The other night here in Chicago, I woke up in the middle of the night. I was tossing and turning (put on the heater too hot at night).
In a state of being half-asleep, I started to have all of these random ideas for blog posts. One of them was: “measure your life as a photographer in decades, not years.”
I recently got 164 rolls of Kodak Portra 400 developed after a year of shooting (and not looking at any of the images). I would have to say— I was so impatient towards the end. I wanted to see my images, and I started to get frustrated. There have been many times when I’m frustrated waiting for my film to get developed that I think of just switching all of my work to digital— to get that sweet, blissful instant gratification.
The Benefits of Waiting
However when I finally did get my film developed, processed, and was able to look at my images, I was so glad that I waited. I was able to re-live so many wonderful memories, and much more appreciated my photos.
Not only that, but I’m proud of myself that I have been able to stick to shooting (more or less) one camera, one lens, and one film (Kodak Portra 400). Most of my shots were on my Leica MP (with a 35mm lens), or on my Contax T3 (also 35mm lens). Therefore my work had a consistent look to it the past 3 or so years.
I think of all the photographers whose work I admire the most. In terms of my favorite photographic projects, they have to be “Gypsies” by Josef Koudelka (took him 10 years to shoot it) and “Wonderland” by Jason Eskenazi (also shot him 10 years to shoot it).
The greatest projects that I admire, and the bodies of work that impress me the most generally take decades. Not years, and certainly not months, weeks, or days.
There is the concept of the “10,000 hour rule” that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book: “Outliers.” The concept was this: it took most people at least 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become a master in their field. How long is 10,000 hours? If you practice for around 3 hours a day, that is about a decade.
Related article: “Why Talent is Overrated in Street Photography“
So as photographers, it will take us a decade of deliberate training, of concentrated effort in our photography, before we are able to master the fundamentals. It will take us at least a decade before we can build a solid foundation to become truly great photographers.
I have been shooting since I was 18 years old, and am currently 27. According to my (very rough estimates), I should be able to have “mastered” the basics of photography (street photography in specific) in about a year (when I turn 28).
One book I highly recommend is “Mastery” by Robert Greene (I recommend reading my article: “How to Gain Mastery in Street Photography“). He talks about the importance that every creative person needs is an “apprenticeship” phase. This is very much like the 10,000 hours an artist needs before he/she can hone his/her craft.
I see the last 9 years of my photography as a good apprenticeship. I have gone through a lot— through shooting pretty and boring landscapes, making hideous HDR photos, and even dare I say— selective color.
I have also experimented with different approaches in street photography. I shot from the hip, I shot with telephoto lenses, I experimented with different camera systems (point-and-shoot, DSLR, rangefinder), and with different photographic mediums (digital, film, medium-format, smartphone). I also experimented a lot with different focal lengths (24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 200mm). I also experimented between black and white and color.
It took me a long time for me to figure out my preferences and what I like.
At the moment I prefer shooting color film (Kodak Portra 400) and with a 35mm lens. At the end of the day I prefer shooting on my film Leica. My compact Contax T3 is a great carry-around buddy as well.
I am glad that I (sort of) know my “true” preferences when it comes to street photography. This means I don’t need to be distracted experimenting with different cameras, focal lengths, and approaches. I can stick to what works with me— and focus and laser in my projects, to create bodies of work, which are truly meaningful to me.
Decades to come
I am currently 27 years old, and I hope to live to be at least 90. My grandfather lived to be around 92, and he didn’t live a healthy lifestyle at all. Hopefully if I am able to stay fit, I can perhaps even make it to 100.
Anyways, that means I have around 63–73 years left on this planet. That is around 6–7 decades.
If a photographer’s life can truly be measured in decades, this means that I have 6–7 more photographic lives to live out before I die.
Perhaps what I can do is this— dedicate every decade of my life to a different photographic project. For me, I would rather have 6–7 strong bodies of work when I die (like Josef Koudelka), rather than having 100+ so-so projects (like Martin Parr, Araki, or Daido Moriyama).
But one thing I need to always remind myself is this: be patient.
