Small is Beautiful


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Dear Friend,

I wanted to share with you some thoughts that are on my mind:

The first thing that came to mind: “small is beautiful.”

So I have a problem; I am inflicted with this American obsession that “bigger is better.” We want bigger houses, we want bigger cars, we want bigger bank accounts (more money), we want cameras with bigger sensors (more megapixels), we want bigger houses, bigger closets (to put in more of our shit that we don’t really need), bigger screens on devices (think of the iPhone 6 plus), and a bigger circle of influence (everyone wants to be YouTube and social media famous).

One of the things that I learned from my 3 months abroad is this; all the material possessions I really “need” can fit into a backpack. The only things I truly “need” to be productive and produce information is a camera and some sort of typing device (can either be a smartphone or a laptop/tablet). As for my clothes, you probably already know that I only travel with two shirts (Uniqlo Airism) and two pairs of boxers (Exofficio) which quickly dry, as I wash them with shampoo in the shower every night. I only have one pair of pants (Uniqlo stretchy denim), and two pairs of socks (also quick-dry), and my trusty Nike Flyknit 4.0 (seriously the most comfortable and lightweight pair of shoes I have ever owned).

I don’t know if I told you this yet either, but I am moving to Vietnam next summer, and going to live there for a year with Cindy. I have a lot of shit in my house that I can’t take with me, so what am I going to do?

I have a plan; I want to go to Vietnam with no excess baggage. I only want to bring what I can fit into a single backpack (the trusty Thinktank Perception 15 I picked up in Aix-en-provence after I got my backpack stolen in Paris).

So what am I to do? I have a shitload of photo books that are just chilling in the closet, and haven’t been read for ages. I know that some of them are sold-out and quite rare and expensive. Rather than selling them on eBay or Amazon, I have a plan; I want to start giving them away to friends and other street photographers I know would love and appreciate them. I want to breathe new life into these books, rather than hoarding them. Perhaps I can throw a big party, invite all my friends, and let my friends take all the books they would like. Not only that, but for them to pay it forward, by continuing to give them to other photographers who might want to read them. I don’t want people to treat books like it “belongs” to them (or anybody for the matter). I want books to be “common property” — and to treat them almost like a public library.

And the thing is, is there a photo book that I truly love so much that I want to lug it all the way to Vietnam, and waste space in my tiny little backpack? To be honest, I don’t think there are any books that I truly love that much. My plan is this; to just bring my iPad and enjoy one of my favorite photographer’s images (Richard Avedon) on the free Avedon iPad app. I love photography books with all of my heart; I love the texture, the three-dimensionality, the feeling of flipping pages, the matte of the paper, the smell, and the feel of a physical object in my hands.

But honestly at the end of the day, to me, the image is the most important thing. I don’t care if I see an image as a print, in a book, or on a screen. As long as the image is able to evoke some sort of emotional response out of me, that is good enough.

Furthermore, I am lucky and blessed that all of my favorite photobooks can be seen online on the website.

I also very much like this idea of purging all of my physical things and starting afresh. In-fact, I try to apply this line of thinking everyday I wake up. I think to myself, “If today I was born anew, and was able to live this day without any baggage from the past, how would I live this day differently?”

A funny idea I had when I had my backpack stolen in Paris: what if I got my Leica stolen? Would I end up buying a new one?

The thought was actually quite exciting. In-fact, I wish I did infact get my Leica stolen, to see how I could start all over from scratch.

So this is advice I would give myself if I started shooting street photography all over again; just buy a digital Ricoh GR, and take photos of anything that interests you, without any sort of self-editing, or pressure or need to share or publish the images on the internet. To truly shoot for myself, and perhaps print out a few photos of the images that are truly meaningful to me. And also not to “chimp” and look at the photos, and let them “marinate” for at least a week (or better yet, a month) before looking at them.

I don’t know if I would tell myself to buy unnecessary hard drives or any other excess baggage. I’d probably shoot all the photos as JPEG+RAW, and have Google Photos Auto Uploader to store the 2000px wide photos to the cloud for free. And for my favorite images, I would save the full resolution images to Dropbox or Google Drive, (perhaps also Flickr). And for my absolute favorite images, I would print them out and hand them to friends, family, or anybody who would enjoy them.

I have long aspired to publish a photography book of my series of images, but the funny thing is that I find my ambition dampening. And it has given me a lot of peace of mind. I would love to publish a book one day, but  I’m not in any hurry or rush. I will let the opportunity present itself to me naturally.

