I wanted to write you this letter on traveling; my experiences globe-trotting around the world, my motivations, and things I have learned along the way:
I remember when I was 18 years old, I never really had much of an interest to travel. I traveled a few times to Korea, but otherwise never left California (besides living in New York a few years when I was a kid).
I think my first interest in traveling occurred when I started to get interested in photography. I was 18 years old, I got my first digital point-and-shoot Canon camera, and I went to Korea for a summer. I remember how much fun and excitement I had capturing images on this little device; how I was able to express myself creatively, capture moments of my daily life, and enjoy have fun along the way.
At the time Facebook and other social media platforms didn’t exist, so all of my photos and writing showed up either on Xanga (an old blogging platform), and I believe later on WordPress. I also remember starting my own privately hosted “photo blog” on erickimphotography.com, where I set up my own server, and installed a backend which allowed me to upload one photo a day.
These were some of the most fun days in my photography days. I had fun shooting for myself, didn’t take myself too seriously, and enjoyed my experiences being in Korea, and just took photos along the way.
Somewhere down the line, taking photos started to take a precedence over enjoying my experiences in Korea. Rather than enjoying my delicious Korean food, enjoying my experiences being on the subway, my primary motivation seemed to be to “make good photos.”
I think this is where my first lust for traveling happened.
When I came back from Korea, it was back to life in the states again. While I did enjoy my first years of college, back in the end of my mind I wanted to hit the road again. I wanted to travel, see the world, and make “interesting” photos. I am not sure whether my motivations were truly to “see the world” and expand my mind or whether it was to make good photos.
Anyways, as I started to progress in my photography and my college career, I started to plot of ways I could travel. I remember looking into foreign-exchange opportunities, yet being dismayed by the prices involved. I grew up with a single working-class mom, and I was able to pay my way through college with student loans and working a student job. Even though I wasn’t very fiscally responsible back then, I knew that I would be fucked if I got into massive amounts of student loans (like my fellow peers were), and I needed to stay in the states to work my part-time job (in order to pay for college).
For a while I was a bit dismayed— I wanted to travel and see the world, yet I was stuck in the smog-polluted Los Angeles.
Enter Cindy— who I didn’t know at the time would become the love of my life.
I met her at “Kyrie” (which was the Korean-American Catholic community on campus, even though Cindy wasn’t Korean, all Catholics and those interested were free to join). Everyone knew her as the “free spirit”— the one who was creative, joyful, optimistic about life, and who traveled. She spent about two summers abroad in Paris, so I knew that I wanted to talk to her about traveling.
We knew each other since we were both 18 years old, but we didn’t really start talking our Junior year (when we were both in our 20’s). While I was playing beer-pong with my friends and beer bongs with my friends, she was the sophisticated one hosting wine and cheese parties. While I was listening to hip-hop and wearing baggy jeans, she was listening to jazz and wore her trendy thrifted clothes. While I played this pseudo-macho masculine type, she was the elegant, simple, yet classy one. We were seriously from two different worlds.
Anyways, I started to talk to her more about my interest in traveling— which really caused our friendship to take off. Even though personality-wise we were so different, we began to bond over this concept of traveling, life experiences, and creating art. In-fact, when we first started to engage with one another, I gave her my Canon Rebel XT (EOS 350D) to her, in order for her to pursue her interest in photography (later I discovered she got attracted to me early-on because of my “artistic” photographic skills— thank God for photography).
We started to spend a lot more time together, and eventually one day I told her my interest in backpacking through Europe (at the time I got interested in street photography and fantasized about shooting in the streets of Paris like Henri Cartier-Bresson). She got super-excited from this, and started to tell me about hostels, Ryanair, and other ways to backpack through Europe.
As time went on, our interest in each other deepened. We started to spend more time together, drank more together, and this innocent friendship started to blossom into something else. Somewhere along the line, I remember we got drunk off wine and she encouraged me to really take the leap and perhaps borrow some money to travel (her reasoning was this: when we are young, we have a lot of time but not a lot of money, but when we get older, we have a lot of money but no time).
So after drinking with Cindy, I went home and said, “Fuck it” and took out a $5,000 loan from UCLA, and thought to myself: “Now or never.”
I told Cindy the next day what I did, and she was like, “What!?!?!? You did what?!!?” She encouraged me to borrow some money to travel, but didn’t know that I would actually do it.
