Tokyo, 2013

Dear friend,

I wanted to share some thoughts with you on “reducing”, “subtraction”, “less is more” — whatever along those lines.

The sirens of the digital age

In today’s world we are overwhelmed with distractions. Imagine the sirens from “The Odyssey” reaching out at you, trying to lure you into the water (to your untimely death), with their beautiful voices.

The “sirens” we have in today’s digital age are advertisements, text messages, emails, phone calls, tweets, Instagram posts, and any other form of “social media” online.

The last few weeks I have been trying my best to “cleanse” myself and to prevent myself from being distracted. I almost became a bit of a hermit— rarely turning on my phone (unless Cindy yelled at me to do something on the phone), and tried to see with how little technology and how little of the internet I could get by with.

And how did life go on? Surprisingly well.

## The “ideal” reading device

Let me share with you some findings I made when I was first of all, in Socal at Cindy’s family’s house.

First of all, I made a super-big mistake of bringing too many devices down. The two superfluous devices: the iPad and Kindle paper white.

You know I love reading, and most of the books I own are on Kindle, because I can’t be bothered carrying a lot of books and having that unnecessary weight when I’m traveling.

But this is the big problem: whenever I read an e-book, I always have the lingering feeling that there is probably a better or more “optimized” device to be reading that book on.

For example, when I read on the Kindle Paperwhite, I love the “look” of paper, the size, and how all my books are easily synced. The problem is that it is a bit slow— the pages have to “refresh” every time you “turn the page.”

I’ve tried reading on the iPad as well. First of all, I installed the Kindle app on it, which is a bit buggy and slow. I was frustrated that sometimes it would “lag” when I turned the page, and also another big problem— whenever I was reading a book on the iPad, I was always tempted to open Safari and start to research something— which distracted me. I could never become fully-engaged in the book.

Another problem with reading on the iPad Air: I always had the lingering idea— maybe I should go back to reading on the Kindle (less glare), or perhaps I should upgrade to the iPad Air 2 (which has a less glossy screen), or perhaps I should give away my (white) iPad Air and buy a black one (because black looks more “zen” or whatever).

I then even started to read books on my Kindle app on my smartphone. But the biggest problem? I would be tempted to check my text messages and also browse the web when I was reading a book. I was so easily distracted.

The solution? Reading “paper” (non-digital) books.

When I am reading a book on paper, I never have the distraction of wondering whether I am using the best “book-reading” device. I just focus on the words on the pages, and I absorb the pages, almost as easily as a fat kid absorbs chocolate cake into his stomach.

Of course the downside is that paper books are big, cumbersome, and sometimes heavy (hardcovers).

But honestly, after testing out all these different reading devices, there is nothing that beats the paper book. In-fact, I am trying my best to eschew my digital reading devices and switch only to reading on paper. And sure while I cannot travel with a ton of books (like I could with a Kindle), I would rather travel with one book that really speaks to me (preferably a small paperback book), and read it a hundred times, rather than having a hundred books on my Kindle and reading each book only once.

Another example of the best part of reading on a paper book; I re-read my “Steve Jobs” biography by Walter Isaacson, which I bought nearly 4-5 years ago in India. I have re-read it probably 4-5 times, and I am still amazed to see the notes I scribbled in the side of the margins, and also what I underlined and starred. I have a practice whenever I re-read a book, I try to use a different colored pen to denote the number of times I’ve read it. And the amazing thing about re-reading a book; you always re-discover new things that you didn’t notice the first time around.

Reduce devices

I bring up this story about books that while modern society tells us to buy more digital devices (more smartphones, more tablets, more laptops, more desktops) — the secret to being more focused, less distracted, and more creative is to have fewer devices— to reduce the amount of gadgets we have in our lives.

I’ve always loved gadgets my entire life. When I was in the 4th grade (living in Bayside, Queens in New York), I remember getting my first computer— an Acer PC with a whopping 1GB hard drive, Windows 95, and a blazing-fast 38.8k modem (for a long time I thought it was a 56k modem, but it actually wasn’t). I remember taking apart the computer, putting it back together, pirating software on AOL chatrooms, teaching myself Visual Basic 3.0 (until my computer hard drive crashed, losing all my progress; unfortunately I never picked it up again).

I loved tinkering with the computer— down the line I ended up building my own computers via parts I ordered online on Newegg.com or visiting Fry’s. I learned about processors, memory, hard drives, cases, cooling systems, fans, power supplies, and all that good stuff. Even for a while, I built computers and sold each one for a $100 profit— I sold about 10 of them, netting me a cool $1,000— which I used to buy my first car (Nissan Sentra 1991 4-door manual) from a mechanic who visited the Japanese restaurant my mom worked at.

