Photography (and Life) is About Subtraction, Not Addition

Provincetown, 2015
Provincetown, 2015

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I believe photography (and life) is more about subtraction (instead of addition).

I’m re-reading “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb, and his chapter on “Via Negativa” is absolutely golden.

The concept is that in modern life, we think the secret to happiness, success, and health is “via positiva” (adding things to our life). But true wisdom in life is “via negativa” (by subtraction).

Taleb brings up great examples how subtraction is what creates beauty and art.

For example, the idea that statues are created by subtraction. Even when Michelangelo carved the famous “David”, he said it was quite simple– he just let David “free” by carving him out of the stone.

Similarly, happiness is best dealt as a negative concept– meaning that avoiding unhappiness bring us more happiness than “seeking happiness”.

For example, removing 1 negative person from your life will bring you more happiness than adding 10 positive people to your life. 1 rotten egg can ruin the whole basket of eggs. One red sweater thrown into the washing machine full of white clothes will turn all the other clothes pink.

To take another example, roman philosopher Seneca also shares the importance of keeping your distance from negative people. Imagine this: if you walked through a sewer, you would smell like shit and piss. Similarly, when you spend time around negative people who gossip about others, seek shallow things (fame, money), or constantly complain about life, their negative views on life will taint us.

So the solution? Subtract, don’t add to your life.

One of the books that has most influenced my life is the “Tao Te Ching” — a classic book on Taoism and how to live life happily without stress and anxiety. I recommend most the version by Stephen Mitchell.

One of the quotes in the book says something like this: The fool tries to do 1 more thing everyday, but the master tries to remove 1 thing everyday.

I have tried to apply this philosophy of removing 1 thing from my life everyday.

For example, I believe in the concept of 1 camera, 1 lens. For all the cameras I didn’t use, I gave them to friends or those in need. In the past I have given away a Ricoh GR1v (my friend Josh White), a Fujifilm x100s (my friend Vu in Vietnam), x100t (surprised a kid named Lance who is autistic), XT-1 (my friend Joe Aguirre), Canon 5D (my friend Michelle’s younger brother who went to photography school), Canon 350D (one of my best friends Justin), Ricoh GR (Cindy), Pentax K3 (my friend Mehdi), Contax T3 (my friend Marlon whose camera broke), Leica M6 (friend Bill Reeves).

Giving away cameras has brought me infinitely more joy than hoarding them myself. After all, you can only ever use one camera or one lens at a time. I read an ancient Greek saying that no matter how rich you are or how many mansions you have, you can only ever sleep in 1 bed at a time.

Not only that, but having fewer choices is less anxiety and stress. So in a sense, giving away these cameras has been a selfish thing– because it brings me joy, less stress and anxiety, and the “feel good” emotion. But I do believe that if a tool (camera) can empower people, why not give it away and help others in need, or those who can use it to create art? I am just now left with the Leica MP and 35mm lens, which is all I need (until I get my next episode of GAS, Gear Acquisition Syndrome).

How do you make better street photos? Subtract from the frame, don’t add.

If you shot everything with a fisheye lens, your photos would be boring. Why? You are too general. By photographing everything, you photograph nothing.

What you want to do instead is be like a surgeon, and slice out very specific pieces of reality. You want your lens to be like a magnifying glass and to highlight what exactly in the world you find interesting.

Albert Einstein has a quote that says something like: “Make it simple as possible, but not simpler.”

So applied in street photography, constantly try to cut and subtract from the frame. Protip: subtract from distracting elements from the background by looking at the edges of the frame.

One of my favorite photographers of all-time is Richard Avedon, who made a career of shooting powerful and emotional portraits of people against white backgrounds. Why did he do this? It helped prevent the viewer from being distracted, and to only focus on the essential of his subjects: their face, body language, and soul.

Another idea: try to travel less, and try to see less of your own city. Cut out a specific slice of a city, and get to know that area very well, rather than trying to see everything. This is also a good strategy for traveling. See less of the city, but get to know it better.

Also with photography projects: a tight edit is preferable over a loose edit. Meaning, I would rather look at 10 amazing photographs than 50 “okay” photos in a book. Borrowed from photographer Todd Hido, aim for your photography series to be “all killer, no filler.”

One strategy I try to employ on my Flickr is to constantly subtract from it, not to add to it. Every few months I go back and mark photos that I no longer think is good to “private.” My dream is that by the end of my life, I will only be remembered for one photograph (currently my photo of the laughing woman in New York City).

In-fact, I think a noble goal of a photographer is to just be remembered for 1 meaningful photograph. Even the most famous photographers in history like Henri Cartier-Bresson are known for only 1 famous shot (Bicycle shot by Cartier-Bresson), the “Kid with Gun” photo by William Klein, “Napalm girl” by Nick Ut, or “Twins” by Diane Arbus.

So the secret to becoming a memorable photographer? Make at least 1 memorable photograph in your lifetime– a difficult yet attainable goal.

In terms of finding your style in photography, it is all about figuring out what you don’t like to photograph.