But what if I die in some freak car accident before I ever have a book of my own published? Honestly, I will be dead (so I would have no regrets). Not only that, but most of the people who follow me have already seen my photos online. So how much of me publishing my photos in a book is a self-vanity thing (trying to show off and preserve my “legacy”), or bringing some sort of value to the lives of others?

I thought something else of last night; I actually prefer prints over photobooks. Why? Well, a print is much easier (and affordable) to give away as a present, that brings so much happiness and joy to others. I’m not sure if you know, but all my images are free to download on Flickr (full-resolution) for people to print themselves. People can also download my entire portfolio (and do whatever they want with them) on Dropbox and Google Drive. Oh yeah by the way, while you’re reading this, don’t forget to download all the free e-books on street photography on Dropbox or Google Drive. In-fact, I have compiled all of my materials for free (and convenient) downloads on the new “Downloads” section of the blog.

I have no interest in making money off my prints. What  do I prefer? Making a few extra hundred bucks selling prints, or spreading happiness and joy by giving it away with “no strings attached?”

To get back to the point, a print can be hung on the wall, admired everyday– whereas a photobook can only be appreciated when taken off the shelf, and looked at (with a nice coffee or glass of wine).

I also had another random idea; I want to start sharing more of my photos as prints, to make a small little collection of 10 photos and print them on some thick paper, and to send them to people who might appreciate them. I shot around 80 rolls of Tri-X black and white film (pushed to 1600) in Europe this summer, and that approach might be suitable. I need to remind myself; less is more. I would rather have 10 strong images from 80 rolls of film, rather than a mediocre book. I remember what I learned from Mary Ellen Mark; each photo should stand on its own, and I want to strive for every photo I share to be “iconic.”

I apologize for straying off the original point; that small is beautiful.

So let me share some other ways that I feel that small is beautiful in photography (and life):

1. Small laptop:

The benefit? It is portable, you can carry it with you everywhere, and you can do more writing anywhere you would like. I had an 11 inch Macbook Air as my only machine for about 3 years, and the smallness of the screen (and how light it was) was a huge benefit for me. Because the screen was so small, I couldn’t multi-task. This allowed me to be more focused on the thing at hand. Whereas in the past when I had two 24-inch monitors on my desktop computer, I would multi-task so much and never get anything done.

Multi-tasking is the death; simplicity is to have constraints.

Focusing is easy when you can only have one thing on the screen at a time. I think my next machine is the 12’’ Retina Macbook, as it is (even) lighter than my old 11’’ Macbook air, and I don’t need that much computing power. In-fact, I would imagine the benefit of getting an “underpowered” machine is that I won’t get tempted to buy any new digital cameras (with tons of megapixels that require a strong machine). It should be good enough to look at photos shot on a digital Ricoh (which I think is the only 1 camera I want to bring to Vietnam).

2. Small home:

I have long lamented that I wish I had a bigger apartment; to have more room for my photobooks, to have a private office to do my photography work, and more space to feel open, free, and inspired.

But I am quite fascinated with the idea of the “tiny home” movement; especially with the “life edited” tiny houses.

Cindy and I used to live in a 2-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, paying around $1,800 a month (before utilities). We had a spare bedroom that we thought “would be nice” to have guests over. But in reality, we rarely had guests (only one guest every few months)– and that extra room caused us a lot of stress. We wondered whether it was a good idea to rent it out, to host an AirBnb, or else it would go to “waste.”

The best thing we ended up doing was moving into a smaller 1-bedroom apartment (only $1,300 a month, with utilities included!) There have been so many benefits; we use our space more mindfully, we don’t accumulate shit we don’t need, and other practical stuff– it is easier to clean (fewer floor space to clean), the distance from the kitchen to the living room is much smaller (it is pretty much the same space), we have an extra $500 a month (we can actually afford to eat in San Francisco on the weekends!) and less stress about finances and rent. Not only that, but if I want to experience a bigger space, I just visit Artis, the local cafe with huge floor-to-ceiling windows and 2-story high ceilings. Why aspire to buy my own bigass modern house, when I can go to a cafe and enjoy the same experience for $2? (price of an espresso).

One of our dreams is in the future to buy our own home. If we do so, I want it to be smaller than we need it to be, and to enjoy every square inch of the house the fullest.

3. Small group of friends and photographers

Another realization I had in my life recently; I don’t want to “network” anymore. I only want to spend time with people that I love and care about. I don’t need any more money, power, fame, or influence. All my basic needs are met (food, water, shelter), and the only other things I “need” include love, companionship, and friendship. Was it Aristotle (or perhaps Socrates) who said that “friendship is the ultimate good”?

I once read, “You are the average of the 5 closest people to you.” That is a quote that has stuck with me for a long time.

