pas·sion: A strong amorous feeling or desire; love; ardor. From the Latin word “pati”, which means to ‘suffer.’
We are often told in society “follow your passion” — and I do believe that concept (to an extent). Often we cannot control external factors (like whether or not we can make our passion our full-time profession), but we can control what we do with our spare time.
My impetus for you in this letter is to follow your passion in photography. But of course, before you can follow your passion, you must discover what your passion is.
The difference between “passion” and “enthusiasm”
The idea I got for writing this letter to you is based on a lovely talk by Sara Lando, one of the most incredible portrait photographers around, and also one of the most intelligent and sweet photographers I have ever met.
Sara did a talk at GPP in Dubai, and talked the difference between “passion” and “enthusiasm” in photography.
First of all, there is a general misconception of the words “passion” and “enthusiasm” in the modern world. However, Sara being an ancient Latin/Greek studies major in the past, was able to differentiate the differences.
When we think of the word “passion”— we generally think of the modern concept of “what you love.” However when we talk about the “passion of Christ” — it is more focused on pain and misery.
The first definition of “passion” I discovered in Google was:
passion: strong and barely controllable emotion.
Passion is not always a positive thing— as dictionary.com defines passion as:
passion: any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.
So you can be “passionate” about what you do— but in a negative way. Furthermore, you can feel “passionately hateful” to someone else (a negative trait).
Instead of “passion”, technically the more accurate term is “enthusiasm” — which Google defines as:
en·thu·si·asm: intense and eager enjoyment, interest, or approval.
However most people in modern English interchange passion (when they really mean enthusiasm).
The most interesting thing about the word “enthusiasm” is that it comes from the Greek word: “enthousiasmos”, which means “possessed by a god, inspired”.
But for the sake of this essay, I will just refer to the word “passion” (I don’t feel people really use the word “enthusiasm” as much anymore— although we should).
How to find your passion
Do you remember when you were a child? When you did stuff for fun? You simply follow your curiosity— you didn’t learn because you wanted to be “smarter”— you just did it for the pure joy of it.
Do you remember when you first picked up a camera? Do you remember before you learned all the technical settings, “rules” on composition, and other barriers to your learning? You simply photographed what you were interested in, and things that you loved.
I feel the first step in finding your passion in photography is to recollect your past. Vividly remember when you first picked up a camera. Where were you? What camera did you use? How old were you? What did you enjoy photographing?
For me, I was particularly interested in documenting my personal memories. When I started photography (18 years old), I just graduated high school, went to Korea for a summer, and was about to enter college. I’ve always had a horrible memory, so for me photography was about documenting my life, and about keeping it for posterity’s sake.
As time has gone on, however, photography has become less about this simple joy and documentation of my life. It has become more about becoming more “famous”, getting more followers on social media, and somehow trying to “prove myself” to other photographers. I’ve had a low-self esteem when I was younger, and I would constantly look to the affirmation of others for approval.
Even now, honestly— I am quite content with where I am with my photography (certainly a lot more in the past). Yet I am still envious of photographers who are more famous, more talented, and have more followers than me. It is a bug I know I will never be able to 100% eradicate— but I am trying.
What would you do if you won a billion dollars?
Okay— so let’s do this thought experiment: imagine you won the lottery tomorrow, and $1 billion dollars was transferred to your personal checking account. It would be the epitome of “fuck you money” — in which you would never have to do anything you didn’t want to do for the rest of your life.
Now the question isn’t “what would you do with your money?” The question is: “What would you do with your time, attention, and energy?”
So in regards to your photography— imagine that social media didn’t exist. You couldn’t get any “likes” on your photos, and you could only share your photos with a select few friends, family, and colleagues— what would you spend your time to photograph?
The first thing people say is that they want to travel the world and photograph the world. But honestly— do you really want to do that? Are you just saying that because you want to travel and see the world, or because you want to make “interesting” photos abroad because you feel like you cannot make interesting photos at home?
Let’s take a step back— what subject-matter did you photograph before you were a beginner in photography, and what was your motivation and impetus that drew you into making images?
I know some photographers who start off as designers, and for them photography is just an extension of them doing their art. For some others, photography is a way of having an excuse to leave their apartments, and for exploring the world.
For me, I think “street photography” is my passion because I love humanity, society, and making connections. To even be more clear, I am less passionate about “street photography” — I am more passionate about humanity as a whole. Photography just gives me an excuse to make new connections with others. I see the camera more as a tool to build a bridge between me and a stranger. I see the camera less a tool to make images.