For example, I discovered “street photography” because I realized I didn’t like to shoot landscapes, HDR, macro photos, baby photos, wedding photos, product photos, etc. My first love of black and white came out of the reason that I despised the way that digital color photos looked. So by process of elimination and subtraction, I discovered I loved street photography.

When I first started street photography, I hated “posed” looking photographs. So I discovered my “style” of candid street photographs. However as time has gone on, I discovered that I am starting to dislike taking random candid photos of people. I prefer interacting with my subjects, so I am now focusing more on shooting “street portraits”, in which I ask for permission and engage with my subjects.

Also if you want to build a stronger vision as a photographer, it is quite easy– don’t look at “shitty” photos. I avoid photos of cats, food, and HDR photos like the plague. While there is also great photos on social media and Instagram, I am trying to “fast” from social media. The only photos I trust are from the “masters” of street photography, in which their work has stood the test of time. If a photographer’s work has been around for 20 years, it will probably still be relevant 20 years from now. But a photographer whose work has only been around for 2 years only has a good likelihood of being around 2 years from now. So avoid fads in photography, stick with the classics and what has been around for a long time.

Even in books, I trust 2000+ old philosophy texts from Stoicism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, rather than read self-help books published just a year or two ago.

You know that I always preach: “Buy books, not gear.” But at the end of the day, I don’t want you to own 1000+ photography books. At the end of the day, I want you to have a well-curated library of books that you really love and are inspired by. It is better to have 5 photography books in your library that you read over and over again, than having 500 books that you only read once or twice.

Seneca gives sound advice in his book: “Letters From a Stoic” in which he says something like, “Whenever you are bored with your books and seeking to read something new, don’t try to read new books. Rather, return to the books you have already read, and re-read and re-discover them. It is better to know a few authors very well, than to know many authors superficially.”

Also with social media, try to focus on the bare essentials. Subtract from your social media diet, don’t add. In many ways, I think social media is like fast food or McDonalds. Sure you have a burger and fries one and a while and you will be fine. Eat chicken nuggets every day, and your health will be shitty.

I have a personal rule: I try to uninstall one application from my smartphone everyday. If I haven’t used an application for a week, I uninstall it. Same with social media, I try to be less active on social media. At the moment I am down to just Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Google+. If I could just choose one it would be Instagram (the most popular one at the moment). But if I could really choose just one, it would be none of them, and the only “social media” I would use is the blog.

So in terms of your influences in photography, just choose 3 photographers or so who inspire you the most, and stick with them. It is better to have 3 best friends than 100 acquaintances. So rather than trying to constantly learn more about different photographers and seeking novelty, seek depth over breadth. Practical suggestion: browse the “Learn From the Masters” series, and once you stumble upon a photographer you like, buy all of their books, watch all their interviews on YouTube, see all their exhibitions, learn about their life and biography, and try to imitate their style for a year.

The photographers I have imitated in the past and considered my personal tutors and “masters” (in order) include: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden, Martin Parr, and (currently) Richard Avedon.

If you want to become great, you need a mentor or tutor. And we are so blessed with the internet, we have access to any of these great masters of photography in history. When you go out and shoot or edit your images, think to yourself: What would “Photographer X” do, say, or encourage me to do? And one again, less is more– try not to choose more than 1 tutor at a time. As humans we can only do 1 thing very well at a time.

Subtraction in photography is also perfectly mirrored in the idea of “creative constraints.” Having limits in our photography gives us true freedom.

So subtract your options in photography: subtract the cameras and lenses you own, subtract the areas in which you shoot, subtract the number of photographers you look at, subtract the number of photographers you meet with, subtract the subject-matter in your projects (focus on just one type of subject matter), subtract distractions from the backgrounds of your photos, subtract the amount of electronic gadgets from your life, subtract negative people, subtract unhealthy food, and subtract negative self-thoughts (I am not good enough in photography, my photos suck, I will never be good enough).

Less is more.

Show fewer photos online, upload fewer photos, and remember, you’re only as good as your weakest photo.

One of the main reasons I’m (currently) switching back to black and white is because sometimes color can be a distraction. Ultimately I am more interested to show emotions and the soul of people, not the color of their clothes. So by removing color from my images, I can add more to the emotion and soul of my subjects.

So fellow streettog, I encourage you to subtract more in your life and photography. Ultimately, I want you to be happy. Subtract negative thoughts, shitty people, and stress from your life. Edit down your images, remember less is more, and simplify as much as possible (but not simpler).

I want to leave you with these quote from Steve Jobs (one of my heroes in my life):

Focus is all about saying “no” and subtraction:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying “no” to 1,000 things.”

Subtract the opinions of others from your life:

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Subtract doing extraneous bullshit from your life, and focus on what’s important for you in your life:

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Farewell, and Godspeed my friend!



Written @ Exmouth Coffee, London, 9:06am, after 1 doppio espresso and 1 almond milk cappuccino (good coffee is proof that God exists)

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