Somewhere along the line, she became so invested in helping me plan my Europe trip (Junior year summer before Senior year), that she told me: “You know what Eric, I’ve invested so much time into helping you plan this trip, no matter what you say I don’t care— I’m going with you!” I struggled, looked cool, and said, “Sure, but you’re going to drag me down— I’m not sure whether I want to go with you” (of course deep-down inside I was excited beyond belief).
Fast-forward a bit, we end up backpacking through Europe together, first arriving and meeting in Paris, flying to Rome, and then taking the train to Florence and Cinque Terre. From there we split, and I took a train to Venice, flew to Prague, flew to London, and flew back home.
At that point forward, I developed a lust for traveling, having new experiences, and broadening my experiences in the world.
Photography and travel
Once I was back home, once again— boring old life. For my backpacking trip through Europe, I brought a Canon 5D (original), a 35mm f/2 (used 99% of the time), and a 24mm f/2.8 (rarely used). I remember how much I hated bringing my 5D (so damn heavy) yet I was quite happy with the photos I took. I made around 1,000 photos a day for about 30 days (30,000 RAW photos to look through), and in the end, I probably got around 3 photos I was really really happy with.
While I did really enjoy my backpacking experiences with Cindy (through the trip we ended up getting together as a couple), I now had a hunger to see the world and to make good photos.
When I was in college, I fell in love with sociology, and had dreams of becoming a sociology professor. Yet the thought of going to school for another 5-7 years didn’t seem so appealing, and (with the help of Cindy) I ended up interning at a company called “Demand Media” (they own websites like eHow.com) and pursued a “social media” route. I interned there for a year my senior year, loved how I could apply my sociological concepts to online marketing and community-management, and ended up getting lucky enough to land a full-time job there as a “Online Community Manager.” Also my senior year I pursued my interest in Facebook and online social networks in a class that I taught: “The Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks.”
I loved my job at first, when I was learning massively. But soon once I “mastered” my job and everything, I felt stuck. I felt like a prisoner in my cubicle. I wanted to break out. I wanted freedom. I wanted to travel. I felt like a bird stuck in a golden cage. Fuck the money, stock options, whatever— I just wanted to travel, see the world, make photos, and be happy.
I started my photography blog after I graduated college (when I was around 21 years old), because I had a genuine love and passion for street photography, and wanted to share some of the things I learned along the way with others on the internet. When I first started shooting street photography, there was very little useful and practical information on “how” to shoot street photography. Through a lot of personal experimentation and research, I decided to help share this information on my blog. I had no idea that one day this would become my full-time profession.
So the blog started humbly (see my first post here); I would share snapshots from my trips (an early post in 2010 going to Madison, Wisconsin with Cindy)
An early blog post I did (100 things I learned about photography) went viral (later turned in 101 things I have learned about street photography) I got invited to Beirut, Lebanon to teach my first workshop (thanks to Loryne) where I also got massive help fundraising my trip (and also special thanks to Thomas Leuthard who made this trip possible).
When I first went to Beirut, my mind was blown— the generosity, love of the people there. Funny story— my host Mohammad’s traditional Lebanese mom told me to ditch Cindy back home, and that she would help me find a beautiful local Lebanese wife.
Do it for the love
I continued to build up my blog for the pure love of it. For an entire year or so, I posted consistently 3-times a week (Mon, Wed, Friday), and would wake up early before work to post. I shared street photography tips, featured other passionate street photographers, and tried my best to engage and help the community.
One day I got the news — I lost my job. It was at that moment I decided that it was finally my time to take the risk of “teaching street photography” full-time, traveling, and finally having being able to see the world.
Since that moment, I have been able to see the world— I’ve been to all the big cities I dreamed of my entire life: Beirut, Tokyo, Zurich, Marseille, Paris, Prague, Florence, Rome, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, Manila, Seoul, Kyoto, Berlin, Vancouver, Seattle, Lisbon, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, Istanbul, London, Brighton, Venice, Cinque Terre, Manchester, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Stockholm, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hong Kong, Saigon, Hanoi, Dubai, and a few others.
I have been massively blessed; I’ve used this opportunity to see the world, learn about new cultures, connect with people from all around the world, and really open up my eyes and heart to the world-at-large.
What have I learned through traveling?
Sorry friend for rambling on about my personal history with traveling— I simply shared it because I wanted to give you a little autobiographical background to give you the sense of where I’m coming from.
To continue this letter— what did I learn from traveling?
I’ve learned that at the end of the day, we are all human beings. No matter our color, race, or ethnicity— we are all far more similar than dissimilar as human beings. We all love to sing, dance, love, share conversations, eat, drink, and be merry.
