How To Find Your Unique Voice in Photography

Portugal, 2015.
Portugal, 2015.

This weekend I’m teaching a “how to find your unique voice” street photography workshop in Downtown LA. One of the things I love most about teaching a workshop is that it gives me the opportunity to come up with new posts to share with you.

Has everything been done before?

My friend Karen (who is also attending the workshop) interviewed me briefly before the workshop for her photography class, and asked me, “Do you think everything in photography has already been done before? Is it possible to be unique in photography?”

In brief, yes everything has been done before. However, nobody has done it the way you have done it before. Furthermore, there is still so much unpaved ground in photography (and street photography). Photography is one of the newest art forms (only around for a few hundred years)— while music and painting have been around for thousands of years. With new technology and the ingenuity of the masses (and the democratization of photography with smartphone cameras)— you have no limits.

I think a better question to ask is, “Is it possible to be a unique human being? After all, everything has been done before— and all of our lives are the same.”

The sad reality is that (unfortunately)— our everyday lives are much more similar than dissimilar. We wake up in the morning (generally against our own will), take a shower, have our coffee (preferably an espresso), drive to work (stuck in traffic, hopefully listening to podcasts or some nice music), say hello to our co-workers, work the morning grind (checking emails and other pseudo-forms of “work”), have lunch with our colleagues (please don’t eat by yourself at your desk and have a “working lunch”), have (another) espresso, power through work (1-3pm) and attend meetings and work on powerpoint presentations, have that 3:00pm lull (another coffee, or a tea if you are more enlightened), then grind until 6pm, when you have to get back into your car, deal with more traffic, go home, cook a little bit (or order takeout), watch some Netflix & chill, and sleep. Then (mostly unfortunately) we repeat the grind the next day.

On the weekends we see friends, do some of our hobbies, go to church, or attend other social gatherings.

How are our lives any different or unique from those of others?

Now I know what I shared is a pretty nihilist and depressing view of society. But have no despair— even though I am a pessimist, I still have a lot of hope and optimism.

The secret? Fuck what everyone else has done in their lives and photography— and just “do you.”

Beginner’s mind

Do you remember when you were a child and picked up a hobby (like painting and drawing) and you had no internal censor or critic? You just drew random shit on the paper because you enjoyed it. Nobody told you about “theory” or the master renaissance painters. Nobody criticized you for not painting inside the lines. You didn’t judge your work according to the work of others— you just did it for fun.

Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? You might have had a point-and-shoot camera, a disposable camera, or an iPhone. You just pointed and clicked because it brought you joy. Nobody taught you about composition, light, or how to get more Instagram followers. You just took photos to record your personal memories.

Then you discovered filters, Instagram, social media— and started to crave more “recognition” for your work. You bought a fancy camera (DSLR), all the big lenses (bigger lenses=more pro), and you wanted to have private exhibitions and shows of your work. You started to bookmark all the gear review and lens site. You started to lust after all the full-frame cameras. Then once you got a full-frame, then you wanted a digital Leica (only “serious” street photographers shoot with Leicas). Then once you realized that material things and cameras don’t bring you true happiness— you thought traveling was the cure.

You start traveling the world, but you realize all of your photos are just cliché Steve McCurry wanna-be images. You got “suckered by the exotic.” Even while you’re on your travels— you are dissatisfied. You become fed up with the locals, and think that it was better “back home.”

After a long time soul-searching, you go back home. You say “fuck it” and throw everything away— and start from scratch. You learn to re-enjoy your time with your loved ones and friends. You discover the joy of keeping your work offline. You start printing your work. You start sharing your photos only with a few friends via instant-messenger. You cultivate a small and local photography community. You no longer give a fuck what others think about your work— but ask yourself, “Do I like the work that I am making?”

Suddenly your ambition starts to wane. All the fancy new digital cameras no longer interest you. You feel a sense of calm and zen (for the first time in your life). You no longer ask people what they think about your work— because you no longer need external validation. You share your work because it brings you joy, and you want to share that joy with a few close people.

You realize you don’t need a fancy publisher— and you start to print off small copies of your work on Blurb. You give them to friends and family, and realize this brings more joy than getting some big publishing deal. You make simple 5×7 prints at the local drugstore or from Costco— and you share them. It is like sharing your heart and soul with others (yet much more affordable).

Then what is left? You discover yourself as a human being. You find out what interests you in life and photography. You discover that you don’t like to take candid photos (without permission). You discover that you don’t care for having tons of layers and multiple-subjects in your photos. You discover that discovering your “style” in photography is simply discovering who you are as a human being.

