I recently finished “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande. It is one of the most touching books I have ever read this past year. Atul talks about the tension between living long (versus living a meaningful life).
This made me think a lot about my personal mortality, and always how this relates to photography. Here are some of my thoughts:
1. Be grateful for your physical and mental health
In the book, Atul shares a lot of stories of people in their 80’s and 90’s who start to deteriorate physically and mentally. They no longer are able to stand up on their own, walk on their own, or even use the bathroom on their own. When it comes to the mental, a lot of his patients start to have signs of Alzheimer’s— forgetting what they are doing, where they are, and memory in general.
I am 27 years old, but I have no idea when I will die.
Not only that, but Atul also shares stories of 20-something year olds who get rare forms of cancers, and end up passing away just 3 months later.
I have no idea if one day I am walking and get hit by a drunk driver. I have no idea if one day I fall asleep while driving and die. I have no idea if one day I find out I have some rare form of cancer, which only gives me a month left to live.
I remember when I was a student in college, and tore the ligaments of one of my ankles. I had to use crutches for a month, and it took me about a month before I was able to “walk” normally. It took me about 6 months before I could finally start to “run” again.
At the time, I was an avid basketball player. However it wasn’t until I injured my leg that I became so grateful to be even able to walk. I started to look jealously at “able-bodied” people who were able to walk with no issues. I thought to myself, “Those people take their ability to walk for granted. Why don’t they use their legs more, instead of sitting at a computer all day?”
I think we should also think about being grateful for our physical health when it comes to photography, especially street photography.
As a street photographer, our most important asset is our legs. Without our legs we wouldn’t be able to walk long distances, lunge for shots, and quickly change our perspective to make certain street photographs.
However I do know a photographer in Toronto named Steve Kean who shoots street photography from a wheelchair, and still does a great job working the streets. But needless to say, it is more difficult for Steve to shoot on the streets than people who are able to run, jump, and lunge for shots.
There are a lot of days that I am not grateful. Not grateful for the camera I own. Not grateful for the life and friends that I have. Not grateful for simply being alive and able-bodied.
If you are someone who is “able-bodied” meaning you are able to walk without difficulty and use your arms, have sight, etc. — think of how much of a blessing that is. There are thousands of people out there who have partial vision, are missing an arm or fingers, are missing a leg (or even worse, are quadriplegic). Being able-bodied is the best blessing as a street photographer.
If you are someone who isn’t “fully-able-bodied” (not sure what the politically correct term is here), still don’t despair. There is a reason why we have 2 of each vital organ (2 eyes, 2 lungs, 2 kidneys, 2 arms, 2 legs, etc.). Through evolution, our bodies have built-in redundancy (expecting us to lose one of our vital limbs when we lived in a savage and disease-ridden world). In-fact, our bodies probably expected us to lose at least one of our limbs in our lifetimes.
So if you only have vision in one eye, be grateful that you have vision in the other eye. If you only have one hand that functions, be grateful that you have that one hand. If you only have one leg, be grateful that you at least have that one leg.
But what if you are a quadriplegic— and none of your limbs work? But even in that circumstance, you can be grateful for your sight, vision, ability to talk, and communicate.
But could you be a quadriplegic street photographer? I have never met any, but I assume you could perhaps have them setup some sort of rig in which they have a camera strapped to their wheelchair and they could trigger the camera with a remote trigger with their teeth.
You hear all of these stories of people who are able to swim, dance, and live life to the fullest even as quadriplegics.
Remember to be grateful for your limbs. Even if you are having a shitty day on the streets, even if you are dissatisfied with your equipment, or dissatisfied with where you live, you can always be grateful to have the ability to walk, experience, live, and capture the world through your lens.
2. On purpose
I think one of the reasons that people lose their will to live later in life is that they feel like they have no purpose in life.
Atul Gawande explains how many elderly people who live in nursing homes become depressed and feel like they have no more meaning in life. They become like children, constantly monitored by staff 24/7, and have no freedom or autonomy in their lives.
In “Being Mortal” — Atul Gawande makes the point that one of the things that brings us happiness in life (and a reason to live) is having a sense of purpose in life.
He shares a story of a doctor who struggled as he was getting older:
“For Felix Silverstone, managing aging and its distressing realities was the work of a lifetime. He was a national leader in geriatrics for five decades. But when I met him he was himself 87 years old. He could feel his own mind and body wearing down, and much of what he spent his career studying was no longer at a remove from him.”
Atul continues by sharing how this doctor would occasionally get depressed from his aging:
’I get blue occasionally,” he said. ‘I think I have recurring episodes of depression. They are not enough to disable me, but they are…’ He paused to find the right word. ‘They are uncomfortable.’