Not only that, but the world is such a huge and massive place— and we are such a tiny part of it.
Furthermore, I have also learned that through globalization, the world is a lot more similar than dissimilar. For example, there is no major city in the world where I cannot find a Starbucks, a McDonalds, and could go visit a mall and watch a movie.
And the biggest take-away from traveling is this: you can live a happy life anywhere in the world.
Traveling as a cure for discontentment?
I think more deeply about my experiences traveling— and honestly, I think it all came down to the idea that I wanted to travel to escape my boring life, and I felt that “happiness” somehow existed “out there” — either in Paris, Tokyo, Seoul, or any other exotic city.
I was never satisfied with home.
But it was all escapism— rather than trying to find the good in my own hometown and adjusting to that, I wanted to find happiness outside of myself.
And after these grueling and exciting past 5-6 years or so (2010-2016) I’ve realized that home is where the heart is. It isn’t the fault of where I am living that life sucks— the problem is my own problem. My own attitude. My own outlook on life.
Traveling will not bring you happiness
For such a long time, I’ve devoted myself to the “pursuit of happiness.” I’ve made the sucker mistake in thinking that “happiness” was an emotion; a feeling that erupted from my body.
But to be truthful, that kind of elation of “happiness” is short and fleeting. And if I wanted to always feel that sensation of being “happy”, I would just take ecstasy and just be drugged out 24/7. After all, this feeling of “happiness” is nothing but serotonin being pumped into our bloodstream by our brains. Having serotonin being in our brain surely isn’t the meaning of life.
When I would travel to exotic new cities, dopamine and serotonin would be pumped into my brain, because I would feel excitement of seeing a new city. I am ashamed to admit that I am now calloused to going to new (or old) exotic cities— it all looks the same now to me. I am now jaded, I don’t really feel excited anymore going to NYC, Dubai, Tokyo, or Paris. It all looks and feels the same.
What is the only thing that has brought me “true” joy in life? My loved ones, my friends, my family, doing work that is meaningful to me (writing, reading, teaching). And to be honest, travel is no longer one of these passions I have in life.
I thank travel for helping open up my eyes to the world, but at the end of the day, now that I am satisfied with my life and connections, I no longer “need” traveling as a tool to help unlock the truth about the world.
In the book “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, a young shepherd boy is trying to find his “heart’s treasure”. He thinks that it exists outside of his sleepy town in Egypt. So he risks everything, and goes on this grand adventure to find it. The “universe conspires in his favor” — and he is able to overcome all his obstacles. And the interesting take-away from the story? He discovers in the end that his “heart’s treasure” lies in his home. The irony is that it takes him this massive journey to teach him that “home is where the heart is.”
So friend, why do you want to travel? Is it to escape discontentment in your life? Is it to broaden and open up your mind?
Realize that travel is just a tool to help shake up your mind, to help take away prejudices from your mind, to help you see how wonderful the world is.
But when you have found a sense of peace in your heart and personal “enlightenment” — you no longer “need” to travel. After all, what need do you have to travel, to see novel new sights?
True contentment is finding peace in your heart, to finding joy and excitement with your personal relationships, and to create work that is meaningful to you.
Don’t be a slave to traveling and photography
One of the main reasons people like to travel is because they want to make interesting photos (National-geographic-esque) images in foreign and exotic cities.
But the problem of this? 99% of the time you are stuck at your boring job— how can you find happiness and contentment in your life expecting to always be on the road, taking photos in India and southeast Asia?
And trust me friend, the life of traveling 24/7 and 365 days in the year is not glamorous at all. I’ve met so many photographers who are nomads their entire life, and they bemoan their lack of having a home, of having roots, and having contact with their loved ones and family.
Even now, I am here in Dubai— missing home. I love all my friends here, but I know that my true heart’s treasure (Cindy) is back in Berkeley. I look forward again going back to the grocery store with her, talking to the local butcher, and having a nice coffee at the local coffeeshop and talking up with the baristas. I look forward in seeing my friends again and enjoying leisurely 3-hour dinners. I look forward in going back to my (paper) library, and reading my beloved books.
Practical tips traveling
Some practical tips:
So you might be reading this and thinking, “Oh boohoo Eric, you have such a tough life, always traveling and doing what you love.” I don’t mean to give that impression— I am 100% grateful for the life that I have, but I just want to clarify to you that you do not need to travel in order to be happy with life.
