Street Photography is Self-Therapy

Provincetown, 2015

There are a lot of reasons why shoot street photography.

But one thing people never think about: street photography can be used as a form of self-therapy.

Personally I know when I was depressed and miserable in my life, street photography was my salvation. Street photography lowered my stress because it allowed me to walk around more, to see and appreciate the beauty of the world, and street photography specifically helped me build up my courage and helped me interact with strangers I never would before.

Street photography to heal the soul

In today’s world, many of us live pretty wretched lives. We live in the grind of the 9-5, hate our jobs, feel trapped, and feel there is no way out.

I feel the greatest gift of street photography is that it helps us heal our souls. By simply going out, walking about, talking with strangers, we are able to escape our little bubbles and cubicles, and to really engage with the world.

We begin to appreciate the small things in life. We prefer the walk around the block and a nice cup of coffee instead of lusting after that new BMW.

Much of social psychologists have discovered that people are happiest when with others (no surprise as humans are one of the most social animals on the planet).

I think a lot about street photography in general– I thought that all forms of photography were good for the soul, but the more I think about it, “street photography” specifically is one of the most democratic, open, and soul-healing forms of photography out there.


First of all, there are no barriers to entry. If you want to shoot “landscape” photography, you need to live in a place with a beautiful landscape. Most of us are now city-dwellers, inhaling pollution, and fighting the tyranny of the “concrete jungle”.

Furthermore, you don’t need an expensive or fancy camera. A smartphone will suffice. Anything that can capture and record light and create an image. In-fact, having “crappier” equipment in street photography is often better. Why? Super-sharp images are aesthetically unpleasant; gritty, high-contrast, slightly blurry and out-of-focus photos often add more emotion, mood, and humanity to our photos.

In addition, street photography gives us the opportunity to walk, explore, and enjoy the world. Many other forms of photography (studio and fashion photography) have us cooped up in a white box, reliant on others to shoot (we need to get models, lighting assistants, makeup assistants, etc). Street photography gives us true freedom– to roam the streets, and to go wherever our heart desires.

Also, street photography gives us the motivation to talk and interact with strangers. Now many street photography “purists” will say that you are not allowed to take photos of people (if you’ve talked to them). I call bullshit– I think one of the biggest benefits of street photography is to have the interaction with a complete stranger– to bond with them over commonalities (rather than differences), to step outside our shells, and to bare our hearts and souls to others.

To continue, you don’t need to ask for permission in street photography either. Keeping to yourself is also a form of “walking meditation” — you can just “zen” out by enjoying the feeling of your feet on the concrete, and by taking photos of beautiful fleeting moments, rather than worrying about being chatty or extroverted (when you’re an introvert at heart).

Street photography to fight PTSD

One of my friends Garrett was a war veteran, who was fighting PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after coming back home. He would have extreme anxiety and uncontrolled fits of anger (for no apparent reason). But street photography was also his salvation– it gave him the opportunity to step outside of his shell, to open up his heart to the world again, to connect with strangers.

Now Garrett Combs is also embarking on finding ways he can use street photography as a vehicle and medium as medicine to other war veterans. To use street photography to encourage these vets to interact with the world again– especially with strangers.

We are all human beings

One of the biggest things I’ve learned through street photography is that at the end of the day, no matter how scary someone looks, no matter how different they look from you, no matter how mean someone may seem– they are all human beings at the end of the day. They have hopes in their lives, dreams, they were all once children, they all love their moms, they enjoy good food and laughter, they enjoy the hug and embrace of a friend, they enjoy chilling on the couch and watching Netflix, and they have all felt heartbreak or experienced death in one way or another in their lives.

We are all so much more similar than dissimilar at the end of the day– why do we magnify out differences, rather than focusing on our similarities?

Well we are all born to be tribal people– we fear the “outsider” and the “stranger”, and we want to only trust people inside our circle. But that worked in the days where people would literally kill, rape, and pillage neighboring tribes. Fortunately in today’s modern world, most of us don’t have to deal with that stress (unfortunately there still are parts of the world where people live in daily fear of their lives).

So we are still high-strung, anxious, and fearful of death.

But if we no longer have death to fear, what do we really have to fear? Nothing. Everyone is our friend. We are all in one community of humankind. When we help others, we help ourselves. When we smile at a stranger, their “mirror neurons” activate, and they end up smiling back. You feel good, and they feel good– both of you walk away with the “warm glow” feeling. Then they will continue the domino effect– they will smile at someone else, and the chain will multiply. Your one smile has made 1,000 people happy in a day.

Don’t stop smiling

When we walk around today, we all look so damn grumpy. Why are we so grumpy? We are stressed out about our finances, how to pay the rent this month, our kids, our family members, our spouses, the shitty boss we have at work, the work that we hate doing, and the 100+ emails you haven’t responded to and feel really guilty about.

But damn, life is short. Why spend even a fraction of your day frowning and feeling grumpy?

Smile. Life is a blessing. To imagine that thousands upon thousands of years ago the universe just came into existence is pretty incredible. Then to imagine– how human life formed from little amoebas. How many generations and eons until we became “sentinent” human beings. However instead of using our genius minds and unlimited capabilities of creativity and self-expression, we are just suckered into wanting to buy more shit from advertising, to play more games and to drown away our sorrow, to be distracted by sports and other forms of popular entertainment– rather than living our lives to the fullest, shooting like it were our last day on earth, and embarking on more creative projects that would make our heart sing.

No matter how shitty I feel, I always try to smile to anyone I interact with. If I ask the barista how they’re doing, and they give me the generic, “Fine, how are you?” Rather than just saying “fine” and paying for my espresso, I will pause, say, “You know what, I’m having a pretty shitty day. I haven’t slept well last night, am stressed about my finances, just got into a fight with my partner, but I’m actually really looking forward to this espresso to make me feel better” [insert smile]. The barista will then sense my “no-bullshit” attitude and sense of genuine-ness, and first of all, be shook out of their robot-mechanical response, and treat me like a fellow human being. Sometimes they are even super generous and give me a free coffee or pastry on the house. And of course I respond by giving a generous tip and a generous smile.

We need street photography

So friend, if you truly feel that street photography is your salvation, and has helped heal your soul or given you self-therapy in one way or another, never give it up.

If you were sick on the bed, would you deny yourself treatment to get better?

If you had cancer, would you refuse chemotherapy?

If you had an upset stomach and massive diarrhea, would you not take stomach medicine to alleviate your suffering?

So why is it that we deny ourselves treatment from doing what we love– whether it be photography, painting, drawing, singing, dancing, theater, or any other form of artistic self-expression that will heal our soul, our mind, and our hearts?

Is it because we’re adults and we “should” do more “adult” things like answer those emails, pay our bills, give ourselves a stiff upper-lip, focus more on making more money, and denying ourselves medicine (creative medicine) for our souls?

Fuck being an adult– let us be kids again. Let us once again re-connect with that child-like innocence we had when we were younger. Embrace “beginner’s mind” in your photography as well — remember all the fun and lightness you had when you first picked up the camera? Try to relive that experience, and erase all the dogma you might have accumulated in your head over the years.

Be free, be happy, and shoot to your heart’s content.

Be strong friend,

Thursday, Jan 28, 2016. 8:23am, in my Berkeley apartment, with my ghetto standing desk, iPad + In-case stand + Apple keyboard

Scroll to Top