I have always been a proponent of digital technology— and how it can empower people. For me, digital technology opened up a sense of curiosity and wonderment about the world. Anything seemed possible with digital— especially for me, a kid who had no money, whose parents lived paycheck-to-paycheck. Digital information and technology seemed to be the great liberator of those living in poverty, those who were poor or working-class, and that now anyone had the tools in their hands to empower themselves and drive humanity forward.

One of the big reasons I believe in the “open source” concept isn’t so much that open source makes someone more creative, or that it is superior. In-fact, most open-source software sucks in comparison to paid solutions (Microsoft office is far better than open office) — however open-source is still wonderful because it empowers people who have no money who can never afford an alternative.

Therefore even with this blog, all the information shared on it, is all free, open source (free to distribute, remix, and share)— because I genuinely believe that (some) of the information on this blog can help you, or help others empower themselves in their lives and photography.

Sorry I got detracted again. What I meant to write is that the main problem of technology is that while there are tons of great things about it; the evil of technology is that it is distracting as hell.

I for one know that I often blame my digital devices or tools that they are “holding me back” in terms of fully-expressing my human creativity.

For example, a photographer might feel that he/she isn’t truly “creative enough” because he/she “only” has a Fujifilm camera, and not a digital Leica. A photographer might feel also shitty because he/she “only” has a Windows computer, and not an Apple Macbook Pro with a retina screen (to be “creative”). Or perhaps we aren’t the best photographers we truly want to be, because the camera on our smartphone sucks. Whatever excuse.

I know that for me, the main reason I was (and still am) afflicted by Gear Acquisition Syndrome is that I am insecure about my own creativity, and I somehow feel that buying a new camera will increase my creative output.

But what ended up happening over the years is that I started to accrue too many cameras. I became bloated, and I spent more time and mental energy deciding which camera and which lens to shoot that day— rather than just going out and shooting.

So friend, if you have the “first world problem” of having too many cameras or lenses, try to reduce the amount of cameras/lenses you have.

Start off by mentally writing-off your cameras/lenses. Lock them in a cabinet (out of sight), and see how many days you can go without a camera and lens. And if you end up forgetting about the camera/lens all together— either give it away, sell it, or donate it (because it is just another distraction).

For me personally, I have experimented reducing all my superfluous devices. Currently I just have two devices; a smartphone (which I haven’t turned on for a few days), and a laptop. I think the only device I really “need” is the laptop (even the phone is superfluous— remember when we used to survive without “mobile phones” and definitely without having email installed on our phones?). And honestly, we survived for ages without a laptop— I probably don’t even “need” a laptop (but it is nice to have to write these words to you). I could easily write this on a notebook (except I can’t read my own handwriting, and the pain of having to type it again to publish digitally is a bit of a hassle).

Anyways— when I came back home to Berkeley, I purposefully left behind the iPad and Kindle Paperwhite at Cindy’s family home in Southern-California. And I’ve been starting to re-read many of my paper books in my library at my apartment, with lots of joy, excitement, and less distraction.

And honestly, I can survive and live without the iPad and Kindle Paperwhite. I think even when I move to Vietnam, I’m going to donate both devices to someone in-need, bring a handful of small paper books with me to Vietnam (or who knows, none at all), and try to further reduce the amount of stuff I carry and travel with.

3 things to avoid

Rather than trying to “add” happiness to our lives, why not try to reduce the amount of stress, anxiety, and frustration in our lives? As Nassim Taleb says, the avoidance of ‘unhappiness’ is more effective than the pursuit of ‘happiness.’

In one of the books I read on the ancient Greek philosophy of Cynicism (predated Christianity and even Stoicism) I read this fascinating principle (3 things to avoid in life):

  1. Avoid anything expensive
  2. Avoid anything that takes a lot of time
  3. Avoid anything that causes a lot of effort

Once I read that I thought to myself, “Shit— that is exactly what shooting film is like.”

  1. Film is expensive (to buy the film, and develop it if you send it to a lab)
  2. Film takes a lot of time to process, scan
  3. Film is a pain in the ass to scan

So logically, it makes no sense to shoot film. While I still prefer the philosophy of shooting film (one day my future kids can see my negatives, that it is probably going to last longer than digital photography, and the analogue approach)— the practicality of shooting digitally is far more appealing to me nowadays (it cost me $1000 to develop 100 rolls of film recently, I would have preferred to use that money to travel or buy a ton of pork belly).

