I love to buy shit. It makes me feel great. I feel cooler, handsomer, sexier, more powerful, and more important. I always feel that if I just bought “X” I would become happier. For example, if I bought a Leica, I would feel more “creative”, “inspired”, and become a better photographer. Not only that, but I would be more “respected” if I had a Leica.
Underestimate how much joy material things will bring us
I know that we need some material things to survive. If you live in a suburb, it is preferable to own a car. If you work in the tech industry, it is preferable to own a smartphone. If you have children, having labor-saving devices are preferable.
In “Thinking Fast, and Slow” psychologist Daniel Kahneman warns us— we should always under-estimate how much joy a material possession will bring us, because sooner or later— we will “adapt” to the joy it brings us.
For example with cameras, we will sooner or later “get used to” it (no matter how expensive it is). It is like when you buy a new car, you will sooner or later adapt to it (no matter how expensive or fancy).
Where do we get this desire for stuff?
I am a materialistic person— and I’ve always wondered where this came from.
I am a product of modernity and American consumerist culture. Even though I am ethnically Korean, I am more or less a full-blooded American.
I grew up eating Captain Crunch, Rice Krispies, Donuts, Churros (Costco), Bagel bites (also Costco), Lucky Charms, white bread, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, and other microwaveable foods (hot pockets, Eggos, Pop Tarts).
Where did I learn to want to eat all this shit? Easy— I grew up glued to a television (unfortunately my mom was always at work). Because my mom was always working, I had no parental supervision (more or less) and no restrictions in my media consumption. In-between my Pokemon shows and Transformers shows, I wanted to buy all this shit (light-up shoes, Razor scooters) and consumer sugar-laden breakfast foods. I remember how much I hated the packed lunches my mom made me, and how I wanted to be like the “cool kids” and eat Lunchables (God, I can’t believe how horrible these things are, now looking at them as an adult).
Capitalism creates desire. After all, that is the machine which keeps the wheels turning. Without desire, we wouldn’t consume. Without desire, we wouldn’t stay at these shitty jobs (because we need to earn more money to finally afford that BMW 3-series, that Rolex watch, or that new digital Leica).
Friend, I don’t mean to say any of this to be disparaging, as I am the biggest slave of them all.
Let me give you an example— I started off having a Canon 5D. I loved the camera, how it was “full-frame”, but frankly speaking, I hated the weight.
Regardless, I still made some fantastic photos with them, including my lady with umbrella photo in Seoul, my “three men” photo in Santa Monica (shot during my lunch break at the mall), and my “jazz hands” photo (Hollywood with a flash).
I started my street photography blog with a pure love of the genre, and wanting to share what I’ve learned about street photography with others. When I started street photography, there was little to no information on Google on “how” to shoot street photography.
So I got more into blogging about street photography while having a full-time 9-5 job. I woke up about an hour or two earlier (I had a tech job which meant I started work at 10am), wrote a little bit, and would use my lunch breaks to shoot (30 minutes everyday), would look at photographs on Flickr during work (when I was bored at around 3pm), and would also take some photos after work (after 7pm around Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade).
I was quite consistent with blogging— for about a year I blogged solidly; every Monday, Wednesday, Friday. All while having a full-time job.
The more I got into street photography, the more research I did on the history of street photography. I learned about Henri Cartier-Bresson; the godfather of street photography. I also learned he shot with a “Leica” camera.
At first, I had no idea what that camera was. I’ve never heard of it, or seen it.
After a few Google searches, I found out that a digital version (Leica M9) was $7,000!!!
I was like, “Holy shit— why would that camera cost so much money?”
I did some research, and found out it was made in Germany, was all hand-crafted brass, and how everything was fully-manual.
I understood that it was a quality product— but still, how the hell can a camera cost $7,000? (I bought my Canon 5D used for $1200— which I thought was a ton of money). Even Canon L lenses were around $500-600 (a lot of money), but Leica lenses were $3,000+???