But what kept this doctor going in life? It was having a purpose of being of service to others:
“What buoyed him, despite his limitations, was having a purpose. It was the same purpose, he said, that sustained him in medicine: to be of service, in some way, to those around him.”
When I read that, it made a lot of sense to me. As human beings we are a social species. We are hard-wired to be social, and to help other human beings and to have a sense of purpose is what brings us happiness. If helping others didn’t bring us any happiness, we would have probably died out a long time ago as a human species.
As a takeaway point, I think it is always good for us to think about our sense of purpose as photographers. What is the energy and impetus that drives us forward to make images? Are we shooting for others, for ourselves, and what does it mean to us? What kind of joy does it bring us?
Do we shoot to make images that will inspire others? Do we make images because they help us live life more vividly? Do we love street photography because it gives us an opportunity to walk around more and get to know our communities better?
There are no “right” or “wrong” answers. But I think it is important to have a sense of purpose in your photography.
For me, I actually find my strongest sense of purpose is to be of service to others. I gain tremendous happiness and appreciation from being able to be blessed to teach my workshops, to give away free information on this blog, and write things that hopefully will inspire and help others.
In regards to my personal photography, I hope that my photographs serve a purpose of inspiring others to think differently about life. I want my street photographs to be sociological commentary about the world around us— and challenge their own personal world-views.
So what is your sense of purpose in photography? I can’t answer this answer for you, but here are some things, which may give you a sense of purpose in your photography:
- To inspire others with your images.
- To interact with strangers on the streets.
- To teach and share the photography you learn with others.
- To experience the world more vividly when shooting on the streets.
- To putting on photography exhibitions that showcase the work of others.
So perhaps when you have a moment, just type out what gives you a sense of purpose in street photography and share with us your thoughts in the comments section below.
3. How much time do we have left to live?
I recently had a near-death experience in which I ate cashews, had a severe allergic reaction, lost breathing-ability in about 70–80% of my throat, and literally thought I might die from anaphylaxis.
Strangely enough while the idea of death was vividly in my mind, I thought to myself: “I would honestly have no regrets if I died right now. I lived my life being true to myself, doing what I love, helping others to the best of my ability, and being a loving friend, son, and partner to the love of my life— Cindy.”
The only thing I was sad about was if I died at that moment, of how sad Cindy would be. That she would now have to live life alone, without someone to help her out, and for someone to support her and give meaning to her life.
Fortunately I did not die, but it gave me this crystal-clear sense of clarity to my life. I didn’t want to spend my life to become more famous, to accrue more 0’s in my bank account, or to do all these fancy and exotic things in my life. What I just wanted was this: to be the best and most loving partner to Cindy, and to also continue on my life’s work (being able to serve and inspire others).
At that moment, all the bullshit of life didn’t matter. I didn’t care about what others were saying about me, the stress that I got from finances, or from the anxiety of not responding to all the messages I get online.
In “Being Mortal” — Atul actually explores this idea that as we get older and start to think more about our morality, we live life more focused and more mindfully. Generally when we are younger, we are more ambitious, crave external recognition, and want to do great things with our lives. However as we get older, we begin to appreciate the small pleasures in life, like a nice meal with a friend, going on a walk with our pets, or to attend the birthday of our grandchildren.
What I learned is this from “Being Mortal”:
“How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you ‘the world is your oyster,’ ‘the sky is the limit,’ and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification— to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future. You seek to plug into bigger streams of knowledge and information. You widen your networks of friends and connections, instead of hanging out with your mother. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid— achievement, creativity, and other attributes of ‘self-actualization.’ But as your horizons contract— when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.
This theory is known as “socioemotional selectivity theory”— that we feel differently about our lives depending on how much time we perceive to have.
This effect has been shown not only in older people, but also for younger people who have terminally fatal diseases.
Apparently once “life’s fragility is primed,” our goals and motivations in life change completely. We become less ambitious and less vain, and focus more on companionship and doing meaningful things in our lives.
When you think that your life is limited, and that death creeps around the corner, our true desires and meanings tend to arise. Meaning— when we think that death is near, our sense of purpose in life and how we want to spend our precious time dramatically changes.
I think having ambition and being driven in photography is great. It makes us feel alive, it strives us to work harder in our photography, and to take it more seriously. It gives us great thrills to try to improve our work, to have our work exhibited, printed in books, and to become famous all around the world.
However at the end of our lives, that isn’t that important. What matters more is the relationships we have, the things we do in life which give us a sense of purpose, and the small things in life.
So try this thought experiment: if you knew that you only had a year left to live, how would you live differently? How would you photograph differently?
