Don’t Be Afraid

Downtown LA, 2015
Downtown LA, 2015

Don’t be afraid.

Fear is what prevents your inner-artist from expressing itself.

Fear is what prevents you from approaching that stranger you want to talk to/take a photo of.

Fear is what holds you back from quitting your job, and traveling the world.

Fear is what prevents you from approaching that curator to show your work.

Fear is what prevents you from uploading that one photo online; you are scared that others will judge you, you are scared if you aren’t going to get any likes, and you are afraid that you might be revealed as a “fraud.”

Why do we fear?

It is embedded into our psyche. As human beings, we are “risk averse” — meaning, human-nature is wired to prevent risky behavior (rather than promoting positive risky behavior— which might benefit us).

This is why losing $100 at the casino hurts 2x more than winning $100 at the casino.

This is also why it is so scary to ask that one person on a date— because you fear rejection, social shaming, and being seen as a “failure.”

Fuck failure. Embrace risk.

I’ve been scared shitless so much my entire life— because of fear of being judged, of failing, and of just looking like a fool.

Fear is the emotion which still haunts me today. I’ve missed thousands of photos because I was too nervous, scared, or timid.

What has helped me? Realize that everyone else is a human being— full of ambitions, hopes, dreams, pains, and (also) fears. No matter how badass someone looks, they were raised by a loving mother (not always, but often), they have cried, they have loved, and they are (also) insecure.

I think the secret is to assume that everyone else is your best friend. Assume that people are doing their best. Assume that nobody out there is there to hurt you.

We are lucky to live in a society in which we won’t get killed (unless you live in the ghetto or hood). Most of us have steady lives— the only chance of death is possibly a car accident or cancer late in our lives.

Yet we still have the primal brain inside us that fears. And it is sad— we are slaves to our fear. Fear is what holds us back from achieving our artistic potential. Fear is what holds us back from achieving our human potential. Fear is what prevents us from loving (I don’t want to get into a relationship because others have hurt me before, and I am scared I will be hurt again). Fear is what prevents us from living a life true to ourselves (what if others think I’m crazy, what if my partner leaves me, what if my kids hate me, or what if I’m disowned from the family?). Fear is a motherfucking bastard— you have to stab him in the face, tell him, “I am not your slave anymore!” and go “do you.”

Funny story— I used to be into freestyle rapping when I was in high school. My best friend Justin got me into underground hip-hop sophomore/junior year— and I loved the lyricism of all these non-mainstream rappers. Their lyrics were like poetry to me.

I wanted to also learn to rap. Admittedly; I sucked. I wasn’t very good, and never became any good. But what held me back? Fear of criticism, others calling me “whack”, and looking like a fool.

I still reminisce about our good times free styling in the car (just me and him) in my 1991 Sentra with the 1000 watt amp in the trunk, and the 2 12’’ subwoofers blasting Immortal Technique or Nujabes. We would go on long road-trips (norcal to socal and back), and when we fully dropped all fear of sounding like idiots; that is when we had the most fun free styling, and when we were able to fully-express ourselves.

The other day I put on a Nujabes track (Arurian dance) and freestyles a bit with Cindy in the apartment. We were idiots; but we had fun. This is what happens when you have no inhibitions, no fear of judgement, no fear of looking stupid.

I think in street photography, it isn’t street photography or confrontations we are afraid of. It is the fear of confrontation which truly scares us.

I’ve been in many confrontations— some physical, some verbal (mostly verbal). And to be honest; it isn’t that bad. I used to box with my friends in high school; and even getting punched in the face and blacking out for a bit isn’t that bad.

There is a funny scene in the movie “Fight Club” where the assignment is to “get into a fight.” And to be honest; most people are quite passive. A lot of big darks bark, but are no bite. Trying to get into a fight can be more difficult than it may seem.

In my workshops one common assignment I give students to overcome their fears is this:

Approach a bunch of strangers and ask to make their portrait. You need to get 10 rejections as quickly as possible. Go.

Funny enough; getting 10 “no’s” in street photography is a lot harder than it may seem. If you doubt me; try it out.

Even when you do get rejected, it isn’t a big deal. Most people just end up being pretty nice about it— they will say “no” politely or make up some sort of excuse. Yeah it still sucks, but it isn’t as bad as it may seem.

Failing in life is the same way. Failing sucks; but why let the fear of failing hold you back from achieving your inner-greatness?

In Silicon Valley there is a saying, “Fail fast.” Another; “Fail forward.” And the famous Steve Jobs one:

Stay hungry, stay foolish.

Apparently the average millionaire founder has tried at least 8 businesses (most of them which failed). My good friend Todd who runs Simple Studio Lighting (you probably bought some of their products on Amazon) has had close to 7-8 businesses (all which failed); until he was able to find a business (photography lighting) which kicked off. Now he is doing well financially— still stressed out about finances, but his success is due to his failed attempts, his appetite for success, and staring fear in the face and saying, “Fuck you— I’m going to not be a slave to a corporation, whether I need to fight nail and tooth.”