Another quote from Seneca: “He who travels constantly has many acquaintances, but a few true friends.”

I want to start subtracting more from my life; to spend more time with people I care about, and less time with negative people, time-wasting people, and people who are just like dark clouds, doom, and gloom.

All I want in my life is 5 good friends, and to give them all my attention, love, and energy. Quality over quantity.

Similarly, I want to reduce the amount of photographers in my life, and who I am inspired by. I’ve studied so many of the masters of street photography, but there are only 3 who I want to consider being part of my “inner-circle.” They include:

  1. Josef Koudelka
  2. Richard Avedon
  3. Bruce Gilden

At first I tried to think of 5, but I honestly couldn’t think of another 2 off the top of my head. Perhaps “3” is a better number than 5. So to redact my previous point; perhaps all I need in life is 3 really good friends.

I was reading “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca earlier, and he taught me all these great things on the topic of his second letter: “On Discursiveness in Reading”:

One of his words of wisdom:

“You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.”

So applied to photography, I should only linger among a few master photographers, revisit their work, and thoroughly digest their work.

Going back to that point that I mentioned earlier, here is the actual quote:

“When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends up having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Food does no good if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong.”

So what I need to do is subtract the number of photographers I am inspired in life by, and just thoroughly chew, digest, and absorb the inspiration and wisdom from the few master photographers I admire.

But what if I get bored of their photography, and crave something new? The master Seneca gave me some amazing advice:

“When you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before.”

I have been applying this philosophy to books in general; whenever I crave new books to read, I simply re-read the books that most influenced my life (Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, Tao Te Ching by Laozi, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius).

Another random quote I got from Seneca (via the philosopher Epicurus): “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” That is a nice reminder for me to be contented with what I already own and have in life, and not strive for more.

I also have an endless thirst for money and “security.” I am lucky in the sense that I have some control over my income. For example, if I want more money, I just can teach more workshops.

But I have been wondering, how much money do I truly need? At what point do I stop teaching workshops? I came up wit a good rule for myself: “Would I do this activity if I didn’t get paid; and would do it for free?” If the answer is “yes”, it is an honorable activity that is worth doing. I am so lucky that I love doing workshops with all of my heart; I love bringing people together, helping build their confidence, and bringing joy into their lives. And yes, I have taught many free workshops in the past, with equal amounts of enthusiasm (as if I were being paid). So in the future, I plan on doing more free community-oriented workshops (especially for those who cannot afford them), give out more free scholarships, and continue to do “paid” workshops to pay the bills.

Seneca also gave me some good advice about money:

“Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is first, to have what is necessary, and second, to have what is enough.”

So what is really “necessary” in my life? Paying for food (cheap, I can survive off eggs), paying for water (cheap, I can drink tap water), paying for rent (not as cheap in the San Francisco Bay Area, but still do-able).

And what is “enough” in my life? The things I already own. I don’t need new clothes (two pairs of clothes is sufficient), I don’t need a new camera, I don’t need a new laptop (although it would be nice, as the keyboard on this $300 Lenovo Windows 8 laptop I bought at the airport in Lisbon has an unresponsive keyboard).

I don’t need a new smartphone, I don’t need any new photobooks, I don’t need any new philosophy books, I don’t need any new friends, I don’t need more money, I don’t need to travel to any new places, I don’t need a fancy espresso machine (tempting, but I prefer going to the cafe), I don’t need to try out any new restaurants (already had amazing food from all around the word, how much more variety does my tongue need?)

I don’t need more followers on social media (currently deleted all the social media apps from my phone, wow, what a great sense of serenity this has brought me), I don’t need more information (the less “junk-food” media I get from TV, magazines, and the internet, the better. One of the reasons I don’t own a TV, surf the internet and blogs”, or subscribe to magazines which are 80% advertisements), I don’t need appreciation or admiration from others (I should be content with myself).

I don’t need to leave a legacy (we’re all going to die and be forgotten anyways), I don’t need a gym membership (pushups, one-legged squats, and chin ups are sufficient), I don’t need bullshit, fear, and negativity.

Wow, I didn’t realize that there was so few things that I really “needed” in my life.

4. Small geographic area

Another idea I have been meditating on a lot; I don’t need to see the world. The whole world is in my own backyard.

One of my problems is this; I always crave and seek novelty. I am never happy where I am. Even when I was in Istanbul, I remember when I was on Facebook and was jealous of my friend sipping a Corona on the sandy beaches of the Caribbeans. I am an ungrateful bastard. After all, how many other people in the world would be jealous of me being in Istanbul? I always want what is out of my reach, and am never satisfied.

