Do You Like Your Own Photos?

Paris, 2015 #suits
Paris, 2015 #suits

Dear friend,

I want to tell you a story:

I was in Chicago in 2014, and I visited my friend Satoki Nagata— probably one of the most talented and artistic contemporary photographers out there.

It was the evening, around 9pm, and we sat inside a tea shop. We were drinking some hot tea, and I sat down with him and with my iPad.

I had a few photos that I was unsure about— whether they were any “good” or not.

I then asked him what he thought about my photos, and whether he thought they were any good or not.

Satoki then looked at me, paused, and in a zen-like monk way responded by saying:

“…What do you think?”

I paused for a second, and was struck by his response.

I then stopped, thought, and said… “I’m actually not too crazy about it. I think it is okay, not great.”

Satoki then grinned, paused again for a moment, stared at me and then said:

“Then why do you care what I think?”

The disease of “giving a fuck” of what others think of you

Friend— I am still afflicted by this mental disease; caring what other people think about me. I care too much about what others think about my personality, my character, my photography, and everything else that I do.

But why should I care about what others think about me? Shouldn’t I care more about how I feel about myself— and how I view my own photography (rather than what other strangers think?)

A strange inconsistency

I’ll share you something ironic that Seneca (Roman philosopher from 2,000 years ago) figured out:

The irony is that we are so greedy, we only care about ourselves. We want more money, fame, and influence for ourselves. But why do we respect the opinion that others have of us— rather than our own opinion of ourselves?

Quite ironic— we are so greedy and self-centered. If we were really this greedy— shouldn’t we care about our own self-opinion and self-appraisal of ourselves (and not care about what others think of us?)

Photography is not a “sport”; there are no “winners” or “losers”

Photography is not a spectator sport. There is no “winning” or “losing.”

Unfortunately modern life is all about competition (especially in America). We are raised with sports, video games, and other sorts of organized activities where there are clear “winners” and “losers.”

But in real life— there are no clear “winners” or “losers.” Is a billionaire really a “winner” in life when he is 50 pounds overweight, overwhelmed by 500+ emails a day, shitty relationships with his family and kids (or possibly divorced), and constantly pestered by his staff and the media? And is a Mexican immigrant living on minimum-wage (or “under-the-table”) wages truly a “loser” if he has a loving family, eats well, and sleeps at night without any stress?

Why do we compete with one another so much? It is just an animalistic thing— we crave hierarchy, and to “one-up” one another.

But fuck competing with others. The only person we should compete with is ourselves.

I have a personal rule; disregard the photography of others, and never compare my photography with others. Rather I just ask myself, “Am I a better photographer today than I was a year ago?”

This way, I compete against myself— so I can still have a sense of progress, without a sense of envy or jealousy of others.

Because to be honest; I am so prone to jealousy. I look at other photographers like Zach Arias and am jealous of his influence, how many comments he gets, and his commercial success. I am jealous of Kaiman Wong — who is the most recognized person in photography, and lives this rockstar lifestyle. I am jealous of Magnum photographers who are the shit— while my work is shit.

But the funny thing is that we always look ahead of those who we are more successful then (and feel inadequate), while we never look behind us and to see all the others we are ahead of.

The next time you look at someone driving the new Mustang or BMW M3, don’t feel jealous. Be grateful of the car you currently drive (a Civic or a Prius) and consider the days when you drove a crappy 90’s Honda or Nissan that only turned on half-the-time. Or all of the other people who drive crappy American cars from the 80’s that only get 15 mpg.

Same with photography— don’t be jealous of people with the new digital Leica, or L lenses, whatever. Look at your humble camera (whether a Fuji, entry-level DSLR, etc) and consider all the people out there only with iPhones who would die to have the camera you have.

Another practical solution; re-read old reviews and commercials for the camera, phone, car, digital device you currently own.

Recently I’ve been lusting after an iPhone (I currently have an Android); and I did something funny— I first watched the iPhone 6S commercial on the Apple website. Then I watched the iPhone 6 commercial on YouTube. Then I watched the iPhone 5S commercial, the iPhone 5 commercial— and then realized that all the different iPhones were far more similar than dissimilar— and how excited people were to have their devices.

For example, whenever I look at people with an iPhone 4S or iPhone 5/5s— I feel bad for them, because the screen looks so tiny. But when they first bought that phone, it was the best thing since sliced bread.

Simple contentment

I still am afflicted by the disease of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). I’m the stereotypical American consumerist— please do not put me inside a Socal mall or an Apple store; I think buying a new product will revolutionize my life and fix all my life’s problems and dissatisfactions.

The solution?

Simple contentment.

