About a month ago I gave a talk on street photography at EyeEm headquarters in Berlin. During the question and answer session, there was a member in the crowd who asked me the question: “What is your dream?”
I stopped, paused, and contemplated that question for a second. I had never been given that question. It was so simple and straightforward, yet elegant and to the point.
I responded to her (her name is Anne and runs an amazing foundation for children and dreams) and said something along the lines of:
“My dream is to make the most accessible, open-source, high quality online school for photography.”
Growing up, I was quite poor. My mom worked three part time jobs cleaning houses, working as a cashier, and as a waitress. Didn’t help that my dad gambled away the rent money several times. I grew up as a kid, worried whether we would be able to pay the rent the next month.
So I know how much it sucks not having money. Not having money that can give us access to information, knowledge, eduction, and ultimately wisdom. I look at photography schools and programs out there— how the hell can a student afford $200,000 of debt over four years just for a degree in photography? (This pertains to America, where yes, we have to actually “pay” for our education, sucks, huh?)
What is your dream?
So friend, let me steer that question to you. What is your dream? What do you feel is the purpose of your life? It doesn’t have to be photographic related.
What do you want etched on your gravestone? What kind of meaningful change do you want to make in the world? What is your mission in life; what is the reason you were put here on earth for?
Don’t stress yourself out about this, not everyone yet knows their purpose in life. However at the same time, what is your dream?
Think about when you were a child
One of the most watched lectures on TED is on “do schools kill creativity?”. I remember when I was a kid, I would build all these fun and innovative things, but once I got into school, I was forced to follow orders, to sit down, to take standardized tests. All the creativity and my dreams were sucked away from my bones.
Growing up I was quite idealistic. I wanted to change the world. Even on my university application essay, I used the Gandhi quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
But as I got older, I got jaded. Screw changing the world, it was all about getting paid. Money talks, everything else is cheap. Get that BMW, get that raise at work, put in those extra hours in the office at the weekend. Send emails late at night, and early in the morning to show you’re a good worker bee. Get that shiny new Rolex, that new digital camera you saw that just got announced. Save up that paper and go on fancy holidays to the Bahamas where you can Instagram yourself sipping a mojito at the beach.
The best thing that happened to me? Getting laid off my job, and getting cut away from that “rat race”.
I started to become idealistic again. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to live out my dream of helping others.
I proposed this idea of “open source photography”, in which I would never charge money for online educational materials. People thought I was crazy and going to commit economic suicide. I was scared, don’t get me wrong. I was afraid nobody would ever attend one of my workshops again (because all the information was available online for free), that I would be homeless, that my girlfriend would leave me, that everyone would ridicule me, and I’d be dead.
Crazy, I know, but I’m not a rational human being. To live up and follow my dream was really scary, and it still scares me today. I worry about feeding my future kids, saving up to buy a house to support Cindy, and whether this living of traveling and teaching workshops will sustain me.
But at the same time, I need to remind myself that my life isn’t about myself. My life is about serving others. I’ve been blessed enough to be given this beautiful gift of life. My entire life has to be dedicated to serving others, instead of my selfish own needs. I just need very little; eggs, coffee, and wifi. Everything else is optional.
Don’t let reality get in your way
“Reality is negotiable.”
Regardless of your situation, know that you can live out your dreams. Don’t be a slave to circumstances or excuses.
Let’s say your dream is to travel the world. Then start saving up money, perhaps you can embark on your dream after two years of diligently putting away 20% of your income. Cancel your smartphone bill (that’s $100 a month savings, over 24 months that is $2,400). Move into a smaller apartment, or get a roommate (or rent out your room on airbnb and live in the living room). But what if you have kids? Take them with you, just try to save up more money for them. What if you have a career? Well, would you rather be a top executive ceo one day or live put your dreams? Honestly it’s your personal decision, nobody is telling you what to do. But I can guarantee you that you will have fewer regrets living out your dreams than just taking the safe route in life.
Let’s say your dream is to have an exhibition. Realize it doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be at a local coffee shop, a small local gallery, or even at your home. Buy some cheap frames at IKEA, print your photos at mpix.com, get some cheap $3 wine, some cheese, and invite your close friends and family.