Once again Seneca comes to the rescue; he gave me this advice (which was initially written to his friend Lucilius):

“Judging by what you write me, and by what I hear, I am forming a good opinion regarding your future. You do not run hither and thither and distract yourself by hanging your abode, for such restlessness is a sign of a disordered spirit. The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.”

Once again, my problem is that I always seek novelty in terms of my environment. Even though my apartment in Berkeley is lovely (I have a nice light-wood birch table that I got at the clearance aisle of IKEA that is smooth to the touch, and faces the railroad from my window, where I can see lots of trees, grass) I always crave to get out of the house, and to go to hipster cafes and do work. But I need to enjoy spending more time at home.

But I always make excuses; I always tell myself that I can only get writing done at a cafe, because I prefer the company of others. But in reality, I can get writing done anywhere, and shouldn’t seek to always change my abode.

For example, the last two days I’ve been here in Stockholm, I’ve enjoyed staying at my friend Brian’s home, without the need to go outside. After all, I got peace, quiet, access to superfast wifi (without feeling guilty to ask the barista for it), a toilet (no worries about people stealing my stuff at a cafe when I need to piss), free coffee and tea, and power outlets (I seriously get anxiety when my battery runs low on my laptop and smartphone). And damn; I have been productive. I’ve been able to focus and write an epic article on Mary Ellen Mark, the freedom and space to think and meditate on my own, and also to do some yoga, stretches, and exercise.

I think I have come up with a small epiphany: The best cafe is your own kitchen. And the best place to write is wherever you are sitting. And the best place to take photos is in your own backyard.

You also know me; I am an extreme extrovert. According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, I am an “ESFP” — which means that I gain energy from being in the company of others. But at the same time, I don’t want to distill my entire personality and human soul into 4 arbitrary letters, as my friend Lara taught me at a recent workshop I had in London. I want to be able to “remain in one place, and linger in my own company” (while enjoying it).

So perhaps the solution is to learn to spend more time by myself. I still love to see my friends, and enjoy a nice dinner with people I love and care about. So perhaps the solution is this; block off all my time in the morning, and only dedicate that time for myself. Then meet friends in the afternoon or evening, and don’t work for the rest of the day.

One lesson I learned from Nassim Taleb from his excellent book: “Antifragile” is to never plan a meeting a day in advance. Otherwise, I will feel like a prisoner. What if I start writing in the morning, and I get into a deep “flow” state, and can go on writing for another 5 hours, but I have a “meeting” or lunch appointment? Then effectively, my entire day is ruined.

So I just need to make more white space in my life; fewer appointments, only with people I truly love and want to see.

But how can I best enjoy my time alone? I can use time to read more, to write more (the thing that brings me the most satisfaction in life), to daydream more (take more naps instead of just bombarding my system with more caffeine and espressos), and to just chill the fuck out without feeling that I need to “do” anything and be “productive.”

I often preach that “the best photos to take are in your own backyard.” Unfortunately, even I have a hard time sticking to this rule. Living in Berkeley, I see San Francisco as so much more interesting. Fortunately I have done a lot of urban landscapes in Berkeley, which brought me a lot of pleasure– especially with the “zen” nature of shooting 6×6 on the Hasselblad. To be honest, none of the photos that came out really pleased me (ironically enough, many of the urban landscapes I shot on my smartphone, I preferred).

Now that I have been on the road for about 3 months away from home, and looking at Berkeley from a distance– it is such a cool place, ripe with so many photo opportunities. Surprisingly, a lot of people from Europe actually know where Berkeley is. Not only that, but historically Berkeley is famous for being the epicenter of the “free speech movement” as well as other socio-political and civil issues — tackling issues like racism and same-sex marriage. It is always easy to get jaded by your own hometown; but I have a dedicated plan when I get back home: to only shoot street photography in Berkeley for the next month, without any desire to shoot in San Francisco.

The thing too is that there are very few photographers who have done substantial bodies of work in Berkeley. San Francisco, LA, and New York have already been shot to death. I want to shoot my own city with as much vigor and energy as possible; from the perspective of an insider, not an outsider.

I was talking with my buddy Brian Spark and he brought up a good point to me; there tend to be two different types of photographers. First, there is the type of photographer who travels to exotic locations, and takes ordinary photos of interesting things. Secondly, there are photographers who take photos in their own boring town, but make them extraordinary. I want to be the second type of photographer.

5. Small books/prints

Another thing I discovered is that I actually prefer small prints and small photo books. I hate huge photobooks which are huge, expensive, and difficult to hold, and read.

The smaller photobooks are more beautiful, more personal, more affordable, and more manageable.

