Photography is Escapism

Santa Monica, 2009
Santa Monica, 2009

I was driving on the freeway (the 5) and had a random thought:

The last week or so, I’ve stayed with Cindy in (very boring) Orange County. For those of you who have never been here; imagine eating all of your food without salt. Everything is flat— rarely do you see clouds, the sun is steady and harsh, the air is dry, and on every other block you see a car dealership. It seems the only way people have fun down here is going to the mall, buying a new BMW, or getting drunk at the local bar (or getting fat eating out).

Yet regardless of how boring this place is— I’ve had the time of my life.


I feel at peace here. I feel at “home.” The only people I’ve been communicating with is Cindy, her dad, her mom, her two sisters, her older brother, her sister-in-law, and their baby. Oh yeah and chatting a bit with my mom, sister, and a few close friends.

Life seems perfect right now. Free of peace, free of anxiety, free of financial worries, and other stress and bullshit that comes from social media.

I no longer get anxiety from worrying about the number of likes/comments I’ll get on social media. I no longer try to “force” myself to do work— I try to embrace the Taoist philosophy of “wu-wei” (action without action)— and just “go with the flow.”

If there is work that needs to be done, I won’t stress about it. Sooner or later it will be done by itself.

I have also used this time in my “hibernation” mode to reflect about my past.

I remember when I was working at my 10-7 tech job. I had fantastic co-workers, a cool boss, yet I felt pretty miserable at my job. I think one of the biggest reasons I picked up photography because it was a form of escape. An escape from my boring, mundane, daily grind.

With a camera I felt I had possibilities. I had the opportunity to create art, to travel, to see the world.

I wanted to escape my cubicle prison. Photography was my golden ticket out.

Yet traveling never cured my dissatisfaction. Wherever I traveled to, I was still jealous of others (who were more successful than me), I still felt like I needed more money, and I felt like I needed to “see more” — and I wasn’t traveling enough.

Anxiety was always on my shoulder, peering over— telling me to earn more money, that one day everyone would forget about me and not care about me anymore, and that I wasn’t good enough.

I was on the treadmill of “self-improvement” — being a self-help book junkie, watching TED talks, and all the other stuff to become more “efficient” and “optimized” in life. I was always trying to discover the next “new new thing” — the magical device, iPhone, iPad, laptop, or app that would “revolutionize” my life.

I always started to get dissatisfied with my photography. I was always comparing myself to the greats and my fellow peers. I felt like I was always in their shadow— and perhaps if I became a better photographer, people would suddenly start respecting me. That I would prove all the “YouTube Haters” wrong. That I was a “serious” photographer— not just some “blogger.”

I think a reason I was so afflicted with G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is that I was insecure. I always felt that the gear was what held me back from becoming a great photographer— that buying a Leica would help me unlock a passage to the past, and embrace the ghost of Henri Cartier-Bresson to become a great photographer.

Upon reflection; I think photography for me was a form of escape. Escaping myself— my insecurities, my anxieties, my frustrations, and my angers in life.

But what do I really have to “prove”? Who gives a shit if I make good photos or not?

And to be honest at the end of the day— photography isn’t very important. Living a good life is the most important thing.

Photos are just two-dimensional reflections of light. We don’t need it to survive. We just need love, food, light, and shelter to “survive.” Photography is just a superfluous activity that helps us be more “creative”— but what is the point of photography if our lives are miserable?

I do admit— photography was self-therapy for myself which helped me escape my cubicle prison. Photography gave me hope— that one day I could be a full-time photographer, and no longer need to slave away, hoping to retire one day and (finally) doing what I loved.

But looking back— it wasn’t my job that was making me miserable. It was me who was making me miserable.

I was making myself miserable— it wasn’t my external conditions which brought me misery. I made myself miserable by comparing myself with others, by lusting for cars, clothes, money, cameras, and electric gadgets. I made myself miserable by not appreciating what I had— and hoping to “improve” my life. And once I “improved” my life— I would truly be happy.

Not true.

Even now, I still am riddled with anxieties and frustrations of my life. I will never have enough, and I will never stop comparing myself to others.

But friend— it is a daily struggle. It is an uphill battle. But know that you have the strength to fight all this bullshit— to find contentment.

I don’t believe in becoming some sort of Buddhist monk, retiring to a cave, and meditating 24/7. I believe that we need to interact with society, to give love, show love, and be useful.

Even now— I have (temporarily) withdrawn and retired from social media— partly because social media brings out my worst tendencies (being an attention whore) and seeking external gratification. I still see social media as a fantastic tool to get my messages across— hopefully to spread positivity and hope through this blog.

So how do we overcome “escapism”?

I think it is just knowing that your life is perfect as it is. There is nothing in your life that you need to “improve.” You don’t need to upgrade your car. You don’t need to upgrade your smartphone. You don’t need a bigger home. In-fact, it is your limitations which help force you to be more creative.

Also a lot of it is not blaming our external situations for being dissatisfied in life. It is rather blaming ourselves— blaming our lustful desires, and wanting shit that we don’t really need.

I don’t blame ourselves 100%— living in a capitalistic society is an occupational hazard. We will want to buy shit, and constantly have desires inflamed.

I am not immune; I am the worst. Whenever I go to the mall, I always leave being around $50-100 poorer. Whenever I enter the “App store” — I always download stupid games that I know that I don’t need— but I hope to “entertain” myself to escape my boredom.

To borrow from Nassim Taleb— one of the solutions is just to not be a sucker.