If your dream is to have a fancy exhibition, start going to gallery openings, making connections, kissing ass (I’m sorry but this is how the “art world” works), and build a strong body of work that people would be interested in. But I don’t advise this path, because your happiness is held hostage by someone else’s opinion.
Let’s say your dream is to own a Leica (was once my dream). But this is a stupid dream, why make your entire dream in your life to own a little black metal box? I lusted after a digital Leica m9 for so long, and once I got it, it only brought me momentary happiness for a month. After a month, it was just like any other camera. Now I don’t even touch my Leica, I prefer shooting with a digital Ricoh gr (which is much cheaper at only around $500). But if you really want a Leica, invest in a used film Leica (Leica m2, m3, m4, m5) which are affordable, get a voigtlander 35mm f2.5 lens and call it a day (entire kit should cost you less than $1000). Not cheap, but still cheaper than most digital cameras, and affordable by most of us privileged “developed countries”.
Let’s say your dream is to open up a photography school to help local kids who are in need. You don’t need a huge building. Perhaps start off small, just donate your Fridays or Saturdays to teaching an after school program once a week. Or record some YouTube lectures and put them online for free. Start small, you don’t need to go big.
By starting off your dreams small, one step at a time, you will have energy, vigor, and excitement.
Living your dreams is something that takes courage, trust me. There will be people (sometimes those close to you) who will discourage you. Sometimes this comes from a sense of jealousy (they wish they could pursue their life dreams), sometimes they don’t think it is “realistic” and they’re just looking out for what they think is your best interest, and sometimes they just don’t really care.
But ignore what everyone says. Live your dream. If you fail, who cares? If a child falls over, you always encourage the child to get back up, even if their knees are scraped. You don’t let the child stay on the ground, keep crying, and tell the child to stay on the ground for the rest of their life, and never get up again.
“Life is more like wrestling than dancing.”
If you’re a wrestler and you fall down, your primary goal is to stand up again. Same thing if you’re a boxer. If you play football (either American or European), and you lose a game, you don’t give up playing football– you resolve to work harder to win the next game.
Never let any obstacles get in the way of your dreams. In fact, let the obstacles make your pursuit of your dream more meaningful. After all, climbing a mountain wouldn’t be meaningful if it were too easy. The journey is the reward.
Also remember that money, time, and lack of resources should never be an excuse. Believe in “creative constraints”– how does having a lack of resources help you be more creative and innovative? Sometimes not having enough time, money, and resources can be a benefit in helping you achieve your dreams.
If you have no money to travel, perhaps you can learn to travel in your own backyard. If you have no time to shoot, perhaps you can cut out all the extraneous social obligations in your life and make time to shoot on the weekends, before work, after work, or even during your lunch break. Let’s say you’re handicapped and can’t walk, have a friend drive you around town and you can shoot from the window (Garry Winogrand did this in Los Angeles).
Do you consider yourself too old? My friend Jack Simon didn’t pick up photography until age 65, and at age 71 he’s one of the most talented street photographers alive.
Now friend, I don’t say any of this to sound condescending, mean, or inconsiderate. I just believe in you, and I want to encourage you. I want to ignite your inner flame. I want you to achieve the best of your abilities, your talents, and your limits. You’re a unique human being, with unique experiences in life, and the only limit you have is in your own mind.
So go forth, live your dreams. I believe in you.
3:24pm, on Southwest flight from Oakland to Seattle, at 20,000 feet in the air, ironically written on my iPad Air haha. Had a nice cold brew coffee with vanilla (highly recommended combination) at the airport Peet’s coffee, and some good Mexican food (carnitas and guacamole, yum).
So friend, what is your dream, either photographic, or something else? Leave a comment below and share it with the community!
So friend, I’m heading on a flight to Seattle at the moment, excited to do a 3 day “conquer your fear street photography workshop” in association with gulf photo plus. There’s a special “pop up” event with amazing guest speakers like David Hobby, Zack Arias, Joe McNally, Greg Hiesler, and several others. Excited to teach, meet some passionate photographers, hang out, chill, maybe even see if I can interview some of the guys.
Btw if you’ve never been to Seattle, don’t hesitate and go there asap. Seriously one of the most underrated places in America, great coffee, food, and culture. And the weather really isn’t that bad, honestly. And don’t be a tourist and bring an umbrella; a nice waterproof jacket will do.
Thank you for always the love and support, I couldn’t do any of this without you (and coffee).