You discover that your “style” is to interact with people. To love your fellow human-beings. To not be led astray by current fads and trends— but to do what you want, and ignore everybody else.

Practical advice

Sorry that last bit of text was a bit of a tirade (the espresso I’m drinking here at ilcaffe just hit my system, and was actually a personal essay on my life story).

Some practical tips:

1. Don’t mix color and black and white in the same project

One of the best pieces of advice on working on projects is to treat yourself like a film director (Alec Soth). Before you shoot a film, decide whether you’re going to shoot it all in color or black and white, and what camera and lens you’re going to use. Then for the entire film, keep it consistent.

Keeping an aesthetic consistency is important (if) you want others to recognize your work and “style.”

Furthermore, it takes at least 10 years to fully master either black and white or color. I’ve been shooting for a decade (7 years black and white, 3 years in color) — and I still have a lot left to learn. Martin Parr has been shooting the last several decades in color. Josef Koudelka (as far as I know) has never shot color— only black and white. Look at amazing his books “Exiles” and “Gypsies” are.

Life is short— it is hard to master either black and white color in our short lives. Stick with one— then once you feel like you’ve personally mastered it— move onto the next.

Ultimately neither is “better”— they’re just different. Just do whatever you prefer. Vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Neither is “better” or “worse.”

2. Creative constraints

Creativity is all about constraining yourself— not having unlimited options. By stepping in the shackles, you will set yourself free. Freedom is limitations.

Think about it— when you were a kid (broke poor) think about how creative you were. You didn’t have toys— so you made your own. Your parents couldn’t afford to buy you that new Barbie playhouse— so you made your own “fort” out of a refrigerator box. Your parents didn’t buy you the army parachute men— so you tied your stuffed animals to homemade parachutes (plastic bags with holes cut into it, with string attached).

Now as an “adult” we have money (finally) in our lives. So we go out and buy all of our shit— and no longer have to be creative. Your car mount for your smartphone broke? Easy— buy a new one on amazon. You’re not feeling creative in your photography? Easy— just buy a new camera or lens. You’re not feeling inspired in your own hometown? Easy— just book a flight to NYC.

Creative constraints are all about squeezing yourself into limitation which forces you to be creative.

For example, one of the best ways to find your style and work on a project is to constrain yourself to a small geographic area. Only shoot one neighborhood, one square block, only a certain restaurant or bar you visit. One of my favorite projects is my “The Old Colony” project in which I photographed friends and people I met at a bar in Provincetown— part of the Magnum workshop I attended.

The Old Colony

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Another way— creatively constrain yourself to one camera and one lens. I used to own a Sigma 18-200mm lens, and by having too many focal lengths— you just become lazy and aren’t forced to be creative with your compositions. If you’re shooting in an area and you can no longer zoom in or out, you either take a step closer, or a step back. Or instead of doing a full-body shot, you just shoot their hands, face, or a detail you find interesting.

You can also creatively constrain yourself to a certain subject-matter (“typology” project). For example for my “Suits” project— I used to work as a ‘Suit’ (corporate job) and it made me sad and miserable. Now whenever I see others in suits— I can feel their pain and depression. My creative constraints in this project is to shoot it all in color film (Portra 400), on my film Leica, 35mm lens, and of men in suits (must have a tie and full-suit).


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Thinking about creative constraints is refreshing. Why? In modern society, we are always trying to buy solutions to our problems. Rather— we should try to purposefully restrain ourself from buying our problems, and trying to be inventive within limited means.

So before you want to buy a new camera, try to see how you can use the gear you already own to be creative with it.

Before you travel, see how you can better photograph your own neighborhood.

Before you buy a new photography book, re-read the photography books you already own.

Before you attend a photography class, make sure to study all the masters of street photography.

Let us remember the motto “Hunger breeds sophistication.” If you don’t have enough free time, money, or “talent” — think of how these can be benefits, and a “creative constraint.”

3. Think decades

I am a very impatient person. I always want to share my work constantly (daily on Instagram). I love the likes, comments, and constant feedback.

However almost all of the master photographers purposefully stay off social media— and focus on decade-long projects. Why? It takes a long time to create a great body of work.

Can you imagine a great writer creating his/her masterpiece in just a day, or even an hour? No— it takes years of writing, editing, proofing, and getting feedback from peers.

If we die with at least 1 meaningful body of work, we have done our jobs as photographers.