Always be like a boxer— on guard. Don’t let advertising, marketing, and bloggers (myself included) sucker-punch you into buying shit you don’t need, or feeling dissatisfied with your life.

Personally I am trying to figure out how to root out dissatisfaction from my life. I have gotten a lot of useful advice from Christianity, Stoicism, and Taoism (and a little bit of Buddhism)— but frankly speaking; we live in a different time. All those writers and ancient philosophers didn’t live in a world of Instagram, the internet, smartphones, and capitalism run amok.

For me, I found spending less time on the internet gives me less anxiety, less desires, and less frustration. I rarely visit Facebook, and everyday I try to uninstall one (distracting) app from my phone (which happens to be 90% of all apps). I also try to embrace Bruce Lee’s philosophy of aiming for a “daily decrease”, rather than a “daily increase.”

Another thing— I’ve found that trying to be a “minimalist” can also be a huge sense of anxiety and frustration. So fuck that.

Everyday I’ve been trying to cut out one possession, one stress, one anxiety, and one physical item from my life.

But trying to always hack away at the inessential has made me distracted. Rather than using that time to read, enrich my mind, and write— I am trying to fit this external model of being a “perfect zen-like minimalist” and trying to be a snobby asshole looking down on people with a lot of “stuff.”

I think the solution isn’t to have nothing, or to have the most toys when you’re dead. The aim is to have a moderate amount of possessions— stuff (rather, ‘tools’) which help you create beautiful works of art which bring you true satisfaction. And not letting stuff weigh you down.

So I know I preach a lot of the “one camera, one lens” philosophy. It works for me. I have the film Leica sitting in a cupboard at the house in Berkeley, and just have a digital Ricoh GR II in my backpack. To me, it gives me less stress.

However if you have several digital cameras and film cameras— that’s fine. Just don’t let your cameras cause you stress and anxiety.

Another tip; use a different camera for a different purpose. Very much how a chef uses different knives for different purposes, you should use one film camera for only black-and-white photos, and maybe use your digital cameras only for color photos (or vice-versa). Maybe your medium-format film camera will be good for portraits, your Fujifilm digital camera for your street photography, and your DSLR for your kid’s soccer games.

Don’t be a slave to your possessions— make your possessions your slave. It isn’t something I have been able to attain (yet); but I am still working hard towards this goal.

Another tip that has helped me find more contentment with my life is this— value all of the goods that I already have, and remember when I was a teenager, and imagine how much I would appreciate what I would have.

Never forget where you came from. Remember when you were a kid and you went to McDonalds and you pretended like you weren’t hungry because you couldn’t afford to buy anything? Remember when you would beg your friends for a slice of their pizza because you were still hungry after eating your shitty school-subsidized lunch? Remember when you would die to have $5 to go watch a movie? Now you got money and you’re spoiled— you forget where you came from, and you think that if you just buy more shit you’ll be happy.

Value all the stuff you own, but don’t be attached to it. Mentally discard them— imagine someone stealing your camera, your car, your goods— and vividly imagine being okay with it.

If any of your stuff creates anxiety for you (you get anxious that someone will steal your Leica M240) perhaps you should sell it and get a cheaper camera that you wouldn’t mind if someone stole it.

For example, I could afford a digital Leica— but I choose not to buy one; why? Well first of all, I have many times I would love to have one— but I could never justify spending $10,000 on a camera — when I could use that money to live in Vietnam for an entire year and not stress, or taking Cindy out to dinner 250 times (assuming dinner costs $40), or buy 10 round-trip tickets (costing $1,000 each round-trip flight). Not only that, but if I had a digital Leica, I would have anxiety of someone stealing it or losing it.

With a $550 digital camera (Ricoh GR II), I have no anxiety— if someone stole it I could buy another one tomorrow and not even think twice about it. If someone jacked my $10,000 camera, I would curse fortune for screwing me over— and I honestly doubt I would buy another digital Leica setup.

I want to end this letter to you on a positive note.

There is nothing that you need to “escape” from in life. You have the best life possible right now already. You have loving people in your life, you are alive, and you have a loving heart to share with society.

As with your photography— make photos that make you happy. Every time you take a photo hoping to get like’s on social media, a little part of you dies inside. In-fact, I think making photos that you think others will like (rather than making photos that please yourself) is prostitution.

And remind yourself; shit is hard. I’ll never stop being a consumerist, materialistic, or a sucker for brand-named goods, luxury goods, whatever. I will always feel deficient—but it is a daily reflection which helps me strong, kind of like how your body stays strong by going to the gym everyday.

A last thing to reflect— rather than feeling dissatisfaction for what you don’t have— write a “gratitude” list of 3 things every night before you sleep.

So this is what is on my gratitude list:

  1. Being blessed with digital technology which has helped me learn photography, and to have social media and the internet to quickly share the images with people I care about.
  2. To have my faculty of vision— knowing how horrible it might be if I didn’t have my vision (I have some friends with some eye diseases that might lose their sight in a decade or so).
  3. To live in a society where I don’t live in fear— where I have a loving family to chat with, eat delicious Vietnamese food with, and to be alive to share in the feast of life.

So try that friend, 3 things you’re grateful for everyday. This will transform your life, and you will realize that you have nothing to escape from.

Love always,

Sat, 3:11pm, Irvine @ Starbucks, with a “Blonde Roast” (not bad), listening to Kendrick Lamar, back cramping (need to do more Yoga today with Cindy), and a sense of gratitude and happiness permeating through my body (either that or its the caffeine in my system).

And never forget to always love yourself:

Scroll to Top