On Positivity and Street Photography

San Diego, 2015
San Diego, 2015

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There is so much negativity and bullshit out there in modern life. I always hear people bitching and moaning about the difficulties of their lives, how they want more money, how their camera isn’t good enough, how their significant others are horrible people, and how the world is going to shit. The media is constantly spewing negativity, with news about terrorist attacks, gun shootings, peoples’ heads being cut off, and how the economy is going to shit.

Honestly, I don’t blame anybody or the individual. I blame more of society and modern media, as well as the human bias that we focus on the negatives more than the positives.

In psychology, we all have a “risk-aversion” bias, meaning, we hate to lose $100 dollars more than winning $100. We value security and not dying over anything else.

This was a good biological bias when we were hunter-gatherers in the savannah. After all, those who were anxious and risk-averse were the ones who didn’t mistake a lion for a friendly kitten. Those who were high-strung, anxious, and cautious were the ones who survived. Those who thought that everything in life was rosy, carefree, and easy generally died off (or were probably expelled from the tribe because they were seen as lazy slackers).

Fortunately we now live in a modern world in which all of our basic needs are met. Most of us have access to clean water, we don’t starve to death, and we have protection from the cold. Sure there are many people out there still living in poverty, but fortunately most of the “modern” world have enough to survive and not die.

However we still have our hard-wiring in our brains that make us focus on the negatives, not the positives in life.

For example, rather than being grateful for what we have, we focus on what we don’t have. Rather than being grateful for the money we earn and have in the bank, we are anxious and scared of becoming homeless that we try to accumulate endless amounts of money. Rather than focusing on the positives of our friends, family, and co-workers, we focus on their negative attributes and how they can improve.

Reality isn’t objective. Reality comes down to how we see and interpret the world.

For example, most people would say it is “objectively” good to be a millionaire. However in reality, a millionaire can be miserable if all of his/her best friends are billionaires. They might “only” drive a BMW 3-series, while all their buddies drive Ferraris. Even apparently billionaires are the most envious people on the planet. Even if you own your own private jet, your best friend (another richer billionaire) can own his own private island. Even if you own your own private island, your friend might own their own spaceship. Even if you own your own spaceship, you can’t escape death (no matter how rich you are).

Another human bias: we always compare ourselves to one another. For example, even though I have the “best” film camera (Leica MP and 35mm summicron lens), I am often jealous of my friends who own “better” film cameras like a Mamiya 7ii. Sometimes I compare my 35mm Summicron f/2 lens to my friends who have a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux lens and feel inadequate and jealous. Even though I have 20,000 followers on Instagram, I feel like a “nobody” compared to my friends who have 100,000+ followers on Instagram. No matter how “good” I have it, there is always someone out there who is richer, more talented, more “respected”, more popular, or “better than me.”

Nothing is ever good enough for us. Once we finally buy that new camera we want, go on that fancy vacation, that promotion we’ve wanted, that raise of money, we get accustomed to it after a while. Then we want the next “better” thing. They call this the “hedonic treadmill.”

So how do we overcome this sense of jealousy, negativity, and feeling of inadequacy in our photography and life?

It is simple: Be grateful for what you have.

The quickest way to become rich is to eliminate desire. The quickest way to improve your self-esteem is to not give a shit what others think of you. The quickest way to remove dissatisfaction on social media (not having enough followers or likes) is to delete your account.

Not only that, but another solution: Focus on the positives, not negatives in life.




There is a new trend in psychology called “positive psychology.” I think often people misconstrue positive psychology a bunch of people, sitting in a circle, holding hands, chanting mantras, and saying that everything in life is rosy.

However the way I think of positive psychology is acknowledging the pain, negativity, and bullshit of everyday life but yet deciding to focus on the positives, not the negatives.

Focusing on the negatives of life is a waste of time, energy, and the worst return-on-investment. Focusing on the negatives won’t improve your life. It will just make you more miserable and dissatisfied.

No matter how shitty your life is, or how shitty your day was, there are always positive things to be grateful for.

For example, whenever I have a shitty day, I try to journal in a moleskine 3 things I am grateful for. This helps me focus on the positives, not negatives of my day. Some things I write in my “gratitude journal” include

  • Being alive, and having the gift of sight.
  • Having friends and family who love me.
  • Having a healthy and sound mind.
  • Gratitude of knowing how to speak English.
  • Gratitude that I was born in a society in which Internet exists, and I have access to the unlimited source of knowledge from the entirety of history.
  • The fact that I don’t go hungry at night before I sleep.
  • Appreciation for coffee and caffeine (I couldn’t get any writing done without it).
  • Appreciation of the talents and successes of my best friends.
  • Having Cindy, the love of my life, who pushes me to become a better person.
  • For a loving mother, sister, and family.
  • Enjoying a nice walk in the park with the sun shining, birds chirping, and the lovely sound of trees blowing and swaying.
  • That all the photographs of Magnum Photographers (and books) are available for free on magnumphotos.com
  • Freedom to move around as I please, and not be a prisoner in a jail cell.
  • The gratitude of living with other human beings (not being stuck on Mars by myself or on a spaceship).

