Wu-Wei in Street Photography

Seattle, 2015
Seattle, 2015

Dear friend,

I wanted to write you a letter about “Wu-Wei”, a Taoist philosophy and concept that I learned from the “Tao Te Ching” (recommend the version by Stephen Mitchell).

So let me pose you a question: have you ever been out shooting on the streets for an entire day, and you tried really hard to make good photos, and you ended up not making any good photos after 8 hours of hard work and stress?

However have you ever tried the opposite strategy: just always carry your camera with you where you go, and you just go out for a nice cup of coffee, walk around the block, and not stress out, and then suddenly you get a good photograph without even trying? If so my friend, that is called “Wu-Wei”, you made a good photograph without even trying.

Don’t force it

If I can apply a Taoist philosophy to photography it would be this: the harder you try to make a good photo, the less likely you are to make a good photo. The less you try to make a good photo, the more likely you are to make a good photo.

So in street photography, realize that the chance of you making a good photograph is so low. Tiny. Alex Webb said street photography is 99.9% failure. I also think that at the end of the day, street photography is a numbers game. The more times you click, the more likely you are to get a good shot.

Have you also noticed that you always see the good photos when you don’t have your camera with you? Haha yeah I know, it’s like God is playing a fun trick on us; because we were lazy and didn’t bring our camera with us, God thinks to himself: “I’m going to have a good laugh by presenting Eric with a good photographic opportunity to punish him for not bringing his camera with him today.”

Of course, the universe doesn’t work this way. And I don’t see “God” as some dude with a white beard floating in a cloud playing these sinister tricks on us. But case in point: when you’re not trying to find good photos, they will naturally present themselves to you. So always be ready (always have your camera with you).

I used to think that you needed to take photos everyday. I don’t believe in that anymore. I don’t think you need to take photos everyday, but I do think that it helps to always have your camera with you.

There are certain days that you don’t feel like taking photos. Trust your inner-wisdom. Don’t force yourself to take photos if you don’t feel like it. That is embracing “Wu-Wei” (also can be thought of “going with the flow”). Don’t force square pegs into circular holes, and circular pegs into square pegs.

The benefit of having your camera with you at all times is that if a good opportunity presents itself to you, you will have a camera to capture that moment or scene.

And at the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be your DSLR or “fancy camera”. To me, it is better to capture a moment or emotion with your smartphone than not capture it at all.

The thing I also find is that when I have my camera in my hand, around my neck, or in my pocket, I tend to see more interesting things. It is almost like the physical weight of a camera stimulates my eyes to see the world.

Turn off distractions

Another tip that personally helps me: I turn off all distractions when I’m either out going on a walk to the coffee shop or taking photos. That means turning off my smartphone (yeah literally turning it all the way off) and not listening to music or podcasts (I used to always listen to some sort of audio stimulation when walking).

The beauty of this is that once I turn off the distractions, I can finally think. I have enough white space in my mind to let my creativity wander. Without any audio distractions, I can hear nature. I can hear birds chirping, the sound of the wind rustling the branches of trees, I can her the sound of kids playing, cars honking, and random conversations from strangers. I feel more connected with society and my environment.

Similarly, I’m a sucker for my smartphone. If I have my phone on vibration mode, I cannot help but check it. And once I check if, I go into a rabbit hole, I then check my email, my what’s app messages, go quickly on google chrome to check something else, and then before I know it I’m totally “out of the zone”.

Nowadays when I’m out walking and taking photos, I consider it my “walking meditation”. I’m easily distracted and bombarded by external stimuli. I’ve heard all the benefits of sitting meditation, but never had the patience for it. But for me, walking meditation is the way to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, the deep sense of gratefulness and gratitude I have for my life, and the realization that all the beauty which exists in my backyard. I don’t need to be in Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Tokyo, Istanbul, or anywhere else to appreciate the beauty of the world. Seeing kids play in the park, old people holding hands, and birds flying in the air is all I need to appreciate the world and my life.

Now my only goal in life is to seek inner-serenity, and try to share a little bit of that love and joy with others. I’m trying to detach myself from my ego, from trying to make good photos, and trying to get more likes and favorites on social media. Trust me friend, it is hard. I’m a whore to social media, external admiration, attention, and any other forms of external validation. As an extrovert, I’m scared to be by myself, and scared to be alone with my thoughts, emotions, and visions of the world (often negative).

I also think what I love most about street photography is that it is less about photography, more about learning how to be a good human being. Street photography has taught me to be more empathetic, more curious about strangers, and more confident. I used to be scared to talk to strangers, but now I can talk to an uber driver about his life story for 30 minutes without any awkwardness. Street photography has also helped me better appreciate the beauty in everyday life, especially the “boring” and mundane things.

So friend, know that heaven is in your own backyard. Don’t force it in street photography. If you can make 1 good photo a month or 1 great shot a year, you’re doing really well. And what is “good” and “great” shouldn’t be based on what others think of your work, but what you think of your own work. Who cares if others think your work is any good, if you don’t think your own work is good?

Go with the flow. Walk slowly, smile at strangers, compliment an old person, give an extra dollar when tipping your barista, and enjoy the process in street photography. Detach yourself from trying to make good photos, and focus on making good connections with your fellow human beings.

It’s a beautiful (yet dreary) day in Seattle, but really looking forward to today. Had a wonderful espresso by my friend Walter, got some good reading done (Tao Te Ching), my back isn’t hurting (I’m using Walter’s standing desk while typing on the screen of the iPad), and life is good. I’ve finally been able to cut out some of my materialism (at the moment I have no desire for the new iPad pro, after all, Steve Jobs made the iPad to intentionally have people not use a keyboard and stylus). Later today I’m going to meet up with some of the gulf photo plus guys, have a nice dinner, conversation, and hope to give lots of hugs before I fly back to Berkeley.

Another thing that’s on my mind: I’m so grateful to do what I love in life, and not be homeless. I’m grateful for my health, that my loved ones are alive and well (my friends former boss just passed away after biking for a charity bike ride by losing control and getting hit by a car), so remember friend, how short and uncertain life is. Whenever you say “goodbye” to a loved one, imagine it is the last time you will ever see them again. They might die in a car accident, by tripping and cracking open their skull, getting hit by a drunk driver, falling asleep at the wheel while driving, who knows. “Memento mori”– the Latin phrase for “always think of death”, and “remember that (one day) you must die”.

Love always,

11:17am, 9/20/2015, Sunday, in Seattle. Gonna grab a burger for lunch, hopefully have another good Stumptown espresso, and who knows, maybe I’ll see a good photo opportunity?

By the way, if you haven’t downloaded it yet, I have some new sample chapters from my “learn from the masters” ebook. You can download it for free on Dropbox. You can also download the older sample chapters here.

Also still some free spots in my upcoming street photography workshops in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. If you want to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, join a passionate community of fellow street photographers, and invest in an experience you will never forget, don’t miss out :)