Why We Should Embrace Beginner’s Mind in Photography

Berkeley, 2015
Berkeley, 2015

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ” ― Shunryu Suzuki

Hey Josh,

How’s everything going on your end? I know you’re having a great time, in Korea. Congratulations on your new job, and I know although you might miss Seoul, you’ll have a lot of wonderful things to look forward to in the countryside. The nice air, the calm and peace, and the chance to meditate and think about your life and photography.

Congratulations also on the new Leica m240. I know we both always talk about how much we hate “gas”, but realize that purchase was less inspired by gas, but more by practicality (impossible to develop film in the countryside). I’m also glad that you’ve edited down your cameras to just that, and sold off all your other stuff. I think this will be a lot less stress for you in your photographic life.

I just wanted to share with you some thoughts I’ve been having lately. The first concept is “beginner’s mind”. You know how I’m quite interested in Zen philosophy; the concept is that when you’re a baby, the whole world is new to us. We have no limitations and restrictions. Everything is open and free, just like the first time we picked up a camera.

Do you remember the first time we picked up a camera and started to photograph? I’m not 100% sure how you started photography, but I’ll tell you the joy that I had when I first started shooting.

I was 18 years old, and I always had an urge to be creative and artistic. Except I sucked at drawing. Not only that, but I had a terrible memory. I always admired those who were photographers, as they had a tool that helped them create art, as well as record memories. But I never had the money or the opportunity to afford a camera.

When I graduated high school, I was surprised by my mom who bought me a little canon point and shoot. I think it had 3 megapixels!!! And an LCD screen.

Wow this thing opened up the whole world to me. It was my best friend, I carried it everywhere. I had it in my pocket, took photos of my friends, my food, my shoes (before the days of Instagram) and I was always having so much fun and excited. I remember when I discovered the concept of “rule of thirds” and how I could add a grid at the back of my LCD screen. I was constantly experimenting, trying out new approaches, and having so much fucking fun.

Then comes along the internet, where I saw all these epic “bokeh” shots. I no longer was satisfied with my little point and shoot. I wanted a DSLR. Then when I finally got one, it wasn’t enough. I started to upgrade more and more, and you know how the rest of the story goes. I finally arrive at having a Leica, and when I thought all my life’s problems were going to be solved, they weren’t. If anything, having the camera added more problems and stress to my life.

I then remember reminiscing when I was a beginner in photography, and I had this “child’s mind”, or “beginner’s mind”. I remember before I knew of these bullshit terms like composition, full-frame, sharpness, megapixels, resolution, exposure, etc. Honestly, I think all of these terms and theories have made me more dissatisfied and frustrated in my photography.

And you know my story with social media. My life’s goal was to get 100+ favorites on Flickr. I swore once I got all those favorites, I would retire from photography and just drop the mic. But as you know, that wasn’t enough. 100 favorites turned into 200. 200 turned into 300. 300 turned into 400, 500, and now even a thousand.

I got a thousand+ favorites on my most recent “laughing lady” photo that I shot in NYC. It’s probably my favorite shot, but the funny thing is that no matter how many favorites I have on it, it hasn’t brought me any huge sense of gratification or happiness. Rather, it is just another moving target. What is the next goal, 2000, or even 10,000 favorites? When will this madness end?

I recently shared on social media the quote: “I’d rather have one good friend like my photo, than get a 1,000 likes on social media”. For some strange reason this upset a lot of people. But that wasn’t my intention at all; I wanted to let people know that having one good friend like your photos is enough. You don’t need social media fame, hype, tons of hashtags (haha I know I kind of teased you for that), and any sort of external gratification. For me, just knowing that you, a few good friends (like that asshole Neil), Charlie, Cindy like my shots, that is enough. And at the end of the day, I need to remind myself: the most important person to please in photography is myself.

But anyways, nowadays I try purposefully not to look at the number of favorites or comments that I get. If you like the shot, Cindy likes the shot, and I like the shot, that’s it. That’s all the “external validation” I need. Kind of like how Koudelka does it.

But anyways, shooting with the Ricoh GR has been fucking liberating. You know how both of us both love film, but the irony is that we both started with digital. So in a sense, we are both going back to our roots, back to when we were beginners, and I think are having a fucking blast. I won’t lie, I’m chimping like crazy, but I’m having fun. I don’t worry about composition so much, I just try to eliminate distractions from the background. I’m also not in a rush to upload my photos online, as I don’t have a laptop that I can connect my sd card to (the photos I shared with you recently were processed on Cindy’s 13 inch MacBook Air).