Some people might use this chance to be ambitious and to go out and try to shoot a meaningful project to them, and try to have it exhibited and printed. Some people might want to use that time to travel and photograph. Some people might simply want to spend more time at home and photograph friends, family, and close loved ones.
Ultimately once again, there is no “right” or “wrong” in terms of what preferences you have in photography. But what I want to stress is this: your life as a photographer is limited. Don’t waste it— and pursue what you are truly passionate about. Time is ticking, and you never know when you will die.
This will give you more of a sense of focus and urgency. If you always wanted to travel the world, perhaps plan on how you can do it. If you always wanted to print a book of your work, you don’t have to wait until you get a huge publisher to approach you— “choose yourself” by printing it yourself via http://blurb.com or any other print-on-demand service. If you want to exhibit your work, approach a local cafe to hang some of your photos there. Or better yet, hang your photos in your home nicely and invite your close friends over for some cheese and wine.
4. The need for a sense of community
Another point that Atul Gawande makes in “Being Mortal” is that we all strive for a “sense of community” in our lives. He explains:
“Human beings need loyalty. It does not necessarily produce happiness, and can even be painful, but we all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable.”
In-fact, it is not death that scares us. Rather, it is the fear that we don’t do anything meaningful in our lives, and that our death may be in vain. In-fact, death can be meaningful if we see ourselves as a part of something greater than us:
“The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not.”
Psychologists have recently used the term “transcendence” to explain that people have a “…transcendent desire to see and help other human beings achieve their potential.”
I know that one of the most meaningful things in life I have experienced through photography is having a sense of belonging— a sense of community.
For example, when I first lived in LA— I didn’t know any other street photographers. I was lonely, didn’t feel inspired, and didn’t feel like I had a sense of purpose. However the more I started to teach street photography workshops in LA, the more I got connected with a great community of photographers who were all passionate. This lead to great and meaningful friendships, group exhibitions, and lots of great all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ dinners. Even though it made me sad to leave LA, I was so happy to have brought many street photographers together there.
When I first moved to Berkeley, I felt a bit despondent— that I had to start “from scratch.” I didn’t really know any other street photographers in the Bay Area, and I felt lonely and purposeless. However I have been really fortunate to start meeting many more passionate street photographers in the area, and also built a strong relationship with Artis Coffee (my favorite cafe in Berkeley) with my good friend Walter— and we are co-curating “Paved Paradise” a street photography group exhibition for Bay Area-based street photographers.
I love all the social elements of street photography—whether it is going out and shooting with a friend, talking about photography with others, going to exhibitions together, or teaching a workshop. I really do feel that it would quite sad to be a photographer without some sort of social or community-based support.
If you are a photographer who doesn’t have access to a community— fortunately we all live in an online world. We have access to anybody via social media.
If you want to stay more active with your street photography, I recommend you join the “Streettogs Academy” run by the awesome A.G. DeMesa in which we give you street photography assignments to stay motivated.
Or another option is to try to contact other photographers locally for a coffee and get to know them and get connected to them. Stop by local photography galleries, and chat with people— and get to know folks.
Also if you search on Instagram, Twitter, or Flickr that are tagged with your city— this is a good way to meet other photographers.
No photographer is his/her own island. You need a supportive community to stay inspired, to collaborate with, and to get honest feedback and critique on your work.
5. Have the freedom to be the “author of your life”
In “Being Mortal” Atul Gawande mentions the philosopher Ronald Dworkin who wrote about the importance of having the autonomy and freedom to be the “author of our own lives”. This is what he wrote in a 1986 essay:
“The value of autonomy…lies in the scheme of responsibility it creates: autonomy makes each of us responsible for shaping his own life according to some coherent and distinctive sense of character, conviction, and interest. It allows us to lead our lives rather than be led along them, so that each of us can be, to the extend such a scheme of rights can make this possible, what he has made himself.”
One of the things that bring us the most happiness in our lives is to feel like we are the writers of our own life story. And that story is always changing.
As photographers, we are also essentially the authors of our own lives as well. We document and capture what we personally find interesting. We also edit reality— meaning, we choose certain moments we find meaningful, and further edit down our reality when we select our favorite images.
Think about how you can be the author of your own life. How much freedom do you have to photograph what you want, how you want, and where you want?
Also consider this: don’t let others dictate to you what to photograph or how to photograph. Ask others for guidance and feedback, but know that at the end of the day, you want to be the author of your life. You should photograph what you find interesting, rather than what you expect others will find interesting.
At the end of the day, life is short. Do you want to live your entire photographic life just trying to make images to please others— or to please yourself? Ponder this.