Don’t get me wrong friend— I am still a slave to fear. But everyday; I am trying to be less fearful.

Even in my writing, I censor myself too much. I don’t let my “true voice” come out.

This is why I admire my friend Josh White so much. He gives “less shits” than me — his writing is a lot more open, loose, and free than mine. He’s also lucky; he doesn’t make a living from his blog or workshops, so he doesn’t need to censor himself (he works full-time as a teacher in Korea). Whereas I am often afraid of saying what is really on my mind for the risk of “alienating” my readers, for pissing off camera companies (who have given me free cameras and stuff), or pissing off other organizations that are affiliated with me.

Fuck it. I’m just going to be me— the inappropriate, silly, stupid, paradoxical, hypocritical Eric Kim. After all; that is the only Eric I know.

So for you friend— just “do you.” Do what feels honest and genuine to you. Don’t be afraid of fear. Don’t be a slave to fear. Be the master.

Of course you need to “fear” things in life (fear of drunk driving, fear of skydiving, fear of having your kids get run over). But honestly besides “permanent disfiguration” or death, there is nothing else you need to fear.

Even photography— it isn’t such a big deal. Taking a photo is just holding up a little metal box to your face and pushing a button. If that pisses someone off; that is their problem, not yours.

Getting yelled at in street photography sucks. It happens to me all the time; and I sometimes go days depressed and feeling quite shitty (as a person and as a photographer). I’ve pissed off past workshop students in the past, and it hurts my soul (really). I’ve pissed off my loved ones, and Cindy millions of times (thank God she is so forgiving). Nobody can go through life without causing pain, anxiety, and anger to others (especially to those they love).

But damn it— just try your best “not to do unto others as you don’t want others to do unto you.” It is like the “Golden Rule” our buddy Jesus taught us. Live a life according to what feels ethical to you, and ignore what everyone else says. Be able to sleep at night, or stare at yourself in the mirror without being ashamed.

So how do you develop an appetite for risk; especially if you are risk averse? Some practical suggestions and ideas:

  • Realize that fear is in everybody. Don’t feel bad or guilty about it. Embrace it— it is a part of being a human being. When you first realize there is nothing shameful about having fear; you can really stare at it in the face.
  • Imagine the worst-case scenario: In street photography, the absolute worse-case scenario is death (you taking a photo of someone without their permission and getting stabbed, beat to death, or being shot). My suggestion: don’t shoot in dangerous areas in town, and certainly don’t go to the favelas of Brazil with a fanny-pack on. But seriously; 99.9% of altercations in street photography aren’t physical but just verbal (once again; people love to bark like dogs). Once you can accept that the “worst realistic scenario” isn’t so bad, you will be able to rationally not be so afraid.
  • Try to get rejected: Try the “10 no” challenge in your street photography. The more you are used to having the door shut in your face, the less personally you will take it.
  • Say what is really on your mind: This is my biggest problem; I am so afraid of offending people, that I rarely say my mind. My buddy Diogenes (philosopher) said that the best good that a human being has is freedom of speech. So make it a practice to not censor yourself— you will alienate, piss people off; but you will have better friends as a result.

Fuck fear. Be strong friend.

Whenever you go out and shoot, imagine putting on plated golden armor. Anytime someone yells at you, threatens you, imagine those arrows bouncing off your armor. You are an impenetrable fortress, and every setback you face will just fuel the fire to make you stronger.

Life is all about dealing with shitty events, and becoming a stronger person. Kind of how building muscles work (tearing down your muscles through stress, then building it up with recovery and lots of protein).

Learn to love fear; and channel your fear into a positive way.

For example, I have a personal rule:

When I am afraid to take a photo, I have to take a photo.

I often go for days without seeing anything “interesting.” But whenever I see something that I am afraid of; it is my mind telling me, “Eric— this might be a good photo opportunity. But you are afraid because you might get into trouble. But don’t miss out; or you will forever regret it.”

Even Bruce Gilden has an assignment for his workshops: to to a part of town you are scared of and take at least 100 photos. And Bruce Gilden is the guy with balls the size of his head. Sure love him or hate him, he makes strong images (that aren’t boring)— and he couldn’t do it without his courage, confidence, and lack of fear.


Another assignment; if you don’t consider yourself a confident person, role-play and imitate a photographer who you admire (who you perceive to be confident).

So when you’re out shooting and you see a scene that you think might be good, you can ask yourself, “What would Bruce Gilden do?” Kind of like when I am about to sin or do something bad I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” Or whenever I want to do something ethically wrong, I ask myself, “What would Seneca do?”

These are just some personal rules I have for myself. They may or may not work for you. I am still scared shitless; but trying to figure things out for myself. I hope some of these treatments will help heal your mind of fear.


Monday, 4:03pm, Oakland, Dec 7, 2015