I wanted to write you this letter, sharing with you some of my personal thoughts that here is no one “right” or “wrong” way to shoot “street photography.”
I think when most people think about how you “should” shoot street photography, they look at the life and work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and simply assume that everyone else needs to shoot the same way that he did.
But remember, “not every single shoe fits every single foot.” What I think, my friend, our goal is… is to discover what approach in street photography works for us (not for others).
There is the wise Greek saying, “Know thyself”. But many of us spend our entire lives seeking to know who we are. Therefore in order to discover who we are, we look into the lives of others. We look at those wiser than us, and try to emulate them.
But the problem is this: you a unique human being different from everyone else. Simply following and copying others isn’t going to help you find the ultimate wisdom and truth that we are all searching for.
For example, one of the things that I think a lot about is my health. I’ve read hundreds of health books, from paleo, to low carb, to high carb, to low meat, to high meat, to ketogenic diets, to the “warrior” diet. The problem? These “one size fits all” diets rarely apply to the individual.
For example, as an Asian-American there are several things I am very intolerant of in my diet: these include dairy (milk, cheese, whey) as well as alcohol (I get “Asian glow” and turn red when I drink, because my body cannot synthesize alcohol very well). Furthermore, I have recently discovered that I’m allergic to certain nuts (cashews, pistachios), allergic to shellfish (shrimp, oysters, lobster), and also (slightly) intolerant to avocados, coconut, and some fruits (plums are a new addition).
The problem of these diet books and programs is that they assume that the majority of their readers are Caucasian, and therefore can handle dairy, alcohol, and other foods. But they rarely account for these Asian intolerances.
So it has taken me a long ass time, but I’m starting to realize that for the secret to my personal health, it is all about subtraction. So some things I’ve subtracted from my diet, which has made me feel a hell of a lot better:
- Gluten (bread, pasta, etc)
- Simple carbs (anything white, like white rice, white bread, white pasta)
- Most fruits (too sweet)
- Legumes (beans, peanut, etc)
By simply eliminating these things from my diet, I’ve been able to have more focus, less lethargy, and more clarity of thought.
But once again, this is just works well for me, as an Asian American with lots of allergies. What diet works well for you is dependent (much on) your background, upbringing, and physical condition.
What are you intolerant of in photography?
As there is no one “right” diet in health, there is also no one “right” way to approach photography, street photography, or even life. You need to find the shoe that fits you.
For example, a lot of street photographers I know prefer to ask for permission. Why is this a problem?
A lot of street photography “purists” believe that you cannot (and even worse, should not) ask for permission before taking a photo of a stranger. That’s totally fine, but they should keep that opinion to themselves, instead of trying to cram it down the throats of others.
Similarly, some people like processing their photos in HDR and doing selective color and whatever. Personally, I’m not a big fan. But if that makes them happy, why not let them do that?
Why get upset and your panties tied up in a knot on how others shoot or approach street photography? Let them be, let them do what makes them happy, and leave them alone. In life, we can only control of how we do things, not how others do things on their own.
This doesn’t apply to everybody else
I’ve read so many interviews, and written a lot of the “Learn From the Masters” series. My biggest takeaway point? A lot of these “rules” are simply guidelines, and there is always an exception to the norm.
For example, I believe it’s important to “work the scene” and take a lot of photos of a street scene. But William Eggleston did the opposite: he would only shoot 1 photo of a scene, no more or no less. He still made brilliant shots.
Henri Cartier-Bresson sticked with one camera, one lens for his entire life and black and white film (Leica and 50mm). That worked well for him. But Josef Koudelka has shot with several cameras over his 50+ photographic career, including an SLR and 25mm lens, a Leica and 35/50mm lens, a panoramic camera, and apparently now he’s shooting landscapes on a Leica S2 medium format digital camera. He is still able to make brilliant images with lots of different cameras.
I used to think that when you’re working on street photography projects, you needed to go out with a single mission in mind, and not deviate from it. But other photographers like Elliott Erwitt simply go out, take photos of random stuff that interests them, and then compile books after 30 years of shooting.
I used to think that you should never mix black and white in a set of images, or in a photobook. Recently I’ve seen lots of great examples that prove otherwise (Todd Hido is a great inspiration).
Like I said in a prior letter to you, we need to learn how to kill our ego, kill our beliefs, and kill our theories which keep us trapped in, and narrow minded. We need to learn how to embrace “child’s mind”, in which the whole world is open to possibilities.
Everyday you are reborn
One thing I try to do:
Whenever I wake up in the morning, I imagine I’m a baby, or a child again. How would I live this day of my life, if I had no residue of my past holding me back? Meaning, I want to live everyday like if it were a new day. I don’t want to be held back by my prejudices, rigid views of the world, or any of the things that I hold onto my ego.
For me, I have a big ass ego (and a pretty big dome head). I have a hard time killing my beliefs, and letting them go. I think that everyone should listen to me, that I know the ultimate “truth”, and that I need to “educate” others about the “true way”.