6. Make everyday “the best day possible”
In “Being Mortal”, Atul Gawande talks about a patient who had a simple request towards to the end of their life: to have just one good day, and to have “the best day possible”.
This was a point that struck me really hard. Sometimes we can get so anxious about the future (what it holds for us), or to regret or lament on the past.
However at the end of the day, the only thing that we have (and the only thing which exists) is the present.
I think if we try to focus on making each day the “best day possible” this will radically transform our lives.
The analogy I have heard is this: try to make everyday a perfect pearl. Then over days, weeks, and months— you start to “string your pearls together.” Then at the end of your life, you have a beautiful pearl necklace.
How can you strive to make everyday the “best day possible” in terms of your life— but also for your photographic life?
What would be your ideal day as a photographer? Mine would be as follows:
- Wake up in the morning, have a nice coffee with Cindy
- Do a little research on a photographer
- Do some writing on that photographer
- Enjoy a nice lunch with a friend who is interested in photography and chat about photography
- Go out and shoot together
- Sit down for a coffee, and give feedback to one another’s work
- Edit our work together
- Perhaps shoot more
- Have a nice meal at the end of the day, where we can talk about plans to make a book, an exhibition, or some other creative collaborative project
Now while we might not be able to make everyday like that, we can definitely take certain elements of it and incorporate it into our everyday lives.
If you have a 9–5 job, you can definitely a little research on the Internet about photographers who interest you. You can also strive to make a few more photographs everyday, and also try to meet other photographers for a coffee or a meal.
What would make your perfect photographic day? You can also share this in the comments below.
Realize the sad truth and reality of life: one day, we are all going to die.
But I think in life, it doesn’t matter how long we live— but how intentionally we live, how purposefully we can live, and how meaningfully we can live.
I think that as street photographers, we are a unique breed of human-being/photographer. We aren’t interested in just taking pretty photos of landscapes or close-ups of bees. We are interested in the human condition, the suffering of others, the happiness of others, and the emotions and society, which bind us together. We are interested in capturing moments that say something about humanity — which inspire us, evoke emotions, and draw us closer to other humans.
So always have death on your mind. The more we think about death, the more focused we become in our lives and our photography.
If you were 90 years old and on your deathbed, what regrets would you have in your life? How can you live life without regrets?
Write down a list of things you would regret in photography— and everyday, try a little to pursue that goal.
What can you change today in your photographic life to live a more meaningful and purposeful life?
I don’t know the answers, but you do— deep in your soul.
Follow that, ignore what others may think, and go for it.
Related Books on Mortality and the Meaning of Life
If you are interested in the philosophy of mortality and the meaning of life, I highly recommend these books:
- “Being Mortal” – Atul Gawande
- “On the Shortness of Life” – Seneca (free online version here)
- “Letters from a Stoic” – Seneca (free online version here)
- “The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations” – Marcus Aurelius (free online version here)
Related Articles on Mortality and the Meaning of Life in Photography
If you want to read more related articles on the blog, here are some of my personal-favorites which I hand-picked:
- Shoot Every Day As If It Were Your Last
- “Letters from a Street Photographer” #1: How to Live and Shoot without Regrets
- Street Photography and The Human Condition
Questions to respond to
Join in on the conversation– share your responses to these two questions in the comments below!
- What gives you a sense of purpose in street photography?
- What would make the perfect photographic day in your life?
Upcoming street photography workshops in 2015
If you wanted to take your street photography to the next level and invest in your own growth and education, join me at one of my upcoming street photography workshops in 2015:
February 25th-March 1st
San Francisco – Week-long Intensive Street Photography Workshop – SOLD OUT!
Chicago – Intermediate/Advanced Street Photography Workshop – OPEN!
Toronto – Intermediate/Advanced Street Photography Workshop – OPEN!
New York City – Introduction to Street Photography Workshop – OPEN!
Seattle – Introduction to Street Photography Workshop – OPEN!
Paris – Week-Long Travel Street Photography Workshop – OPEN!
Amsterdam – Intermediate/Advanced Street Photography Workshop – OPEN! (NEW!)
Prague – Week-Long Travel Street Photography Workshop – OPEN!
July 31st-August 2nd
Vienna – Introduction to Street Photography Workshop – OPEN!
Berlin –Introduction to Street Photography Workshop – OPEN!
London – Introduction to Street Photography Workshop – Register Intent – NEW!
Istanbul – Week-Long Travel Street Photography Workshop – Register Intent
Stockholm – Introduction to Street Photography Workshop – Register Intent – NEW!
New Orleans – Week-Long Travel Street Photography Workshop – Register Intent
You can learn more about my street photography workshops here.