At first I didn’t drink the “Kool-aid”— meaning, I didn’t get suckered into the marketing behind Leica.
However the daily grind of my job started to get to me. In the beginning, I loved my job. I loved my co-workers, the community I worked with, and the work I was doing. It felt meaningful, and I was excited to go to work, chat with my co-workers, hang out, have lunch, and play ping pong, or talk about Starcraft to my buddies (Alex I miss you!)
One day I realized that I was just another cog in the machine. My job was to simply answer emails, to post stuff to social media, and make sure that nobody sued us for any sort of copyright infringement. My job became too easy— I needed more change and challenge.
I then started to get bored (one of the worst things in life). Around this time I started to browse the internet more for gear— because for some strange reason, I felt that buying a new camera would cure the sense of discontentment I had from my job.
Photography was truly my saviour — it was an escape from work. It was an escape from the “real world.” Nothing was more refreshing than escaping the office (for even 10 minutes) with my camera, and not having to deal with answering another 200 emails.
I disdained how heavy my 5D was. I used to bring it everyday to work in my messenger bag. Eventually, I stopped bringing it (couldn’t be bothered with the weight and seize). I wanted a smaller, more compact option (a camera I could bring everywhere I wanted).
At that time, as my blog got more popular— I started to build good relationships with folks at Leica and some other camera manufacturers, and companies (BH Photo). I started to review some cameras, including the Ricoh GRD III, Olympus Pen-series, and one day I was able to review the (very coveted) Leica M9.
Let me take a step back— as I started to hate my job more and more, I thought buying a Leica M9 would solve all my life’s problems. I imagined myself following the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson, traveling the world looking all fancy with my Leica, manually-focusing like a boss, and making these incredible black-and-white “decisive moment” photos. I thought that having a Leica M9 would help me be more “creative” and “inspired”— and I started to fantasize about how compact it was and how easy it would to bring it everywhere I went.
I started to scheme. I figured $7000 was “affordable” (if I sold my car, maxed out my credit card, and if I ate ramen for a year). Then shit— I needed a lens (another $3000). I wasn’t quite sure what to do for that— but I knew I would find a way.
Going back to the previous narrative— I tested the Leica M9 on a trip to Paris. Leica was generous enough to invite me to their event in Paris with Magnum, and I had a week with the M9. I felt like the shit. I felt so cool, inspired, and amazing.
Funny enough, after the first week started to fade, I kind of got “over it.” It was slightly depressing— here was this object which I felt would solve all my life’s problems. But once I got it, it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.
Even funnier— I was testing the Ricoh GRD III at the time, and when I got home to LA (and had to return both the M9 and Ricoh), I actually felt sadder returning the Ricoh than the Leica.
Getting laid off my job
Like many in the tech bubble of 2011, my company (Demand Media) went public, and our stock started to climb. Then soon, it started to go downhill. One day, I got called into the HR office (thought it was just another meeting), and me and my boss got “made redundant.”
Biking home that day, I felt a small sense of euphoria— I was no longer a slave to the system. I was actually plotting quitting my job the last 3 months, planning my escape. My dream was always to “do street photography” full-time, and I thought this was God’s gift to me— to help remove the golden handcuffs from me, to pursue my life’s passion.
Needless to say, I was scared shitless. I had barely any money saved up, even though I earned $40,000 a year (with benefits). All of my money went to the rent, paying my student loans, my smartphone bill, and eating out once in a while (yeah living in LA is expensive). I didn’t even have a car payment (unlike most Angelinos). But with the love and support of my mom and Cindy, I decided to go forth.
If I had a Leica M9, people would take me more seriously
So I was in a strange spot, I no longer had a job, and was trying to make “street photography” my “career.”
At the time, I started to do more partnerships with Leica (thanks a lot for helping guys)— they helped sponsor some of my workshops with venues, and also provided tester cameras for workshop attendees.
However one day one of the guys at Leica I was working with (great guy) subtly hinted to me, “Eric, we love supporting you and everything you do— but it is a bit strange that you work with us, but shoot with a Canon, no?”
