I want to share some ideas with you– specifically about “personal” street photography. I’m going to ramble a bit before that, so please be patient with me.
I just had an amazing weekend, taught a street photography workshop in Downtown LA, and hitched a ride with my friend Jordan to Cindy’s family house in Garden Grove (Orange County, California).
I woke up, rolled around a bit, and had about 30 minutes (while half-asleep) to just think about my life and some random ideas running around my head.
The first was a realization: all the photos I’ve ever taken (that are personally meaningful to me) are shot on film. Not to say that film is better than digital (or vice-versa)— but that all the photos that meant something to me were shot in film.
I’m not sure why this is. For example, I try to keep my portfolio on my website limited to 3 projects. Why? I personally hate it when I go to another photographer’s site and there are too many projects. There are so many projects, I have no idea where to start— and I just end up leaving (without looking at anything). I think 3 is a nice number— and also a sacred number (think of the 3 holy men, the trifecta, illuminati) and also in pop culture (3 blind mice, 3 musketeers, 3 stooges).
Anyways, the three projects I currently have on my portfolio include my “Suits” project (shot on Kodak Portra 400) and was a personal street photography project in which I photographed men in suits (a self-portrait series of how I felt when I was a ‘Suit’— sad and miserable). The next is my “Grandfather” series (shot on a Ricoh GR1v with Neopan 400 film pushed to 1600) of my grandfather’s funeral. I jumped on a plane with 10 rolls of film, and just shot with my heart and soul.
Lastly, my “Cindy” project of Cindy — the love of my life. I shot it all on a film Leica and Kodak Tri-X film pushed to 1600 (with a yellow filter, for those of you technical nerds out there). I shot a lot of “in-between” moments; us having breakfast, us filling up gas at a Chevron (before eating at In-and-out), us having lunch/dinner, us at a local hipster cafe (drinking $3 espressos). I didn’t take the photography seriously at all— I just took personally meaningful snapshots of whatever I was feeling that day.
Which made me think— nobody gives a shit about the photos you take. When someone likes you or follows you on social media— are they really doing that because they love your work— or because they secretly hope that you will follow them back? And when you die; you can’t take the photos with you— so why dedicate your life shooting photos that will please others, rather than please yourself?
Anders Petersen (a photographer I greatly admire) calls his style of photography “personal documentary.”) The concept is that he photographs his loved ones, friends, family, strangers he meets in a personal way. Rather than just documenting poor people living in the streets or documenting AIDS in Africa. He makes his own personal life the center stage of his photography. Thus, personal documentary.
Which made me think— us as street photographers should also embrace “personal” photography. Specifically— personal street photography.
What is “personal street photography”? I have never heard the phrase before— so I will make a (personal) definition:
‘Personal street photography’ is documenting strangers in public places in a personally meaningful way.
I know this is a very general and broad definition, and I made it intentionally broad (because once again, I don’t want to shove my own personal definition down your throat).
So for example, I am a naturally social and I love my fellow human beings. I therefore love to talk to my subjects, interact with them, get them to pose— I am kind of like a director on the streets (similar to William Klein). I dislike taking hidden ‘stealthy’ street photos while hiding in a bush, or pretending to shoot something else (I don’t like to shoot how Henri Cartier-Bresson shoots). Therefore for me— ‘personal street photography’ is following who I am as a human being— interacting with my subjects.
Now let’s say you are more introverted (or you don’t like to make small-chat with strangers). Then shooting a way that is personally honest and meaningful to you. So this might mean not interrupting your subjects, and keeping a distance. There is nothing wrong with this. It is just different. Follow your heart, and don’t shoot how others shoot— only shoot in a way which feels honest to you.
This means if you are afraid of strangers (or anti-social); don’t be like Bruce Gilden and get close with a 28mm and use a flash. Gilden (I’ve met him) is an incredibly social person, who loves human beings, but is a rough gangster-type (his dad was a gangster-type apparently). Gilden is true to who he is as a person (rough around the edges) and doesn’t give a fuck what others think of his personality or how he shoots photography. Apparently people who have attended his workshops have cried (and even quit) because they couldn’t handle his tough love. But Gilden stays true and honest to he is— he doesn’t pander to the masses nor shoot (or teach) in a way that feels disingenuous to him.