These are a few of the things I have meditated about, and shown appreciation for. I find that when I fill my mind with gratitude, I feel happier, more positive, and more willing to give love to others.

Don’t get me wrong, even though I’m a pretty happy guy, I get depressed and sad too. Sometimes after reading a lot of YouTube comments or negative hate on the blog, I feel shitty. Sometimes when I’m traveling by myself overseas and can’t find anybody to share a meal with me, I think negative thoughts of all the problems of my life (how I don’t have enough financial security, how so many people on the internet don’t like me, and how much I miss Cindy and friends back home). I often dwell on stupid thing I said, or regret not being more generous, or accidentally upsetting people or not being more considerate. I feel gloomy at time that people ignore my emails or Facebook messages, all out of this sense of insecurity that I want everybody to like me.

But the reality is, the more I dwell on these negative thoughts, the shittier I feel.

Something I have done which has helped me stay more positive is to read philosophy twice a day. For about an hour in the morning (to prime my brain with positive thinking) and about an hour before I sleep (to shut up my brain from telling me that I am worthless and about the negatives in my life). Books that have helped me the most include:

What I will generally do is read each of the books, and then when I finish, cycle through them. I also write my ideas and notes in a Moleskine journal. I copy down quotes that speak to me, my random ideas, and how I feel.

Another strategy in life: Turn every negative into a positive in your life.

Let’s say you shoot a photo of a stranger and they call you a pervert, threaten to call the cops, or even physically shove you. What have you gained? You have gained confidence, sturdiness of heart, and the opportunity to practice patience, restraint, and courage.

Let’s say you lost your job. The positive? You hated that job anyways, now it is time for you to pursue a new job or career you really loved. In-fact, if I never got laid off my old job, I would have never started to travel the world and teach street photography full-time.

Let’s say a good friend or family member died. The positive? You appreciate your own life more, you appreciate your friends and family who are still alive more, and it reminds you of your own mortality. You realize life is short, and it is a good wake-up call for you to not waste time and pursue the work that is really meaningful in your life.

Let’s say you have only 50 followers on social media. You feel this is a negative (because you want 100, 1000, or 10,000+ followers). However this can be a positive, because you build up a closer relationship with fewer people, than having a superficial relationship with a lot of people.

Let’s say you live in a boring place for street photography. The positive? You have the opportunity to create a unique body of work (nobody has done before), and it forces you to be more creative. Those who live in popular cities (New York, Tokyo, Paris) often feel frustrated and overwhelmed because they can never create bodies of work that is better than those who came before them.

Did you miss a “decisive moment” on the streets and feel frustrated? Turn it into a positive; next time you will work harder to be more prepared, when you see a better scene.

Sometime give you a negative or nasty critique on your photos? Be appreciative that you are “popular” enough that someone took the time to give you negative feedback (I think the more negative feedback you get is a sign that you are becoming more influential).

Someone stole your camera? Maybe it is a chance for you to discover the beauty of shooting on a smartphone.

Have you become allergic to coffee? A chance for you to discover matcha green tea (happened to me, but thank God this “allergy” ended up just being acid reflux to acidic coffee).

If you see everything that happens in life as a positive, you will become indestructible. No bullshit will be able to penetrate your golden armor of courage, love, and positivity. You will be like King Midas; everything you touch (negativity) will turn into gold. Every insult will strengthen your character. Every setback in your life will force you to work harder and become a better human being. Lack of resources or money will teach you the value of “creative constraints” and give you that burning hunger to succeed.

I know this is hard, I personally struggle with it everyday. But remember, we are all brothers and sisters in this world. We are all fighting the tough battle everyday. But let us imagine ourselves like the 300 spartans; we will continue to protect one another with our shields from the flying arrows of negativity which can pierce our heart and souls.

Okay, I am overly caffeinated now (after a doppio and almond cappuccino) and need to shut up.

A quick assignment for you to try today: Smile at a stranger and say hello. This can be to your local bus driver, a barista, waiter, or someone passing you on the streets.

Another idea: do a random act of kindness. Today I was riding the tube in London, reading some Meditation by Marcus Aurelius, and his words inspired me to give up my seat to a depressed looking woman. I stood up, offered her my seat, and first she politely refused. I insisted, she thanked me, sat down, and gave me the warmest smile you could possibly imagine. Of course this made me feel good, and I saw other people in the tube smile as well.

Contribute positive acts, and pay it forward. Then your happiness will be boundless.



Monday, Aug 17, 2015 @ 12:19pm.

Written @ Exmouth coffee in London. Heading out to Leeds for a few days to visit Northern London with a friend, and excited to do another Intermediate/Advanced workshop in London, a week in Stockholm with my good friends (and another workshop) then flying home back to Cindy, the love of my life, and the chance to catch up with my friends in Berkeley, where I can enjoy my home and more good coffee!