I was like shit. He had a good point. I really needed the help from Leica to help me get started, and I didn’t want to lose my ties. I was afraid that Leica would ditch me.
I then looked at my scrambled finances— and figured if I used my entire life’s savings ($5,000), which included my severance bonus, and stock options— I could afford a Leica M9 body (used). I explained my situation to my mom (single-mom, working as a waitress) and she sympathized and supported me by taking out a $3,000 loan to help me buy a lens (used Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux lens). Thanks mom, I love you so much.
I then was able to scrounge up the money and bought a used Leica M9 and 35mm lens.
Why did I get it?
First of all, I thought that people would take me more “seriously.” Unfortunately — I think that is partly true. If you go to a photography exhibition opening, who do you think is the more “serious” photographer— the guy with the Leica, or the guy with the DSLR? Now, I know that is bullshit, but would you hire a lawyer who drove a BMW M3 or a Honda Civic?
I was 22 years old at the time, and quite young to be teaching workshops. After all, who would take a 22-year-old seriously? So I thought I could hide behind the brand of Leica. If Leica trusted Eric— he should be trustworthy. And if he owned a Leica M9— he must know what he was doing.
Secondly was fear of falling out with Leica. Once again, they helped me so much, and I didn’t want to fall out of their graces. I was almost like a homeless person subsisting on their welfare, and I was afraid that I would starve to death without them.
Thirdly, I believed (falsely) that owning a Leica M9 would help “inspire” me to make better photos (thus building my reputation), and thus it was a good “investment” (one of the worst ways I always convince myself to make an expensive purchase).
Looking back, I have no regrets. Life is a complex chain of decisions. We never know what direction our life will head.
I’m grateful for getting the M9— it taught me how to shoot with a rangefinder, and my preferred camera is now a film Leica MP. I learned how to shoot more manually, I mastered zone-focusing, and I made a lot of photos I am happy with.
But at the same time, the problem I have today is that I am still a sucker to consume.
The solution? Be a creator— not a consumer.
I think a lot about the psychology and philosophy of “happiness.”
In the west, we commonly understand “happiness” as a feeling. But this feeling is fleeting. For example, when I eat a delicious steak, I feel “happy” (pleasure from the food hitting my stomach). But then I feel “satisfied” (no longer hungry).
Unfortunately with material things, I am never satisfied— no matter how much shit I own, how many cameras or lenses I have, no matter how nice my car, or how much money I have in my bank account, or the number of social media followers or likes/favorites I get.
I think a better way to think about “happiness” is to think of the Greek word, “eudaemonia” (means “human flourishing”).
So don’t think about happiness as a feeling, but as “human flourishing” — which is becoming “fully-human.”
What is a full-human? A full-human is someone who actively creates, is devoted to their life’s task, doesn’t give a fuck about what others think about them, doesn’t get distracted by consumerist desires or the opinion of the masses, and can go to sleep knowing that if he/she died— he/she would have no regrets in life.
Don’t be a collector; be a creator
I know a lot of people who collect art, which is fine. But collecting art (as noble as it may seem) is just another form of consumption.
Instead of buying art, why not create art?
I sometimes look at impressionist art, and I like the feeling and emotion it gives me. But rather than spending $10,000 on a painting of a bunch of ink splots, why not just buy my own canvas ($20) and paint ($10) and make my own— and be proud of my own creation?
Similarly— I think it is fantastic to buy photo books, and be inspired by them. Prints are great, they are art pieces that we can look at everyday on our walls, and appreciate.
But once again— why spend $500 on a photographic print, when we could use that money to travel and create our own photos that we can print ourselves and put on our walls?
I believe one of the secrets of happiness is creation.
I don’t know about you— but I am happiest when I am actively creating. For example, I am “happy” or feel “fully-fulfilled” when I am writing (like I am right now). I am in the “zone”— or in a “flow state” as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says it.