I am a child of modernity, and I love instant gratification. I hate watching water boil (that is why I prefer drinking espressos), I get pissed off when my Google Maps GPS takes too long to load (I forget how amazing this technology is), and I get frustrated when people are walking too slowly on the sidewalk. Whenever I have any down moment (like waiting in line at the grocery store), I must stimulate myself by reading an e-book on my phone, catching up on emails, or busying my mind.
But I need to calm down and chill the fuck out. I need to learn how to slow down. To not always feel hurried. To know that great things in life take decades to build.
Creating a meaningful body of work
I know that for me, creating a meaningful body of work will take decades. So I need to take the long view. Rather than getting distracted by the new digital cameras that come out every 6 months–1 year, I should stick to my cameras, which will last decades (my film Leica). Furthermore, I should avoid “gimmicky” things I see in street photography, and focus on the type of photography which really lasts— images that have emotion, soul, and tell stories about the human condition.
But why do I still feel so rushed? Probably I spend too much time on my smartphone, I get suckered by advertisements, and modern life has a hectic pace that I can sometimes barely keep up with.
I know, I know. Decades seem like a long ass time. What practical advice/thoughts can I offer you as a street photographer who wants to create a meaningful body of work? Here are some thoughts:
1. Invest in a camera system you imagine using for a decade
One of my main tips would be this: invest in a camera system that you can imagine using for a decade.
If you shoot digital, I think it is practical to upgrade your camera every 2–3 years (like you would a laptop or smartphone).
But what I recommend is this: stay loyal to your camera system, not necessarily the camera.
So for example, if you prefer shooting with a DSLR, stick with shooting with a DSLR for a decade. If you like the Fujifilm x100-series, keep upgrading them and stick with them for a decade. If you like shooting on a smartphone, stick with iPhones for a decade. This will help your body of work have a more consistent “look”, and also help you to master your camera system.
I’ve been shooting with a rangefinder for around 3–4 years now. I’m quite comfortable with it now, especially because I have to shoot fully manual on my Leica MP (no auto mode). I am pretty good at reading the light, knowing what aperture/shutter speed to use. I am also good at judging my distances, and know my 35mm focal length very well.
But at the same time, I still need to shoot with my film Leica for another 6 years if I really want to learn how to “master” the rangefinder system. My problem is that other camera systems constantly distract me, and I want to always jump from one system to the next.
So my prescription to myself is this: just stick with my film Leica, until it is brassed to hell. Don’t get distracted by new digital cameras that are always coming out.
And for you— find a camera system that suits your style. Then stick with it for a decade.
2. Work on a long-term photography project
You don’t need to work on a photography project for a decade. Just because you spend more time on a project doesn’t necessarily mean it will be better. But then again, the best photographic projects I have personally seen have taken at least 2–3 years to complete.
“Long-term” can mean anything you want it to mean. For some people, a year can be a long time. For others, 2–3 years can be a long time. For others, 10 years can be a long time. For others (really extreme), an entire lifetime is a long time.
So identify what is “long-term” for you. But then when you’re working on a photographic project, don’t give up too quickly. Stick with it.
For me, the longer I’ve worked on my photography projects (especially my “Suits” project), the deeper I’ve gotten. And the more “new ground” I’ve broken. I’ve learned to avoid the cliché photos, and this helps me strive to make more unique images that push me to become a better photographer.
But how do you find a photographic project you are passionate about? Think to yourself: what issue is interesting or important enough that I am committed to photographing it for at least 10 years?
This is an effective filter for knowing what kind of projects is really meaningful to you. For example, can you really imagine photographing old Chinese men in Chinatown for 10 years?
For more information on photographic projects, you can download my free e-book: “The Street Photography Project Manual.”
3. Make a book
If you really want to create a strong body of work that will take a long time, you probably want to publish them in a book.
Why a book? A book will last for hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands of years (if taken care of well). Will your Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, or Facebook account be around even 50 years from now? Who knows?
So if you are thinking that your photographic life is going to be decades, don’t feel rushed to publish your photos online.
Rather, focus on what kind of book you want to make. What body of work do you ultimately want to make and be proud of? Take the long view.
Share your thoughts
What do you ultimately want out of your life as a photographer? Do you plan on shooting for the long-term, or the short-term? Do you think that shooting for decades is too long of a period?
Share some of your thoughts, feedback, and ideas in the comments below.