Another thing: just having an iPad is pure bliss. I’m actually typing you this letter on the iPad Air, just on the touchscreen (without a keyboard). I read this quote from Seneca who said something along the lines of: “Whenever you go on a trip, only bring with you what you would need if you got shipwrecked.” You know I’m heading to Seattle today, and I’ll share with you what is in my bag:

  • iPad Air
  • Ricoh GR
  • iPod nano and headphones
  • Three books: Letters From a Stoic (Seneca), Meditations (Marcus Aurelius), and Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell translation). I started to realize, I don’t even need a kindle, these three books will suffice.
  • 1 extra pair of boxers (exofficio), 1 extra uniqlo airism shirt, 1 extra pair of quick dry socks (none of my clothes have cotton), a denim shirt and north face jacket (Seattle gets a bit chilly at night), some toothpaste and toothbrush.
  • Muji notebook (love how minimalist and clean it is) and pen
  • Red Casio g shock (I can’t believe I’ve had this watch for over 5 years already)

That’s pretty much it. Do I need anything else in life? I don’t think so.

That’s another thing that I’ve learned from traveling on the road the last 3 months, just how little physical possessions we need.

So even for you, don’t forget that you have all the physical possessions in life you need to be happy. You got your digital Leica, laptop, clothes, what else do you need? We’re “digital nomads”, and all we need is food, coffee, and wifi (have you been cutting back on your coffee still btw? I’ve actually been drinking more coffee, taking more naps, and I’ve felt fine haha. In fact, I’m having an espresso, my fourth of the day, chilling at a cafe at UC Berkeley while I wait for Cindy to finish class, were gonna have lunch, and then I’m going to head to the Oakland airport and fly out to Seattle).

And fuck money. Why do we need more money for? As long as we can pay the rent, travel expenses (for you to see Areum in Seoul), coffee money (ok this can get expensive in Korea), and occasional flights to travel (excited to see you in the states, Vietnam or Korea), we have all we need. Oh yeah and money for beer and chicken (good memories with Cindy and Areum). Haha random; Cindy thinks it’s cute that we Kakao each other all the time, same with Areum, they’re just jealous of our bromance and epic use of emoticons.

I also know you’ve been in a slump with your writing and blogging. My suggestion: embrace “beginner’s mind”. Think about how free and unburdened you were when you started blogging. Why did you even start a blog, I’m not even sure? I think you told me it was because you just wanted to share your life experiences in Seoul? So perhaps just do that again. Just share how it’s like living in your new city, and how you like shooting with that new digital Leica. I remember when I started to read your blog, I enjoyed how open, bare, and naked you were in your writing. You really bled onto the page, and never censored yourself. I loved your gear reviews too haha, in the sense that they were less about the gear, and more about how your human/machine symbiosis experiences were like. I won’t lie, it sometimes made me gassy for new gear, but it was honest, like you are.

Same with your photography; I think the more we shoot for ourselves and for one another, and the less we care about what random people say on Instagram, the happier we are, the more creative we are, and the more liberated we are.

So yeah man, don’t take life and photography too seriously. One of the best lessons you taught me in life is to first enjoy life, and then just happen to take photos along the way. What better way to make better photographs than just live a better life and do happen to bring your camera along?

Shit man, sometimes I’m envious of you having that digital Leica, I sometimes daydream about having one. But frankly speaking, I think I prefer the Ricoh at the end of the day because it’s just so damn convenient to carry around. And you know how I’m not allowed to buy anything before I leave Vietnam haha. But who knows, maybe I’ll fuck it and just buy a digital Leica before I leave to Vietnam. Probably not though, I’m just remembering how hot and humid it is there; the Leica will probably get that “sensor rot” issue haha.

But yeah keep rocking that Leica, make images that make you happy, and keep taking those beautiful shots of Areum and your life experiences. I’m blessed to have a friend like you, and I love living through your life vicariously.

Funny enough, even though I live a pretty exciting life, I sometimes envy you and your lovely life in Korea. I miss it there, the great food, lifestyle, and how “urban” it is (at least in Seoul). But then again, I don’t miss the $8 dollar coffees, the plastic surgery, or the materlism there.

Anyways, I really enjoy writing you letters. Maybe an idea; you can start writing me back letters on your blog (we can be like pen pals!). It’s honestly a much easier format for writing than just sitting on your ass and writing “articles”.

How did I get this inspiration of letter writing? From Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic”, in which he was essentially writing philosophical letters to his best friend, Lucilius. Who knew that 2,000 years later a random Asian kid named Eric Kim would be reading them, and gaining inspiration from them.

Anyways, I’m starting to get pretty caffeinated, and got some inspiration for writing my new ebook: “Learn from the masters of street photography”. Thank you for always being such a wonderful and loving friend, supportive role model, and inspirational photographer. There is nobody I respect more than you (besides Cindy and my mom, of course).

Lots of love,

Berkeley, 9/15/2015, 10:20am at the UC Berkeley “Free speech movement” cafe.

Oh btw, last quote I wanted to share:

“The most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech.” – Diogenes

So fuck censoring ourselves brother; let us speak our mind, openly, freely, and with all of our heart.

Scroll to Top