When I am stuck in the “flow” of creating— all my life’s problems dissipate. I no longer feel stressed about my finances, I no longer care how “famous” I am, and I have no desires besides the keyboard under my fingers, and the screen in front of my eyes.
I also feel a “flow” state when I am out shooting (without headphones on). I walk slowly, am more meditative, and notice my surroundings. I interact and engage with interesting people I meet in the streets, and I create photos that bring me personal satisfaction. Funny enough— the less time I spend uploading images to social media, the more satisfaction my photos bring me.
Similarly, I am happiest when I am teaching. Why? I actually am a pretty poor writer (I write how I talk)— I feel my real strength is public speaking and “performing” (my Myers-Briggs personality type is “ESFP”)— meaning, I love to be the center of attention, I like to make people laugh, and I get energy when I am with others.
I also love to create a sense of community when I am teaching a workshop, and I love to see how I can help “enable” my students to become more fully-realized photographers, and to find a path in their photography which brings them inner-satisfaction.
I am the worst consumer of them all. I recently wanted to buy a Herschel backpack, because all the cool hipsters wear them (by comparison my ThinkTank Perception 15 backpack, although more usable, looks lame). I also am starting to despise the plain clothes I wear everyday (I want colorful Nike’s to look ‘cool’ and also new pants). I want to follow trends (this is what happens when you spend two weeks in Downtown LA and hang out at hipster coffee shops).
I love coffee— and am mostly a consumer (I like to hunt for good espressos). But being an “coffee connoisseur” is fucking stupid— drinking coffee takes no skill. Making good coffee takes skill.
One of my workshop students, Fred Prinz, gave me two hand-roasted bags of beans after the workshop. It was quite possibly the best gift I have ever been given (in recent memory). He then started to inspire me how he roasted his own coffee at home. I am actually quite excited— I plan on trying to experiment roasting my own beans with a frying pan at home (I heard it makes your house smokey, I hope Cindy is okay with that).
Furthermore— being very educated about the master photographers is quite useless if you don’t use that information to empower you to create your own photos. I still think that (most) photographic curators are insecure artists who haven’t been able to fully-realize their own dreams of creating their own photography. Which is sad— because many of these curators are quite talented photographers, yet they don’t feel that their work isn’t “good enough” (remember the food critic from the movie Ratatouille who spent his life criticizing the food of others, but he secretly wanted to be a chef?)
Don’t buy stuff to fix your problems
I have been (partly) observing a rule that Cindy suggested: not to buy anything new before we move to Vietnam (next July).
Damn that has been hard. I have to admit, I was good for about 2 months, but then (recently) fell off the bandwagon (after a trip to UNIQLO and buying a bunch of shit). Oh and I bought a coffee grinder from Costco (okay this was actually the best $40 investment ever, you should have seen how excited I was— Cindy said I was like a kid getting a Christmas toy).
I’m going to get back on the horse. I don’t want to buy stuff to fix my sense of dissatisfaction, or to fix my problems.
I have an Amazon prime membership— any problem is easily fixed with a free 2-day delivery.
I also feel that buying new gear will fix my photographic problems.
I recently gave away my Ricoh GR to a friend, and for the last two days I’ve been asking a lot of questions about digital cameras, and time researching on the internet.
But once again— I am trying to buy a solution to my situation.
The right decision? For now, I am going to either borrow cameras from friends, or just shoot with my film Leica at home (still have some Tri-X and Portra 400 at home).
Rather than buying solutions to my problems, I need to make do with what I already have.
Limitations breed creativity.
Experiences over stuff
Sorry friend, I know I am a broken record— but realize that a lot of my writing is just self-therapy.
My life is short. Remember when 9/11 happened, how so many people died in a flash?
Recently there were many terrorists attacks. A friend-of-a-friend died in Paris. I was in Paris just a month ago with Cindy and both my moms. That could have been us.
A friend-of-a-friend recently got hit by a car when jogging to the gym in the morning. Another friend-of-a-friend got hit by a car when riding a bicycle for charity. Paul Walker died in a car accident when driving to a charity event. My friend died at age 16 when getting hit by a big-wheeler (drunk driver).
