27 Lessons I’ve Learned About Photography and Life

2014 in film: 164 rolls of Kodak Portra 400
2014 in film: 164 rolls of Kodak Portra 400

Today I turn 27 years old, thank you for all the kind birthday wishes!

I am currently in LA for the weekend, visiting some close friends and family for a quick birthday dinner, then heading back home to Berkeley early Sunday.

I am generally not the person to reflect very much. I kind of like to live life in the present moment— and don’t think too much about the past or the future. But I have found starts of the new years as well as birthdays are a great time to do some personal reflection.

I’ve had a great 2014, having the chance to Seattle, Amsterdam, Dubai, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, Saigon, Hanoi, Pulau Bidong (Malaysia), Seoul, Tokyo, Sydney, Melbourne, Provincetown, Stockholm, London, (back to) Dubai, and LA.

I’ve also had a productive blogging year, being able to write a lot of “Learn from the masters” series, doing a more personal “Saigon Diary” series (while learning Vietnamese), some distilled thoughts on street photography and stoicism (my “Letters from a Street Photographer” book), and had the chance to meet some phenomenal people from all around the world.

But for some reason— I feel empty. I feel like I can do more. I feel like I’m wasting my life— that I want to help even more. I want to revolutionize the photography world and deliver even more value. I want to be like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos— people who have really impacted the world.

I know that through my blog, workshops, and just being a friendly human being— I have been able to help people out. I appreciate all the love and support I have been given over the years— but I just want to strive to work harder to help others even more.

I can’t describe it— I feel like I have this insatiable passion to constantly create, deliver “value”, and be helpful.

Regardless of how much I “achieve” in some sort of external sense— I still have a hard time appreciating what I have accomplished. I know in an objective sense I am “successful” — I am able to travel the world, I have my dream camera (Leica), make a full-time living from teaching, and have a lot of freedom of time— I don’t really know what else is missing. I have all the love from my close friends and family, but I feel I need to do something more to take things to the next level.

Making myself redundant

I recently listened to a podcast in which the secret to business is trying to “make yourself redundant.”

I’ll tell you a secret— I have a fear that I will die early. I have a fear that I will obtain some sort of mental disorder early on in life, and I don’t want to waste any moment or second of my life.

Therefore in 2015 (and while I am 27 years old) — I want to try my best to make myself redundant. What do I mean by that?

First of all, I want to be able to leave behind a “legacy” which is helpful, loving, and of value to others. I want to share everything I have personally learned about photography (especially street photography) to generations to come. I don’t want to hoard any of my information— I want it all to get out there.

One initiative I have done is recording more lectures on YouTube (which I commonly give at my workshops). I have a hard time recording lectures (when in front of a webcam and not in front of a “real” audience)— but I want anybody in the world to have access to this information. Furthermore I think this might be a good strategy for my workshops, as I will tell the students to walk the lectures at the comfort of their own home, and dedicate more of the workshop time to shoot, edit, and give feedback/critique.

Future “content”

A lot of people also ask what else could I possibly have to write about street photography. I honestly feel that there is so many things to write about in street photography— there are still so many “masters” I haven’t written about, there are still huge gaps in my knowledge about the history of photography, and there is so much more to learn.

I consider myself a “prolific” writer and a horrible editor. I know my articles have tons of typos and grammatical errors— but I prefer this sort of “stream-of-conciousness” writing in which I try to write as I talk.

Actually, I don’t even consider myself a “writer” (or a good one) — I just think that writing is the best way for me to distill my thoughts and share information in an efficient way.

I feel like I have already written a lot of the things I have wanted about street photography. So moving forward, I want to start to distill this information even more in free e-books. The sad thing about blog posts are that they have a halflife of just a week or so, then nobody ever reads them again.

My hope is by writing more e-books (that might eventually get printed into “real” books) — that they can have a longer shelf-life, and be better ways to share information and knowledge.

Lessons I’ve learned

In the classic “Eric Kim tradition” — I want to also share down some lessons I’ve learned from 26–27 years old (about life, photography, relationships in general).

  1. The best “productivity” app has been this: everyday trying to uninstall one app from my phone.
  2. Always put relationsips first (before work).
  3. You remember the emails you don’t get a response from more than the emails you personally don’t respond to.
  4. Don’t check emails first thing in the morning (focus on using that time to create instead).
  5. The secret to “success” is to create more value (than you take).
  6. Whenever I am going to pursue a project think to myself: “Will this matter 200 years from now?”
  7. Coffee is a double-edged sword (but a necessary evil). With it I feel amazing and get a shitload of writing done. Without it, I don’t feel like a normal human being and feel generally uninspired and depressed. When abstaining from caffeine from a week my mood was generally quite stable (and energy levels high), but I never had inspiration to write. So rule of thumb: whenever I feel uninspired, have a double shot of espresso.
  8. The fewer choices I have in my life, the happier I am (having 1 camera and 1 lens, 1 electronic reading device [my phone], fewer apps on my phone, fewer clothes in my closet).
  9. Variation is the spice of life— but it also causes a lot of “paralysis from analysis”.
  10. My reputation and trust is the most important thing— don’t sell this trust for small advertising dollars or “selling out”. Also, don’t review any cameras that I personally wouldn’t buy with my own money (also not accepting free cameras).
  11. Happiness is achievement + appreciation (too much of one without the other will lead to dissatisfaction).
  12. You are the average of the 5 closest people to you (and getting rid of 1 negative person from your life is equivalent to adding 10 positive people to your life).
  13. Don’t read any books that I wouldn’t re-read (don’t buy any photography books I wouldn’t re-read as well).
  14. Kill my ego: don’t take flattery or negative criticism seriously.
  15. Stoicism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism are the best 3 philosophies for gaining inner-peace and serenity (like an “operating system” for the brain).
  16. The more you chase money, the more it runs away from you.
  17. Focus on creating value, rather than trying to earn more money.
  18. Be a better listener: there is a reason why God gave me 2 ears and only one mouth.
  19. Whenever I want to buy something new (a new computer, smartphone, tablet, camera) is because I am dissatisfied with something in my life (not feeling inspired, feeling depressed, feeling inadequate). Therefore rather than spending money on stuff— spend money on experiences (traveling, going out, having nice coffee).
  20. It brings me more happiness to give away cameras (and stuff in general) than it does to buy it for myself. Lesson: be more generous to others.
  21. When I’m burned out— take a fucking break. You are not a machine.
  22. Gratitude and words of affirmation are the fuel which keep me going.
  23. Focus on capturing emotions in street photography, rather than “artsy” photos.
  24. The more I try to please others, the less I please myself.
  25. It doesn’t have to be perfect— just get it done.
  26. Never forget to tell people how much you love and appreciate them (whenever I say goodbye to a friend, imagine it is the last time I will ever see them).
  27. Live today like it were the last day of my life, but plan if I will live to be 100.

Thank you guys again for all the love, support, words of encouragement, for following me, sharing your thoughts, contributing to the street photography community, and just being fucking awesome. Love you guys to death— let’s make 2015 awesome, and hopefully we can create something great this year.




Santa Ana

(written on iA writer with shot of espresso at the “Gypsy Den”)

You can read my last year’s reflection for my 26th birthday:26 Lessons Life Has Taught Me About Street Photography“.