Being happy with the life and the things I already own. To be grateful for my humble 1-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. To be grateful for my smartphone, laptop, and camera. To be grateful for the friendship of my close friends, and the love of my family.

I have another problem— I’ve been wanting to minimize my life so much, that I have been suckered by this concept of “minimalism.” Honestly; even the aesthetic movement of simplicity in minimalism is being marketed— I want to buy an iPhone because it is more “minimal” than an Android; but it is another pointless purchase that I do not need to make.

Similarly with the camera you currently own. Let’s say you have a DSLR that you find too big or clunky. You might want to buy a simpler camera. But do you really need to? Find ways you can be more content with your DSLR. If you want it to be smaller, perhaps you should take off your neck strap and put on a hand-strap. Perhaps take off that battery grip. Or don’t use your big-ass zoom lenses, try to put on a small prime lens or the smallest lens you own. Realize that DSLR’s are fantastic— you have a big bright optical viewfinder, there is no shutter-lag, and the photos buffer almost instantaneously. All smaller cameras have a trade-off.

And realize that there is no “perfect” camera out there— just how there is no “perfect” car out there.

You buy a digital Leica and lens for $10,000? Oh yeah, you don’t have autofocus. You buy a new Sony a7RII and a bunch of Zeiss lenses? Good luck dealing with the file-sizes and having to upgrade your laptop and buy new hard-drives. You have the newest greatest DSLR and top-of-the-line lenses? Good luck lugging it around with you and wishing you kept it at home. If you have a compact camera that fits in your pocket, you will have to deal with the frustration of shutter-lag and slow buffering speeds.

You have that new shiny BMW M3? Good luck with the speeding tickets, random jealous kids “keying” your car, the anxiety of having a dent, and the possibility of dying in a car accident (trying to speed-race some kid in a modified Civic). Have that new Prius? Good luck trying to accelerate on the freeway, and feeling like you are now “domesticated.” Have that new Mustang— just wait for the expression on your face when the newer version comes out and your model instantly feels outdated.

Why is contentment so hard to obtain?

To be honest I’m not content. I’m always dissatisfied— but I do believe it is possible to find “contentment” in life (look at all the Buddhist monks, Christian monks, and the famous philosophers from history).

I think honestly we live in a more difficult time than the ancients. We are bombarded with advertising that plays on our cognitive biases to breed dissatisfaction.

Nowadays with smartphones too— shit, we are bombarded with advertisements left-and-right. Don’t be a sucker— uninstall pop-up and advertisement blockers (AdBlock Plus), and don’t let any ads hit your eyeballs, and stir up some sort of hidden desires that you didn’t even know you had.

I am currently in southern-California with Cindy, and shit— this place is horrible for materialism. Car dealerships on every other street corner, enticing your jealousy to buy a new car. Advertisements that are blinking-LED’s on the freeway that urge you to go shopping for that 80% discount. Commercials on the radio/Pandora that tell you to buy that new iPhone 6s (I mentioned to you before that I got hit with an iPhone 6S ad on Instagram, one of the reasons I took a break from using it). All the hipster coffee shops (like I’m at now) which tempt me to buy a new $300 pair of raw denim to fit in, and to buy other “artistinal” crap that I don’t need.

Oh yeah, and the “average” car here is a BMW 3-series (the equivalent of driving a Honda Civic in some other state). Therefore luxury and riches are always thrust into our eyes, and we feel dissatisfied and unhappy with our own lives, and we don’t appreciate what we have.

And oh man— have you read a photography magazine recently? I personally don’t read any photography blogs or magazines that have advertisements. The only photo blogs I trust are my friends (Josh White) who runs and my friend Karl Edwards ( Well my friend Karl has advertisements, but I trust him because he is a friend.

But if you open up “Popular Photography” or any other mainstream photography magazine, holy shit— 80% of the magazine seems to just be an advertisement for a new Sony camera or Canon L-lens or whatever. The same goes with any car magazines, “lifestyle” magazines (the worst— they get you to buy shit to fit into a certain lifestyle). Kinfolk, Wired, Fast Company— all these magazines just try to sell you crap (I’m sorry, I love these publications for the design and the stories, but whenever I read them, I suddenly have an urge to buy something to fit into this certain ‘image’).

Don’t trust any website or blog that relies on advertising (pop-up ads, banner ads, etc) or affiliate links (BHPhoto or Amazon). I currently get around $700 a month from Amazon affiliate links— which is good to subsidize my rent ($1300 a month) but it isn’t enough for me to make a living off of. I am in the “business” of selling workshops (how I make my own living). So know that I am not trying to sell you anything, except perhaps trust in me so one day you can attend one of my workshops.

