How to Stay Curious

Robert. Stockholm, 2015
Robert. Stockholm, 2015

Another thought I have had on my mind: how to stay curious in life.

One of the things I learn most from children is how amazingly curious they are in life. They see the world as full of possibilities, with no limits.

I see a child trying to stand up for the first time, how persistent and hard-working they are.

I see a child looking at a leaf on a tree, how amazed by it they are.

Man it sucks being an adult, all the wonderment in life has been sucked dry from us. We are no longer curious, we are told to listen to orders, to sit in our cubicle, shut up, collect our weekly pay stub, to not question authority, to tick boxes, answer emails, pay our taxes and bills dutifully, and to save a little for retirement every month, and hopefully one day retire at age 65, and be able to travel to Venice and Paris, then die.

As a child you’re like screw that– I don’t want to grow old like these suckers. I want to play, travel, explore, stay curious, learn, and have fun.

Do we even know how to have “fun” anymore– fun for the sake of fun, rather than for “self-improvement”, “optimization”, or “efficiency”?

When you go to the park, do you see kids playing on the jungle gym because they feel guilty about eating a box full of Cheetos and needing to “work out”? No– they are kids, they just like having fun.

Personally, I have been trying to inject more “fun” into my life, and not taking things too seriously. Nowadays I go to the local park near my house, and do chin-ups for fun. I no longer count how many I can do, I just do it until I feel exhausted and fulfilled. I do one handed push-ups in my apartment because I enjoy the experience of being able to test myself and push my limits, instead of trying to become “buff” like I did in high school or college. I swing a kettle bell because it is fun, and try my best not to count repetitions either.

I feel nowadays photography can sometimes feel like a chore or another pain in our lives. We embark on these “365 day” projects because we are no longer “inspired” in our lives, and honestly a lot of photography is just escapism from our shitty jobs and mundane lives. We are stuck in traffic going to work for an hour to an hour and a half, and the last thing we want to do is to fritter away our free time– so we frantically pick up dancing lessons, and other hobbies to fill in that lost time.

On the weekend we feel like we must go out and make photos, because we have no other time to fulfill our creative needs.

But if photography is making you even more anxious in your life, why are you doing it? Photography should be self-therapy, it should be something fun that you do for the sake of doing.

Back in the days when I started digital photography on a little Canon point-and-shoot, “social media” didn’t really exist, all the photos I made would be enjoyed by myself on my computer, and perhaps the few friends I emailed the photos to.

Back in the days of film, when I got photos processed on my little disposable film camera, I would make 2x 4×6” prints, one for myself and the family album, and one to a friend or another family member. And we still enjoyed the process to share it.

Now with social media– things are a bit weird. We upload our photos to Facebook and Instagram and all these other social media channels, to be enjoyed by this “anonymous crowd” — who exactly are we directing these images to? It is like throwing spaghetti on the wall and hoping that it sticks, and that someone will enjoy it. This is why I kind of like the idea of Snapchat, where you are sending images you take directly to people who you think might enjoy it.

Disregard convention

In order to be more curious in life, give the middle-finger to convention, what you’ve been told by your parents, the schools, your administrators, and your bosses. Test all assumptions by yourself, instead of what others told you to do.

Even with photography, imagine like you were an 8-year-old kid. Your parent gives you a digital camera, sticks it in “P” or automatic mode, and tells you to go out and shoot. You go out and you photograph anything you find interesting. Do you care about how many “likes” you are going to get by strangers on their internet? No, you’re going to have fun enjoying yourself by being creative with your framing, having the fun and enjoyment of exploring to figure out what to photograph, all without these tyrannies of worrying about “composition” and how to best post-process your photos. Oh yeah, and as a kid you wouldn’t really care about what camera or lens you’re using either, nor would you care about how many megapixels it had (you wouldn’t even know what that meant).

In Zen Buddhism they call this “beginner’s mind” or “child’s mind” — the concept is that in the expert’s mind there are only a few options, but in a beginner’s mind, the possibilities are limitless.

I hear a lot of artists saying similar things. Pablo Picasso said he spent his entire life trying to paint like a child again. Kanye West says whenever he is making a new album, he tries to have fun and play around like he’s a kid again. Even for me, I want to start shooting photography like I’m a child again.

One of the most enjoyable recent experiences I had shooting street photography was when I was doing my workshop in New Orleans. I had the Ricoh GR II (borrowed from my friend Michael) and stuck it in “P” mode, ISO 800, center-point autofocus, and I just went down the main streets (in lovely light) just taking photos of anything that interested me. I got totally absorbed in the “flow” and was in the “zone” — I didn’t worry too much about capturing the “decisive moment” nor did I care about composition so much. I just reacted to what was in front of me, and hit the shutter whenever I found something interesting.

I made a few decent photos, but that wasn’t the point– I felt free and liberated. I loved the feeling of just exploring, taking photos without any concern about the final result. Being a kid rocks.


After all these articles I’ve written and learned about the masters of street photography, my next step in my photography is to unlearn all the damage from this theory and concepts I’ve accumulated over the years.

I feel that when you’re a beginner, you are upheld by any sort of concepts or ideas, you just have fun. As you want to advance in your art and take things to the next level, you start to “learn” ideas, theories, concepts, and you start to make objectively “better” photos. You learn exposure, ISO, aperture, shutter-speed, you learn how to better compose, eliminate distractinge elements from the background, how to create more dynamic compositions, and so forth.

However soon you become trapped– you start to care too much about the opinions of others. You no longer shoot to please yourself, rather you are always looking at the teacher whether you are doing a good job or not. Even worse, you are looking for the external approval and admiration of an anonymous crowd on the Internet whether you are doing a good job or not.

Then once you become an “expert”, your mind becomes calcified and prone to not learning new things. Your mind builds these grooves like the tracks of a record, and it is hard to break out of that.

Apparently one of the best things that happened to Steve Jobs was when he got fired from Apple, and he no longer had the heaviness of being an expert, and was able to start off with a blank slate, like a kid again.

Blank slate

So friend, today as you embark on your photography journey, forget everything you’ve learned in the past, and start with a blank slate, or “carte blanche.”

Imagine yourself a kid; have fun, don’t take yourself too seriously.

Life is short, enjoy yourself. Make photos that you enjoy, not what you think others will enjoy.

Live life to the fullest, say hello to a stranger, high-five an old person, have a lovely espresso (single origin), and keep your photos offline. Print them, enjoy them, frame them, give them to friends.

Enjoy your life– you only have one.

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