So friend, think what feels honest and personally meaningful to you in your street photography. Make up your own definition of street photography, and remember to have fun. Don’t care how many followers you have on social media, and don’t listen to the advice of anyone else (unless it resonates with you). Even with this blog— take everything you read with a healthy dose of skepticism. If you read something that I write and you call “bullshit”— I respect that. I speak a lot of bullshit at times, and to be honest, 90% of what I write on this blog is for myself (I have personal demons I am trying to get rid of) and writing is a process of self-therapy for me (as well as my photography).
If you have a great idea for a photography project, please don’t ask others for their opinion. Just go out and shoot it. Figure out the details later. If you have a great idea, if you tell it to others, you are actually less likely to execute the idea.
Even when I started this blog, I had no idea what I was doing. I started the blog because I had a passion for street photography and I wanted to share that with anyone else who was curious. Even now— I have no idea what I am doing. I just write because I enjoy it, and I have a few tips/ideas which I think will be useful to others (as they were useful to me).
So enjoy your life. Have a nice coffee (preferably a single-origin espresso) at a local cafe, enjoy your photography books, read some literature (poetry and philosophy rock as well), chat with a friend, share photos that are personally meaningful to you, and only listen to feedback from people who matter to you. Listen to what others say— but remember, you don’t need to blindly follow the advice others give you. And at the end of the day, don’t listen to people’s words, follow their actions. For example, if a photographer tells you to not worry about gear (and they own a shitload of cameras and lenses and constantly buy the newest gadgets that come out), don’t listen to them (myself included).
To end this letter to you, I want to share some random stuff— I am trying to embrace more of an “analogue” lifestyle— to not read on a Kindle, to not read e-books, and to not constantly be plugged into my phone (I am a fucking slave to my phone).
I do this party because I want to be a pacific-northwest Portland hipster, and mostly because I hate distractions. I am like a pigeon— if I see something shiny, I totally lose my line of thinking. And I hate nothing more than being distracted.
I was reading a lot on my Kindle on my smartphone, but I would constantly be distracted (even when in Airplane mode). I would check the time, then turn off airplane mode and Google/Wikipedia things I was reading, then inevitably be distracted by texting/Instagram.
So the biggest reason I am trying to read more physical books is because it is just a less distracting reading process. And I like writing notes in a physical notebook— nothing more soothing than it.
I am currently re-reading “The Bed of Procrustes” by Nassim Taleb, and writing notes in a notebook (“Public Supply” notebooks which donate 25% of their proceeds to public schools). I also plan on re-reading “Thinking Fast, and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman which is the most useful book I have ever read on human psychology. I also am enjoying my time with Cindy’s younger sister Jennifer— we are at a place called “Ink and Bean” in Anaheim; enjoying a nice espresso (Stumptown ‘Hair Bender’) and talking about whether I should join Snapchat or not (probably won’t, but would like to experiment with— but then again, it will just be another distraction).
The beautiful sun is shining on me, I feel a cool breeze, I’m listening to Kanye West, and I have a nice caffeine buzz. I am going to stay with Cindy’s family from Monday-Thursday (then doing another intermediate/advanced street photography workshop in LA). I hope this week can be a good opportunity to spend some quality “family time” (Cindy is so jealous that she has to stay in Berkeley and study for her oral examinations in Vietnamese-French/Colonial history).
So friend, enjoy your life. Enjoy your time with your friends, family, and loved ones. Shoot because you enjoy it, don’t force yourself to shoot if you don’t feel like it. Fuck it, life is too short; YOLO. Pursue your photography projects as if today were the last day of your life (or if you only had 1 year left). I had a few friends-of-friends who have died recently (one went jogging in the morning and got hit by a car, aged only 25). So you never know when you’re going to go.
Monday, 1:20pm, Nov 16, 2015 @ Ink and Bean Coffee in Anaheim, California.