One of my favorite photobooks is Jason Eskenazi’s “Wonderland” — which is the size of a small paperback book. The pages fold flat (workss well with the horizontal spreads), and it is easy to take with you everywhere you go.

Similarly, if you aspire to make huge prints, you have lots of problems. First of all, they are really expensive, difficult to frame (also expensive to frame), and you need a huge wall or space to hang them. Smaller prints (4×6, 8×12’’, my favorite sizes) are easy to carry around, give to friends, and to edit series or sequence projects. Because they are smaller, they force the viewer to hold the images closer to their faces, which forces them to be more engaged with the images, and for the viewer to try hard to look at the details. This is much more “interactive” than a big ass print in a famous gallery, which looks down at you (rather than you looking at it).

So moving forward, I don’t plan on publishing my work as huge, expensive, “art pieces.” Rather, I want them to be small, simple, inexpensive, humble, and easily accessible to the masses.

To conclude, I will just ramble off some other ideas where “small is beautiful” and much more preferable to big, fancy, and expensive:

Benefit of small cameras: inexpensive, light, easier to carry with you, always with you, chance to catch more “decisive moments.”

Benefit of small cars: cheaper, more fun to drive, better on fuel economy, easier to park, easier to wash, and less pretentious.

Benefit of small phones: easier to text with one hand, smaller battery is a benefit (you learn to use your phone less, and not be a slave to your phone), cheaper (iPhone 6 plus and Note 4 “phablets” are quite expensive), fits more easily in the pocket.

Benefit of small bags: you carry less shit with you, you probably will only bring one camera and one lens (and a few rolls of film or batteries), less strain on the shoulders and back, less expensive than bigger bags, easier to put under the space under your feet in planes.

Benefit of a small (yet well curated) library: you only own the photobooks you truly love, don’t need to buy more shelves, gives you the chance to re-read more of your books, helps save you money, and saves space (especially if you live in a small apartment).

Benefit of a small closet: you have less “decision anxiety” when deciding what to wear in the morning, you spend less money on clothes (you have less space to fill your closet with). Apparently Steve Jobs only had one “uniform” (black turtleneck, blue jeans) so he didn’t have to stress what to wear. Similarly, Barack Obama only owns two suits (black and navy blue) so he can reserve his “decision-energy” on more important things (like world politics).

Benefit of small kitchen: you don’t accumulate useless “labor-saving” devices from IKEA, like blenders, onion choppers, avocado peelers, and waffle irons (honestly, how often do we use these appliances?) Also you have fewer cups, pots, pans, and dishes– so there is less stress of having them fitting neatly in the cupboards.

Benefit of small bank account: it sucks to have little money in the bank account (I grew up not knowing if we’d be homeless the next month), but it is true that “hunger breeds sophistication” — that the fewer options and choices we have, we are forced to be more creative. For example, the concept behind Airbnb was that two guys had a space living room and air mattress, and thought it would be a good idea to rent their living room (and air mattress) to make a few bucks on the side. Also in the beginning, the founders of Airbnb didn’t have enough money to advertise their startup, so they came up with ingenious ways; like giving away free cereal boxes. Now they are a multi-billion dollar company. Almost all great inventions and ideas are out of necessity. Rarely do great ideas come from mega-rich individuals or companies swimming in millions of dollars for their “R&D teams.”

Don’t have enough money for a fancy camera in photography? Harness the creative potential of your smartphone. Don’t have money to travel? Shoot your own backyard. Don’t have money for photobooks? See them online for free at Can’t afford to print your own photo book? Either make them available online for free, or print them on-demand ( so there is no startup cost.

Benefit of small notebooks: you only write down your best ideas, are more frugal with your space, improve your handwriting, and easier to carry around.

Benefit of small ambitions: you are rarely disappointed (preferably never disappointed), and you live a life more true to yourself, rather than relying on the admiration of others for self-fulfillment.

Benefit of small storage space/hard drive: you delete excess crap, which forces you to “edit down” and focus on what is truly essential. If you have a phone with limited storage, this means following the “via negativa” approach of uninstalling one app a day, rather than trying to add a new app everyday. And the funny thing, the fewer apps I have on my phone, the more productive and focused I am.

Let me leave you off with one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes:

“That’s been one of my mantras– focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Farewell my friend, and Godspeed,



Written @ the home of Brian Sparks, with an espresso in the morning (damn Nespresso machine are convenient), an earl grey tea (with foamed almond milk), and another espresso (long) with some foamed almond milk on top. 12:15pm, 8/26/2015, before meeting up Brian and my friend Mattias for lunch :)