Less is more. I purposefully try to contain my portfolio to 3 projects, and only to share my best. After all, we live in an attention-deficit society. Do you really want to bore your viewers with 10 mediocre projects? Or only show them your best?

I also make it a regular practice to “prune” my photos on social media. I recently went back and deleted 800+ photos on Instagram and only left the photos that were really meaningful to me (photos from my “Cindy Project”. I also marked all my photos on Flickr to private, and only re-sharing what I think is my best work.

I need to constantly remind myself— great work takes time. So friend, don’t feel rushed. Take your time, keep your work offline, get honest feedback and critique from photographers you trust (preferably in-person), and “kill your babies.”

The Cindy Project

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The ultimate style

Have you ever seen someone walk down the sidewalk, wearing pretty plain clothes, but with such a sense of confidence and self-assurance that just exuded from their skin?

True style (at least in fashion) is when someone wears their clothing like it were their skin. It doesn’t have to be the latest designer brand, nor does it need to be expensive. “True” fashionistas wear clothes which makes them feel comfortable in their own skin— and expresses their own self-worth (without really caring what others think).

So I think your ultimate style in photography is not caring what others think about your work. Throw away all theories, concepts, and ideas (even the ones on this blog). Just do what you enjoy, be happy, and enjoy the process.

I also think finding a “style” is when you can take a step back, pretend like someone else took the photos that you shot, and looking at the work and enjoying it— while feeling like it has a sense of consistency.

Some other practical tips

  • Kill your master: Study the masters to learn the theory and history of photography, then purposefully break the rules.
  • When in doubt, ditch: If you are not sure whether your photo is good or not, it isn’t a good photo.
  • Time is your ultimate counselor: When really in doubt, simply wait and let your photos “marinate.” The longer you let your photos sit, the less emotionally attached you become, and the more “objective” you can be in judging your own images.
  • When in doubt, drink more coffee: self-explanatory.
  • When you decide to buy a new camera, donate two cameras: I believe it is important to upgrade your camera (to keep up with the digital treadmill only when necessary). So if you’re going to buy a new camera, donate two from your collection. This will help you pare down to the essentials, give you a nice feeling from doing a charitable act, and also help you focus on “one camera, one lens.”
  • When in doubt, keep shooting: You’re going to find low-points in your photography project. When you’re doubtful, just keep shooting and you will find more clarity.
  • When you fall out of love, ditch the project: Keep pushing, but after 3 months of working on a project you despise, best to cut your losses (don’t fall to the “sunk cost fallacy”) and to start on a new project.
  • You don’t need to work on a project: Only work on a project if you feel this brings you more satisfaction. If you prefer single-images, just do that. Don’t do anything in your photography to be taken “seriously.” The only mistake you can make in photography is to do something you don’t enjoy.
  • Ask yourself, “Is this project going to be meaningful in 200 years?”: One of the best ways to prevent working on projects that are just going to be a fad. Generally the longer you predict the project will stay relevant, the more longevity it will have.
  • Uninstall social media from your phone: Trust me, this is one of the best ways not to get distracted when working on a long-term project (and wanting to be tempted to constantly upload to Instagram).
  • Don’t upload photos online for 6 months: I’ve done this— take a 6 month hiatus from uploading photos online. You will realize how much more happiness this brings you (you feel less anxious about the likes/comments/favorites and the social media drama).
  • Study projects before you: It is important to study the projects that have come before you to get a sense of what has been done. But let these sources be inspiration— not despair (don’t feel depressed that your project idea has already been done).
  • Execution over idea: Great ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is 99% of any project.

That is it friend— my caffeine high is now crashing, and I need to drink more (boxed) water to replenish my system.

I will continue to share some more ideas on style, projects, and personal photography in the near future— so keep rocking on my brother and sister.

Love always,

Saturday, 9:37am, ilcaffe on Broadway (I miss my friends in Stockholm). Saturday, Nov 21, 2015.

Random life updates

Excited to go back to Cindy’s family on Sunday night and have a great home-cooked Vietnamese meal.

Then flying back to Cindy and chilling in the Bay Area until Feb (workshop in Dubai part of Gulf Photo Plus) and perhaps Amsterdam. Then more fun workshops in the states (NYC, SF) and possibly Seattle, Chicago, Toronto (will keep you guys updated). Oh yeah, and fun camping trip with the family for Thanksgiving in Yosemite (perhaps I can try more landscape photography on film?)

This weekend doing my LA Advanced workshop — excited to do more 1:1’s with the students, and helping them achieve their personal vision. And of course, more (delicious) espressos and shared meals. Life is perfect.

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