Shit man, even when I was driving to this coffee shop (Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa) I was driving half-asleep (I woke up today at 4:30am, and started driving at 5:30am) and started to swerve a bit (was trying to change my music and look at Google maps on my smartphone while driving). Dangerous as hell, I could have either killed myself or someone else.
So while I have this brief period of time on earth, why should I waste my time or mental energy researching what new camera or car to buy? Why not sue that effort to create new articles, new books, new photographs, and to have new experiences which will make me feel fully-realized?
I am no enlightened person, nor am I a “philosopher” or any better than you. Everyday I read 2 hours of philosophy (morning) and 2 hours in the evening to cure myself of my mental ills. And trust me, I am the biggest sucker to marketing, advertising, and wanting to buy stuff.
I’ve recently wanted (again) to buy a Leica Monochrom (new one). It is $8,000 (I think). But damn, that could give me 8 months living expenses in Vietnam, 8 round-trip tickets to anywhere I want in the world, or 16,000 tacos at Jack-in-the-box (2 tacos for a dollar, what a deal). Or I could use that money to help empower others.
What do I even need more money for? My rent isn’t much ($1,300 a month for a 1-bedroom in Berkeley). I have a cheap phone plan (T-Mobile). I don’t own a car or have to pay for gas or car payments. I don’t have a kid (yet)— but even once I have a kid, I ain’t sending my kid to no private school, or buying them an iPad, sending them to any expensive extra-curricular activities. I want to raise them on books at the local public library, and to instill in them a love of creating (not consuming).
Random life updates
Okay I am starting to crash, I need another coffee. It is 7:30am (started writing at 6am). Flying back home to my love Cindy, and not doing any more workshops until January (composition workshop in SF), and then Dubai in Feb, March (NYC composition workshop), April (another SF workshop, not sure the topic), and then May chilling out before I head out to Vietnam (then once in Asia, a bunch of workshops in Australia, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hanoi/Saigon, a few other places).
I hope on spending more time in the next few months doing more writing, reading, making photography books (digital and print), making prints, and roasting my own coffee (quite excited).
I will probably also focus more on film again— as all of my meaningful work (Cindy project, Suits, Grandfather) series have been shot on film.
“But it costs more money!” Yeah true— but funny enough, because it costs money— I value the photos more. Digital nothing costs anything— and even while the photos might have the same quality (or often better quality than film), the film photos just make me feel happier.
I also recently discovered 50 rolls of Kodak Portra 400 at Cindy’s family’s house (forgot I had these), and pretty excited to see what is inside them. Because Costco no longer processes film (near my house), I will take them to a local place (Photolab in Berkeley, excellent place) and cry once I have to pay the bill (probably will cost me $8-10 a roll for develop+low-resolution scanning). What does money mean to me? Buying/paying for film, paying for coffee, and traveling/having nice experiences with Cindy.
To conclude this long-winded “stream-of-consciousness” essay, resist the temptation to buy solutions to your problems. Rather than being a passive (and bored) consumer— be an active (and creative) creator.
Yolo. You only live once. Life is short. Imagine you’re going to die tomorrow. When your head hits the pillow tonight, imagine like you’re not going to wake up tomorrow. What regrets or unfulfilled dreams would you have?
Fuck it. Live your dreams. Go “do you”. Go forth— create. You have no limits but your own imagination.
And when in doubt, drink more coffee.
Monday, 7:36am, Nov 23, 2015 @ Portola Coffee Lab (with a nice double-espresso, probably gonna grab another espresso to get me through today). Have a 1:30pm flight via Southwest (LAX>Oakland) — so gonna drive back home, take a nap, then take the Disneyland>LAX shuttle, then fly back home to my love (apparently a good meal is awaiting me). Then giving her a big hug, rolling around in bed, eating good food, enjoying the trees and fresh air of Berkeley, and then the next day, back to work.