For me, I honestly care less about images than making connections. And of course, this will be different for everybody, especially for you.
Why are you passionate about street photography?
Okay friend, if you are reading this, or on this blog, you are probably slightly inclined to being interested in this genre of “street photography” — and why? Perhaps you love spontaneity, the beauty of everyday life, and the fact that street photography is “unposed.” Not only that, but you probably have a deep current of humanity running through your veins, and you want to explore the world first-handedly, with a camera in-hand.
But the problem of becoming too passionate about street photography is that it can lead to frustration. For example, when I am not able to head into the city or a downtown area to shoot “street photography” I get frustrated. Furthermore, if you live in a boring suburb— yes, there are ways you can shoot “street photography” out there, but it won’t give you the same adrenaline rush as shooting on 5th avenue in NYC.
For me a partial solution is pursuing a concept of “personal photography” — in which you try to make the most beautiful and intimate photos of your own life. You are the actor of your play; you photograph your loved ones, your friends, and your simple life experiences.
The biggest benefit of photographing what is personal to you is that you don’t do it under the dictatorship of anyone else’s standards. You set the barometer, scale, and your own ruler. You judge and estimate your own photos by your own taste, aesthetics, and rules. You don’t really care about what others think about your work, because you are doing it for yourself.
Don’t force it
Also when it comes to finding your passion in photography; don’t over-complicate it.
What do you love to photograph, and what subject-matter are you intensely curious about?
What do you want to learn more about in photography, what do you want to explore. Do not consider what others might think a “good photograph” might be.
Sometimes to find our passion in photography, we need to be honest with ourselves— we need to also photograph what is personal to our own life story.
For example, if you were born in a ghetto or an inner-city, photographing gangsters and other troubled kids might suit you. However if you grew up middle-class in the suburbs, please don’t join a gang and photograph them to simply “make a name for yourself”, or to make an interesting “art project.”
You need to be authentic with your photography, art, and life. Brutally honest. You need to photograph who you are; not what others think who you are.
For example, if you are a more contemplative and introverted person— perhaps you should take a “zen-like” approach to your photography. You don’t always have to photograph people, simply photograph what brings you joy and happiness in your life.
Discover what not to photograph
Another practical tip— knowing what not to photograph is also an effective way to find your passion in photography.
For example, I personally started photographing landscapes and flowers, because that is what others “expected” of me. However over time, I got really bored of shooting landscapes all the time, as well as architecture (sooner or later, all of it started to look the same to me).
But what has never ceased to bore me is the human face, and humanity. There are so many different people of different backgrounds, colors, ethnicities, life experiences, and everyone has their own story— which is unique to them.
So I know that I am no longer interested or passionate about photographing the following: landscapes, animals, food, weddings, architecture, product photos, and studio photography.
So by subtracting what you are not interested in photography— what does this leave you with?
For me, it means that certain genres of photography interest me: street photography, personal documentary, documentary, and photo-journalism. I’ve always been a sucker for a good story— “visual storytelling” is another genre that is starting to interest me as well, something that photographer Ed Kashi does extremely well.
Another tip— try to avoid boredom in your photography at all costs. I think one of the worst feelings as a human being is to be bored. I would rather feel physical pain than to feel boredom.
By avoiding what you are not interested in, you can truly pursue what naturally stimulates, excites, and interests you.
The second you become bored with a photography project is the second you need to stop it. Others will argue that it is a good time to reassess your position in your photography (I agree), but to push past the “boredom” in your photography is to force something unnatural upon yourself.
Boredom is one of the best things built into human beings. It has provided us a natural stimuli to know what not to pursue in life.
Do you remember as a kid, when you were bored in class? It wasn’t because you were stupid or dumb— it was that you weren’t being challenged, or stimulated by what you were interested in.
I feel we all have natural talents and inclinations. Not only that, but I think the purpose of our lives is to fully develop our skills, faculties, and interests— to benefit humanity as a whole. So photography is less about trying to build your weak-points as a photographer, but to increase what you are good at.
Shoot what you’re good at
I also feel it is important to improve your strengths, rather than your weaknesses in photography.
Life is short. You will never master 10 genres of photography in your short tenure on earth. Having too many types of photography to pursue is a general distraction— I prefer the method of being like a laser-beam in your photography, and focusing all your time, attention, and energy on what you are good at.
One of the biggest benefits of photographing what you are good at is this: you build a positive “feedback loop” in which you stay motivated.
For example, if you photograph what you are good at, it will bring you happiness and joy. And that happiness and joy will continue to drive you forward to keep photographing.