But don’t trust any camera reviews out there that have affiliate links. Sure they say they are “unbiased”— but how can you truly be unbiased when you have a personal stake in a product? I can admit this myself— I am never 100% honest in reviewing a camera when there is an affiliate link in it.

The solution? Just test out the camera yourself. Rent/buy it— and if you don’t like it, return it. Nobody knows your preferences like you do.

If you are an ice-cream connoisseur, and you absolutely hate vanilla ice cream (and love chocolate)— would you trust an “ice cream reviewer” who loves vanilla (and hates chocolate?) I doubt it.

So don’t trust any of these camera reviews— these are just nerds, no “real” photographer has the time to review cameras. They are too busy taking photos. Do you think you will see Bruce Gilden, Bruce Davidson, or Josef Koudelka wasting their precious time reviewing the newest digital camera? Hell no— they are out on the streets, pounding the pavement, and making art.

Your own opinion of yourself is always #1

Sorry friend— I got a bit detracted (like I always do). But my main message to you is this— disregard the opinions of others, and value your own opinion of yourself above everyone else.

If you have taken a photo that you like, why do you care what others think about it? Why do you upload it online? Do you do it to show your joy and happiness of the photograph with your friends and the world— or do you upload it because you are not sure whether it is good or not, and simply want to figure out what the reaction of others is?

If you think you are a good person, why do you ask people what you think of your character?

If you think you are beautiful, why do you ask others how they would “rate” your attractiveness? An emerald doesn’t need the words of others to tell itself its own beauty (credit Marcus Aurelius).

Be content with your life. It is perfect now. Be content with all the physical things you own, they help you. Don’t seek to add anything new to your life— but perhaps to continue to subtract from your life (cut away excess and superfluous goods).

Recently, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with all my possessions. I have a laptop, an iPad, a Kindle, iPod Nano, smartphone. When I want to listen to music, I always jump between my smartphone, laptop, and iPod nano. I just think I’m going to get rid of the Nano— why use it when I can just listen to music on my phone? And with reading— I switch between my smartphone, iPad, and Kindle. I am currently “settling” with the Kindle Paperwhite— but frankly speaking; I want to ditch it and just read normal paper books (I always wonder whether with e-books I am using the “optimal” device for reading, but with a physical book I never think this). As with my smartphone, I am going to be content with using Android— using an iPhone will not change and revolutionize my life, just be content with the phone I have now, and not need to “upgrade” or change to something else.

I’ve been “Leica-less” (left the film Leica MP at home) for this holiday, and just been using a digital Ricoh GR II. I don’t honestly miss the film Leica, except every once in a while, I get an urging to buy a new Leica. But I need to honestly ask myself this question— is it because I genuinely enjoy using a rangefinder, or is it because I am dissatisfied with my life and photography, and (mistakingly) think that buying a new camera will fix my life’s problems?

All I “need” in life are eggs (food), coffee (I’m a slave to caffeine), and wifi (or else how can I share these ideas with you?) Everything else is superfluous.

Life updates

What do I have “prepared” for the next few weeks?

I’m currently in Garden Grove with Cindy’s family for the holidays. I am trying to enjoy my “vacation” with her family until early-Jan (when I go back to home to Berkeley). This means not being distracted by social media, emails, or any other distractions. I’m trying my best to be present with Cindy’s family and to genuinely enjoy their company. But I am still flawed— I prefer to read Stoic philosophy and books (currently re-reading “The Dialogues” of Seneca) rather than actually sit and chat with them. I am still constantly distracted, but I am trying to be a little less shitty of a person everyday— my only goal.

I’m also trying to fight these demons and impulses of consumerism. I’m not fully-cured; but I hope one day I will. A lot of my writing is just self-therapy, and a letter that I hope will give you some sort of assistance, just as Seneca did with his friends.

I don’t have all the answers; but I think I have found a few medicines that have cured (some) of my diseases— and I want to share them with you. Don’t see me as being better than you— I am probably worse than you.

Shit, I just want to be happy. I’m still not, I’m afflicted with mental diseases, dissatisfaction, frustrations, family problems, and anxieties about how others view me.

But once again— I need to take my own advice; be content with what I have, who I am, and to not care about what others think about me— but how I feel about myself.

I’m pretty happy with myself in the last few days, but I still get angry at Cindy for asking me to help her, and I lose my temper easily. Hopefully some more time disconnecting, more time reading philosophy, and cultivating understanding and patience will help me.

You got this.