However I still do recommend you to travel. After all, money spent on experiences is a far better return than buying stuff. Experiences last with you forever in your memory, mind, and heart. Trust me, when you are 90 years old and on your deathbed, you will value your travels and experiences with your loved ones far more than the new BMW you buy (or even that new camera that you buy).
So as a rule, try to invest your money in traveling (instead of buying that new shiny camera).
I think if I started photography all over again, I would recommend myself to buy a simple compact camera, one which is cheap, affordable, and easy to slip into my front pocket. I would tell myself to get a camera that will be least obtrusive and heavy during traveling, and to focus more on the experience of meeting new people and cultures, rather than focusing on making only photos.
Furthermore, it is better to take many mini-trips in a year, than just taking one big trip.
For example, let’s say you have $1,000 to travel. In theory, it is better to take 5 trips that cost $200 (you can fly locally) rather than one $1,000 international trip. Why? You are able to have more novelty and excitement in those 5 small trips, and honestly— going on a $1000 trip is not 5x more exciting than one $200 trip.
And know that “traveling” doesn’t need to be far— it can just be going for a 30-minute to 1-hour drive outside your home city on the weekends.
And if you can’t “travel”, just go to a neighborhood in your city that you rarely frequent.
And if you can’t even do that— try to find more mystery and interest in your own neighborhood. Think of this as a “creative constraint” — trying to find the “beauty in the mundane” in your boring and simple neighborhood.
Also when you travel, try to pack as light as humanly possible. Personally, I have a rule of only having one backpack when I travel that can carry all my stuff. I generally try to avoid cotton in all of my clothes (polyester and synthetic fabrics dry a lot quicker), and only pack 2x the clothing I need (one spare in my backpack, and one that I currently wear). In the evenings, I simply wash my clothes in shampoo, wring it, and hang-dry it (and generally it is dry the next morning).
Furthermore, as a general rule, whenever you pack your bag, remove half of it. I have gone on so many trips where half of my stuff is taken out.
What do you not need when traveling?
You don’t need more than 1 camera. If your camera breaks on your trip, worst-case scenario, just go to any camera store and just buy a new cheap one. And most cameras are robust enough not to break on you on a trip.
You don’t need more than 1 pair of shoes. Just get a comfortable pair of running shoes or hiking shoes or whatever— more than 1 pair of shoes is just extra luggage and will slow you down.
It is nice to have a smartphone or a laptop while traveling, but honestly— even these are extraneous. Often traveling without gadgets helps open up your mind and not be distracted. My first epic backpacking trip was done without a smartphone (we had these ancient things called ‘maps’)— and I am nowadays spoiled by Google maps on my smartphone. I no longer get “lost”, and find “serendipity” — oh, one of the downsides of technology.
To be honest, at the end of the day— you don’t even “need” a camera. A camera is nice to have while traveling, but if your point of traveling is to expand your mind, a camera is irrelevant.
Happiness is within you
Anyways friend, thank you for reading this super-long winded letter.
In short, love the life you already have at home, love your loved ones, love the camera you already own, and know that true happiness and joy doesn’t lie outside of your soul and heart.
You will not find happiness through traveling, but traveling can help open up your mind to help your realize that true happiness is with you wherever you are.
Always be strong,
6:24am, Feb 7, Sunday, 2016 @ “Holiday Inn Express” lobby in Dubai. Powered with two little paper cups of Nescafe instant coffee (honestly not bad at all).
Excited to start my first day of the film street photography workshop today! Just had a fantastic time in Dubai so far— yesterday I taught a 1-day “Flash street photography workshop”, and man, I forgot how much I enjoy shooting street photography here in Dubai (in the neighborhood of “Deira”— it is almost like I am shooting in Egypt).
For this trip, I packed quite light, my ThinkTank Perception 15 backpack, my film Leica MP and 35mm lens, 8 rolls of Tri-X film (pushed to 1600), my laptop, an iPad (I downloaded a bunch of games on it because I have this massive fright of being bored on a plane, but actually I ended up not playing any games, but doing a lot of reading instead).
As much as I love shooting with the film Leica, man— I am starting to miss the compactness and lightness of the Ricoh GR II. I also checked out the new Fuji x70, which is an incredibly cool compact camera. In writing this letter to you, it is funny— I started off photography with a small digital point-and-shoot compact camera, and I think I will eventually end up shooting only a small compact camera again. Who knows what will happen to the film Leica— I will probably just keep it, letting it collect dust, and perhaps give it to my future grandchildren or whatever.
But always in life, be light, be free, be unencumbered, and enjoy your life, and share your love and heart with others.