So I was thinking— if we used that line of thinking to everything in life— I feel like life becomes a lot less stressful and complicated.

  1. Avoid anything expensive (expensive cars, expensive smartphones, expensive computers, expensive clothes, expensive homes)
  2. Avoid anything that takes a lot of time (time-consuming jobs that you hate, going to restaurants really far from your house, trimming the grass in your yard)
  3. Avoid anything that causes a lot of effort (effort that you think is useless; of course passionate effort in something you care about is different)

I was online the other day and saw that you can buy a brand new Nissan Versa for only $12,000. And you can buy a used Honda on Craigslist for only $5,000 (that is decently reliable)— even my $1000 Nissan Sentra was extremely reliable (until my sister crashed it).

Time is our most valuable resource— why waste it doing superfluous activities and things? The biggest mistake we often make in life is that we trade our time for our money. Rather, we should trade our money for time (if possible).

Furthermore, why add additional effort for unnecessary things? Rather than figuring what to do today— you should think about what not to do today.

Even with productivity systems, don’t add things to your “to-do” list— create a not to do list (not check email, not go on Facebook, not use your smartphone, not go on YouTube, etc).

Reduce complexity in your life by avoiding those 3 things I mentioned above.

Reduce clutter

I was thinking a lot about how you can add this reductionist philosophy to photography.

First of all, try to reduce the clutter in your photos. The biggest composition tip I can offer is when shooting a photo, always look at the edges and the background of your scene, and try not to get overlapping figures, distracting backgrounds, or any other unnecessary clutter.

As a photographer, you should try to be a surgeon— trying to cut out distractions (like how a surgeon will cut away a tumor with a scalpel).

Bruce Lee once said that the secret to life was the “daily decrease” — not the “daily increase.” And the truly great martial artist would master 1-2 moves and do it a hundred times, rather than know a hundred moves poorly.

Reduction in innovation

The innovation for the iPhone is that it didn’t have a keyboard, and each new iteration of the iPhone is trying to reduce the weight, reduce the size, and to reduce the amount of complexity.

I think the most innovative camera in the last 10 years is the Leica M-A (fully-mechanical film Leica). While all the other camera companies are adding new features (designers call this “feature creep”) to get you to buy more cameras, Leica is making the smart move of removing superfluous functions. I first thought the Leica M-A was the stupidest hipster camera ever made (why would you get rid of the light meter, the film Leica MP with a meter seemed like a more logical choice). But then it made beautiful sense to me— by having one less feature in a camera (not having a camera meter)— forced you to be more creative by understanding the light, and not being a slave to a meter.

Furthermore, the new digital Leica M has removed functions— no more stupid video and live-view. Furthermore, it has reduced the weight of the camera compared to the older Leica M240. Bravo Leica— you did a truly amazing thing both digitally and with film, my only hope is that you build an “affordable” digital Leica M with no LCD screen, make the body even thinner and lighter— then you will have a truly “innovative” camera.

Even Fujifilm has been doing a good job— the innovation of the X100-series camera is that you cannot exchange the 35mm lens— which forces you to be innovative with one focal length. Furthermore, each iteration of the X100-series cameras has fewer complications in the menu, which makes for a better user-experience.

But then look at the other end— Sony, Nikon, Canon who are adding megapixels to many of their cameras (with the exception of the Sony a7s-series cameras), to complicate our lives. They are just bloating their numbers because stupid consumers think that more megapixels means better image quality. And I don’t blame the consumers, advertisers are sneaky.

Don’t upgrade

I recently read an autobiography of Henry Ford, and one of the things that fascinated me the most about his philosophy with the “Model T” car is that he wanted a car that never went out of style. That it would be the “universal” car— and it only came in one color (black). Less stress for the consumer.

And not only that, but he was quite adamant against making new models and new styles for the sake of it— so consumers would notice differences and want to “upgrade” their cars.

And we can see it today— each new car company is trying to add more features to their cars (auto-park, bluetooth, backup cameras) and add new design touches (wider bumpers, more aggressive headlights, etc) and trying to make enough differences to get a consumer to “upgrade” their car.

But where are the car companies that are trying to remove superfluous features form their cars?

Same with every consumer product out there. Every new smartphone has “new” and “added” functions— which nudge you to buy it.

Why did Apple build the iPad Pro — a bigger, more cumbersome, heavier, with added accessories (keyboard, pen), when the secret would have been to remove superfluous features from the iPad Air?