But that is bullshit. I don’t know shit. I’m still trying to remove the black dust in front of my eyes. The window of my soul is still covered in dirt and soot. I still have so many demons crawling around my soul, who am I to simply tell others what to do, when I don’t have any of my personal problems fixed yet?
The quote I try to always think about is from Socrates: that the only thing that I’m certain of is that I know nothing.
So once again, I don’t know shit. But I do know a few things which have helped me along the way, which is why I am sharing this letter with you, friend. We’re both friends lying in the same hospital together, afflicted with similar illnesses. I feel that I have learned a few remedies that have helped me, and am simply sharing it with you. But once again, these remedies have helped me, but not necessarily might help you. So all my suggestions in my letters, try them out friend, but if they don’t work for you, throw them away.
One of the reasons I wrote this letter is because for so long, others have told me how I “should” shoot street photography, rather asking me how I wanted to shoot street photography. They never asked me what brought me the most happiness in street photography (which is talking with strangers, and taking their portraits). So after many years of struggling, I’ve found out one of my true callings in photography: “street portraits.” It perfectly suits my personality (I’m very comfortable talking with strangers, I’m curious to learn about their lives, and I’m drawn to faces and interesting characters). At the moment my biggest inspiration is Richard Avedon. But once again, this might change as I continue to evolve and grow as a human being as a photographer. But it’s so funny that it’s taken me this long to discover what approach in street photography makes me happy.
And I think that’s what “style” ultimately is in photography. It isn’t how your photos look, or the projects you work on. Your “style” in photography is just an extension of your voice as a human being. If you find yourself shy, awkward, and don’t like to interact with strangers– utilize that. Don’t talk with strangers, shoot candids, and feel no guilt about it.
If you hate human beings, and prefer landscapes — shoot urban landscapes, flowers, sunsets, whatever makes you happy. Who gives a fuck if the Internet or the art world doesn’t “respect” you as a serious photographer? Why do you care if one day everyone is bowing before your very feet, but you yourself aren’t happy with yourself and your photography?
I’ve had so many instances in which I’ve shot photos that are really popular on the Internet, but I don’t personally like. On the other hand, I’ve shot so many photos that nobody likes, but I myself love.
Who should you listen to at the end of the day? That’s right, your own heart.
Follow your own heart, follow your own voice, find out what style or approach in photography makes your “heart sing”. Fuck the opinions of others, and don’t give a shit if you get a lot of likes on social media or not.
As an experiment, try to disconnect, and to keep your work offline. Shoot first to please yourself, then when you feel ready, share it with others. Then if others like it, that’s fine. If they hate it, that’s fine too.
Now go forth my friend, shoot like a child, discovering photography for the first time. Have fun, smile, and live your photographic life to the fullest.
Written at my beautiful home in Berkeley, overlooking my balcony, enjoying a nice cool breeze, the chatter of Cindy and her parents voices, the sound of birds, the nice greenery of the trees, all while typing on the iPad (with ia writer application). Had a nice espresso mixed with frothed coconut milk (I know it hurts my stomach, but at least I tried it once).
Other random thoughts
I know you probably don’t care about these random thoughts friend, but just wanted to update you on some of my thoughts.
First of all, I’m trying to continue this “subtract one thing at day” from my life. I’ve been donating tons of clothes, tons of books, and essentially I want to pare myself down to what I truly need in life, not what I want.
Some other things I plan on subtracting:
- Kindle (I read lots of books on it, but prefer the paper books in my house).
- Smartphone (I’m honestly a slave to it. I am trying to figure out how I can manage to do everything on my iPad instead).
- Flash (I’m trying to not shoot with a flash with my Leica for a while, as it adds unnecessary weight and bulk to my camera, and I’m also dependent on batteries).
- Not pushing film (I usually push my film to 1600, but it makes the processing more expensive. I might try to just shoot it at 400, and learn to be more creative by shooting with slower shutter speeds indoors or in the shade. I realized that shooting with a low ISO can be a good “creative constraint”.
- Going keyboard less (I usually type these letters on my iPad and keyboard. But the keyboard is pretty big and bulky, so I’m experimenting typing without the keyboard, like I’m doing now. I prefer the tactile feedback of a keyboard, but at the end of the day, a keyboard is superfluous and just a luxury.
- Variety in diet (yeah I know variety in diet is the secret to longevity and health. But I’m trying to remove more irritants from my diet, and going to continue to strip down to the essentials, and see how things turn out).
- Not writing down notes (I always write down notes in my books, and on notebooks when reading books. The problem? It slows me down, I am forced to sit down, which hurts my back. I’m going to try to experiment to read paper books without writing notes, and see if I’m going to be able to retain the information better in my memory).
- Not forcing anything (trying to embrace a more “Wu Wei”, go with the flow style of living. Lot less stress, which is more happiness).
Anyways friend, thanks for listening to my random thoughts. My smartphone is off for today, I plan to enjoy a nice trip to the Golden Gate Bridge with Cindy, her mom, and her dad, and to live like today was my last! Farewell friend, and have a beautiful day :)
Btw, if you have nothing to do today, don’t forget to read a free copy of the book: “The Street Portrait Manual“.