past, worries about the future, and being mindful and focused on the present– can we truly be happy and grateful for what we have.

Read More Books on Mindfulness

If you want to learn more about mindfulness, I highly recommend the books below:

  1. 10% Happier by Dan Harris
  2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  3. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris

Articles on Philosophy and Street Photography

If you are interested in reading more articles on philosophy and street photography, I also recommend these articles:

  1. How Many “Likes” Is Enough?
  2. How to Be Grateful For What You Have
  3. On Criticism and Street Photography
  4. On Friendship and Street Photography
  5. On Jealousy and Street Photography
  6. On Legacy and Street Photography
  7. On Social Media and Street Photography
  8. On Travel and Street Photography
  9. The Tao of Street Photography
  10. Zen in the Art of Street Photography

Letters from a Street Photographer

A series in which I combine the philosophy of stoicism (being happy without regard to fate) and street photography:

 

Join the Conversation

14 Comments

  1. I came to Street photography through a longtime interest in photography in general. Co-incidentally I have also had an interest in Zen and eastern philosophy without claiming to be expert in any way. My two parallel interests never really met. But when I got into street about four years ago I soon got the notion that the “decisive moment” was about being in the moment about being present. Just being there not thinking about past or future just acting and reacting to what is there. When it happens I know I am “in the zone”. It does not happen every time I go out. It cannot be forced or willed it is more about realizing how “thinking” rather than being gets in the way of the process. Street photography at its best can became a type of active meditation. Which is my sole motive for doing street -I never was any good at meditation in any other form :)

  2. An interesting article, cheers.

    Meditation has been and remains a key part of my recovery from street photography related mental illness.

  3. This is such a wonderful post from you, Eric. Short, but still underscoring many of the points you’ve made in earlier posts. One of the things about shooting on the street is how aware it makes you of your surroundings – looking for pictures everywhere means you need to keep your eyes open. It shows that you CAN make your points succinctly! Bravo!

    two small points –

    1. As to equipment, you are 100% correct that focusing (pardon the pun) on what you don’t have is less rewarding than using what you do. On the other hand, having the right tool makes you able to do the job, rather than get frustrated. Case in point: I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge this summer (in walking distance from my house, so I’m lucky) and I would see perfect pictures, but the XE-1 simply wouldn’t focus on the moment when I wanted it to. Either it would lock up (coming out of sleep mode) or it would focus on the wrong thing – so frustrating. A few weeks later I had purchased a Ricoh GR (which has been with me daily ever since). It was a totally different experience. I was able to capture 90% of what I saw as soon as I saw it. And the images showed it.

    2. Instead of “breath” what you really mean is “breathing,” Right? Be aware of your breathing. Slow it down. Breath is just what comes out of your mouth. Unless you were talking about using mouthwash! :)

  4. Eric. I am so pleased you talked about this. I am a student in England and I had to make a piece on Embodiment. I wrote a short bit about my own experience with meditation/mindfulness and how it helps me approach photography. I felt silly talking about it because nobody else new what I was talking about. Thankfully I feel better. Thank you for this article. Please see my post about my project https://cdruryphotography.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/my-embodiment-piece/
    Kind regards Eric. Love your stuff. Peace.

  5. I’m a painter too, and I need my Martre Pure Kolinsky brushes, not any sort of brush … good material does matter.

  6. Thanks E.

    Speaking of #3, I’m waiting to see your book review of Papageorge’s Core Curriculum. Few people on the planet are as eloquent as he at dissecting a photographic topic, so it’s not really an easy read, but talking about chewing on photographs, Papageorge’s book is a master class.

    It’s -2 degrees F here today. It’s easy to drift away from the act of shooting on the streets and get lost in a warm coffee shop. :)

  7. I would add one of Cartier-Bresson’s influences to your book list: Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. It was the origin of so many of the others with that title format.

  8. Mindfulness is not exclusive to any religion, creed, or dogma. That said learning to be content is nothing new to humanity. I would have to admit, however, that much of the striving to have appears to be endemic to consumerist, capitalist cultures like the West where goals about how and when they should be achieved prevail via numerous social pressures. The dominant cultures in the West set the tone for the rest of society in that we are told we should speak a certain way, look a certain way, behave, and even have to “measure up”. We are told that if we work or strive hard enough we will achieve ignoring a fundamental element of life: not all of us get dealt a set of cards of equal value. Being human in the West can be a very painful experience, but being human is not exclusive to the West
    either.

    I enjoyed your article today. I recall the first time I picked up a camera over 25 years ago. Back then it was about experiencing life through the camera. Better said, capturing my experiencing life. It was only about what interested me. The element of blogging and sharing has a way of distorting one’s goals as a photographer, for example. Again, one finds oneself struggling to measure up. After some reasoning and mental effort, I made a choice that I would not give a damn. This happened several years ago. Funny thing is that I began to get some attention when I finally learned to let go. I began to focus on what I wanted to do weather it was liked or not by the majority or by a few. Since then my work has gotten published in several mediums and utilized for a variety of purposes including book covers, illustrations, publicity, and even design. I’m not famous but to get as far as the aforementioned is hard enough.

    Getting “noticed” and published, or even selling images, does not happen everyday. I’m content with having the opportunity to continue enjoying my vision, walking out the door, and seeing the world through my camera more.

  9. I just stumbled upon this article and was surprised and happy to see it. My entire website has been devoted to mindfulness with not just street photography, but all forms of art. I don’t have the large reach that you do, Eric. So, I’m happy to see that you published this! It’s important stuff that we all need now.

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