Let’s say you do the opposite— and you try to photograph what you aren’t good at. Then you deal with frustration, anger, and your progress is stalled.
Nobody can become a fully-realized photographer in all different genres of photography. Just find what you are good at, what you enjoy, and keep honing in your personal diamond and skills.
Your life story is unique
To elaborate on this concept of a “life story” — you are a unique human being, with a series of life events that nobody else on the planet earth shares (but yourself).
So what is unique to your life? Explore that. Investigate that.
Humans love stories; the concept of story-telling has gone back to the beginning of humanity. What kind of story does your personal photos tell, and how are they different from others?
I also think most photographers spend too much time photographing the lives of others, rather than turning the camera to themselves.
What are the personal photos that only you can make? A million photographers can visit a rural village in Africa and take photos of sad starving kids. While this work is very important, there are probably thousand of other photographers who do this work far better than you.
Even when you are trying to develop your own “style” and vision as a photographer— be honest with yourself: are you simply trying to imitate or mimic another photographer, or are you being true to yourself to make photos that truly exemplify who you are as a human being?
There is only one of you out there. Keep telling your own stories.
Find inspiration in the everyday
The world is a fucking incredibly amazing, beautiful, and joyful place. If we ever get “jaded” from the amazing-ness of life, it is our problem, not the problem of the house in which we live in, the neighborhood in which we live in, and certainly not of the camera that we shoot in.
I’ll be frank— I get jaded easily. I succumb to the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome. Often I wish I was in San Francisco, not Berkeley. Yet the irony is that I know millions of people who would love to live in Berkeley, as well as many photographers in SF who would probably prefer to live in Berkeley as well (we have 20 different varieties of kale, quinoa, and some of the best coffee here in Berkeley).
For me, retraining myself to appreciate the beauty of everyday life comes from Cindy’s niece Amelia. She is around 10 months old now, and everything she looks at the world is with wonder, excitement, and curiosity. She holds a leaf in her hand like it is the most fascinating thing in the world, she loves colors sights and simple things like pebbles on the ground. She is so amazed by nature, and has a natural “biophilia”— the love of living things.
Just look around you. If you are reading this on a laptop or a smartphone— think about how amazing that piece of technology is. Also consider how amazing this concept of the “internet” is— you have the whole collective knowledge of humanity that can fit into your front pocket. Yet we complain that we don’t get 4G signal coverage everywhere and inaccurate GPS signals (my problem as well).
Even think about the concept of a “city” — it is amazing that it all works, without people constantly killing and robbing each other. Think about the amazing invention of “running water” and how we can flush toilets, instead of toil for hours just to survive.
Think about how amazing the concept of a digital camera is— and how social media has allowed you to share your photos with millions of people around the world.
The world is so amazing, often words cannot even describe it.
I was in a plane (15+ hour direct flight from Dubai to SFO via Emirates) and holy shit— I was in a fucking plane at 45,000+ feet in the air, going thousands of miles an hour, and somehow not exploding and dying in the air. I complain that the flight is too long— but at what point in history could we circumnavigate around the world (without any stops), and yet I still complain of jet lag?
To remain interested in the world, we need to start over again. We need to “reboot” or “reinstall” the operating systems of our mind. We need to embrace “child’s mind” or “beginner’s mind” — where all the beauties of the world expose themselves to us, and we are excited to document all of that excitement and joy.
Do it for yourself
Yeah yeah, I know it is cliche— but really; you need to shoot for yourself, and disregard the opinion of the world around you.
One of the things that fascinated me about Steve Jobs is how much he distrusted “market research” and the opinions of the “masses.” There is a concept of “crowd-sourcing” which is noble in theory (that the collective knowledge of a random group of people is superior to the knowledge of an individual). While things like Yelp reviews work quite well— how can you put your own personal happiness, art, and vision at the hands of a crowd of strangers?
Therefore, you need to safely disregard the opinion of others— I recommend first taking a break from social media, and not uploading photos online.
Treat this like your “incubation” phase. If you are a baby chick, you need to stay warm inside an incubator, and you need to let your ideas germinate, grow, without the outside world trying to kill it.
If you have an idea for a photographic project and you share it with others too quickly; they will easily disregard it, criticize it, or try to kill it. Sometimes they have good intentions, other times envy hits them, and other times their opinion of your idea simply isn’t useful to you.
If you have an idea for any sort of photographic project, just pursue it. Shoot it first, do all the sequencing and editing (choosing of your images), and then share it with others when you yourself feel that it is a “final product.” Then you can take some criticism and constructive feedback to help you hone your vision.