I actually think the best innovation Apple has made in the longest time is the 12’’ Macbook — precisely because it has removed all the superfluous ports in the computer (honestly nobody really ‘needs’ a USB port anymore with Wifi). Remember how revolutionary the Macbook Air was when it got rid of the CD-rom drive (then people were pissed off, but then who uses a CD-rom anymore?)

So friend, try your best not to get suckered into “upgrading.”

Try the opposite— downgrade.

Downgrade your lifestyle. Rather than shopping at Staples or Walgreens, hit up the Dollar Tree.

Rather than eating out all the time, cook more at home.

Rather than traveling internationally, try to travel more nationally.

Rather than buy that new digital camera, see if you can actually “downgrade” your digital camera (sell your DSLR and buy a compact camera).

Rather than trying to upgrade your smartphone, see how you can remove superfluous apps from your phone, and to reduce the amount of time you actually spend on your phone.

As with love and family— rather than trying to “add” family time to your schedule— see how you can reduce pettiness and arguments, and how you can reduce how distracted you are when you are spending time with family and loved ones.

Next time you travel, rather than asking yourself what to bring on the trip, try to ask yourself what not to bring.

There is a true beauty in lightness.

As for me, everyday I am trying to reduce to make my life simpler, but more empty to allow in more love, life, and creativity.

I’ve pretty much reduced my entire wardrobe to all black (black shoes, black jeans, black V-neck shirt). Less stress and complication when dressing and traveling (and if I spill coffee on myself, nobody will notice). Oh yeah, the coffee is all black too.

I’ve reduced my cameras to the Ricoh GR II. All other cameras I have them on “unlimited loans” to my friends, or I have donated them to friends in need.

I’m trying to reduce the amount of time I spend on the internet, and more time reading books.

I’m trying to reduce the amount of pettiness I have with Cindy. Rather than yelling her at the small annoying stuff, I try to be more patient and loving.

I am also trying to reduce the amount of time I travel. This means less time jet-lagged, more time to be productive, and more time at home with my loved ones.

I’m also trying to reduce all other forms of complexity in my life— rather than trying to say “yes” to more opportunities in terms of photography and business, I am trying to learn how to better say “no.”

I am also trying to reduce the amount of physical noise in my life (I often sleep with earplugs at night to sleep better, and use noise-cancelling headphones at Cafe’s to block out the ambient noise which can be a bit distracting). Like even now as I type this, I have noise-cancelling headphones on (not playing music), because the chatter at the cafe’ can sometimes get too distracting.

I am even trying to reduce the frequency that I write and publish. Nowadays I am trying not to force myself to write or publish— only when I feel like it, or have something worth to say (contrary to the popular advice that you “should” write everyday).

Similarly with photography— one of the big changes I made in my philosophy is to not force yourself to shoot everyday. Rather, only shoot when it is meaningful to you. And to shoot more with your intuition and heart, and personal loved ones.

What can you reduce today?

Think to yourself— what can you reduce, subtract, or eliminate (all together) in your life?

Personally this year I am trying to remove all alcohol from my life (I am not a big drinker, but drinking makes me feel physically ill). I am trying to remove all added sugar from my life. I am trying to remove social media. I am trying to remove negativity and superfluous bullshit.

In terms of photography, I am trying to reduce the jealousy I have of other photographers who are more successful and famous than me. I am trying to make my photography more personal, and to shoot fewer strangers, and more of my loved ones (my “Cindy Project” is going strong).

Don’t look outside yourself

A simple Blurb book I printed for my Mom of our time together last summer in Marseille

As a last note, I want you to not worry so much about shooting anything outside of yourself and life. If you are a middle-aged white guy living in the suburbs, don’t renounce your life and suddenly start photographing gangsters in the hood. Rather, shoot what is already in your life (your friends, children, wife, loved ones, whatever is meaningful to you).

Don’t try to photograph the far and exotic— you will just end up with cliche’ National Geographic-esque photos. Shoot what is close, personal— and what you know.

Another reason why I am trying not to classify myself as a “street photographer” is that it makes me a slave to my environment. If I suddenly moved to the woods or a cabin in the mountains and no longer had any “streets” to shoot— would I give up photography?

So therefore the concept of “personal photography” — don’t label yourself. Just shoot what is personal and meaningful to you. Nothing far away, difficult, nor expensive to reach. What is close, local, and easy to photograph.

That’s it friend, if you want some books to inspire and motivate you — here are some books I recently read:

Wed, 3:14pm, Jan 6, 2016 @ Philz Coffee (‘Gilman district’ in Berkeley)