I believe in you too friend. Always have a stout heart. Imagine that you have golden armor protecting you from all parts of your body. You have an impenetrable steel-helmet covering your head. Whenever someone tries to attack you with an arrow, it will simply fly off the side of your helmet. If someone tries to pierce you in the heart, their spears will break off your chest-armor. If someone insults you, they will roll off your back “like water off a duck’s back” (thank you Liz for this quote).

When you go to sleep tonight, kiss all your loved ones. Imagine you’re not going to wake up the next morning, or don’t imagine them to wake up the next morning.

If you knew that today was your last day on earth; how would you act differently? What would you not do? Would you really waste 2-hours of your precious time watching a movie, or would you spend that time to write some thoughts of importance to you, or enjoy the conversation of a friend?

What I’m currently reading

I’m trying to re-read old books I’ve enjoyed in the past, instead of trying to read new books.

Some books I’ve re-read:

  • Antifragile (the “Via Negativa” chapter, and the concept of the “barbell” with Seneca) — via Nassim Taleb
  • “The Shortness of Life” by Seneca, as well as his other works. I just finished “On Tranquility” and currently reading “On Firmness of Mind”. I believe you can download Seneca’s complete works on the Kindle store for only 99 cents or something. Look for “The Complete Dialogues” by Seneca.

Currently drinking double-espressos, writing notes in a small “cashiers” notebook. Typing these articles in “IA Writer.” Trying to avoid sugar, simple carbs, and to do lots of Yoga with Cindy and deadlifts and chin-ups at the gym with Cindy’s dad.

And what do I want for Christmas this year? Just some delicious home-cooked Vietnamese food with Cindy’s family. And some whole-foods gift cards (there is a whole-foods close to our house in Berkeley— and unfortunately groceries are not tax-deductible for businesses).

Street photography workshops 2016

Downtown LA, 2015
Downtown LA, 2015

I’m also not doing any intense traveling this year — most of my time is going to be in Berkeley. Only traveling is Dubai in late-Feb, and NYC in March. More time to spend time at home with Cindy, more time to read, write, and meditate.

If you’re interested in any of my upcoming workshops— my entire schedule is below:

For any questions regarding upcoming workshops, contact my manager Neil Ta at

The “box company” (ie. Strap Company)

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Oh yeah, so Cindy has been having so much fun with her “box company” (she makes really nice packaging for the new ‘Henri’ straps that we’ve developed together).

Cindy has honestly done 95% of the work of these straps, I do nothing but mention them on this blog. It is so cute to see how much love and attention she does on packaging them (like an Apple product), and re-freshing the Amazon sellers account to see if we sold another one.

It is actually really nice— she spends so much time in academia writing papers that only 1-2 people will read. Making physical products and selling (for a profit) has given her a lot of self-confidence and joy. Creating is a lot better than being passive. And recently all the all-you-can-eat-Korean-BBQ we’e had in socal were paid by Cindy (and the “box company”— the codename we have for the straps she’s been selling). Because Cindy’s dream as a child was to start a “box company” — she loves wrapping presents and boxes for some strange reason.

We’re currently sold out of the neck straps (thank you to all who ordered one, you guys rock), and we still have some wrist-straps in stock on Amazon.

If you’re interested in the next batch of straps, (both neck straps and wrist-straps) or if you’re international and can’t order on Amazon, stay updated with our interest form:

Furthermore, Amazon takes a huge cut (30%) from the profits, so we are going to start fulfilling ourselves, and starting to ship oversees the next batch. But sorry the next batch of neck-straps will be ready end-of-January/early-Feb, our friend is hand-making a new batch of them at the moment (limited supplies, get them while they’re hot).

Learn more about the “Henri” strap here.

Personal photography

Garden Grove, 2015
Garden Grove, 2015

Also thank you so much for all the encouragement for my recent “The ‘Personal Photography’ Manifesto” article. I think it is my most honest article to date— fuck what others think of your work; just be happy with your own work.

I think this is the direction I want to take my photography more— less “street photography” per-se, and more personal photos of my loved ones (especially Cindy and the #cindyproject).

I’m also trying to “detox” from social media for a while, until I eventually jump on the bandwagon again. But I will have to say, not having social media on my phone has brought me so much happiness— I no longer feel anxious whether I am getting a lot of likes/comments on my photos. I’m going to take my time with my photos, continue to shoot with the Ricoh GR II, and just enjoy the photos for myself.

Thank you

Until next time, farewell— and peace be with you my friend.

@ Ink and Bean in Anaheim, Mon, 11:19am, Dec 21, 2015 with a nice doppio espresso (‘Hairbender’ via Stumptown), with a nice breeze coming in the front door, soft light shining in my face, and my back slightly hurts from sitting too damn much. Life is perfect in this present moment.

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