But once again, you need to not be on the “social media treadmill” of just trying to upload one photo a day. How can you expect to create a great body of work, if you are constantly being distracted by how many likes, comments, favorites, or followers on “teh interwebz?”
Another practical strategy to find your passion in photography is to cross-pollinate your ideas.
Imagine you are a bee, you are pollinating two flowers. And in that mixing, you come up with something unique.
Let’s say you are a painter, and also a photographer. How can you mix these two ideas to come up with novel ideas?
Let’s say you are a sculptor, and a photographer. Let’s say you are a businessman and a photographer, let’s say you are a teacher and a photographer. How can you create novel new ideas out of more than 1 thing you are passionate and interested about?
For example, my primary interest in life is sociology, philosophy, psychology, and the human spirit. I also love to teach, connect with others, and to travel.
I have been fortunate enough to “cross-pollinate” between all these fields of interest to produce a blog on street photography, where I like to share knowledge, information, while also traveling the world and teaching workshops on street photography.
It is a very unique niche to be in— but none of this would have been possible if I didn’t cross-pollinate all of my interests, skills, and passions.
There is nobody like you out there
There is nobody out there with the same unique combinations of skills, interests, and things you are enthusiastic about. Rather than trying to follow what others have done, see how you can carve your own unique niche.
There is a concept of “idea sex” (Justine Musk explains this is how Elon Musk comes up with new ideas) — in which you take two ideas, and let them make “idea babies”. For example, Elon Musk was always interested in the internet, renewable energy, and transportation. How did he combine all these interests? Well, he ended up being a co-founder for Paypal, which was to revolutionize banking via the internet. And now with his new 3 ventures: SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City— he is trying to revolutionize transportation, while also creating sustainable energy for the future.
“Unified field theory”
To continue with Elon Musk— he pursues what physicists call a “unified field theory” — that all the things that you pursue in life end up intersecting, and cross-pollinating one another, and also building upon one another.
Einstein tried to come up with a “theory of everything” (as well as Stephen Hawking), in which the universe will be “explained” by a few fundamental concepts in Physics.
So how can you create a “unified field theory” in your photography? How do all your diverse interests converge into your main central idea?
Make yourself naked
If you want to know what you are passionate about in photography— you need to make yourself naked and bare.
This takes a lot of courage. What are you afraid to photograph? What are you afraid to expose about yourself?
If you want to be truly honest with yourself in your photography, you need to be very frank. You mustn’t censor yourself. You need to show your own reality, your own version of “truth” through your images.
Sometimes photographers will not photograph something they’re interested in because it feels “too personal.” But once again— making it personal is what makes it unique, special, and full of love and compassion.
To find your passion in photography is to discover who you are as a person— to stare at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself difficult questions about yourself such as:
- Who am I?
- Why do I do what I do?
- What excites or frightens me in life?
- What are my strengths, and how can I continue to build upon them?
- What are my weaknesses, what am I afraid of, and what am I not comfortable with others knowing about me?
- Am I photographing what I truly want to photograph, or photographing what I think others will like?
- If nobody else in the world existed, would I still make photographs?
- Do I care more about the opinions of what others think about my photography than my own opinion of my own photography?
Take a break
Another practical piece of advice for finding your passion in photography— take a break, use that time to meditate, think, and reflect.
For me, I was on the “street photography treadmill” where I just spent everyday trying to find out ways how I could get into the city as much as possible to make photos.
But once I took a break from that, I was able to have the opportunity to reflect on why I loved making photos— rather than trying to focus on making “good” photos.
I also used this chance to really reflect on what a “good” photo meant to me. Was a “good” photo an image that would get a lot of likes on social media? Or was a “good” photo an image that I felt faithfully depicted what I found beautiful or interesting in a scene or a fellow human being?
One of the reasons I love to write is that it gives me a chance to reflect and mediate upon my life. Even this article I am writing for you is always writing for myself— to further flesh out my ideas, to also give me a sense of direction and purpose in my life.
Remember, it doesn’t need to be photography
As humans, we are all creative beings. To create is to be happy. When we are focused and “in the zone” of doing creative work, that is when we feel more “alive” and fulfilled.
This doesn’t need to be photography. Photography is just one of the many tools we can use in our “creativity toolbox”. We can draw, sing, paint, dance, and engage our creative faculties in many different ways.
Sometimes us photographers put ourselves into a box where we think we can only make photos because we aren’t “talented” at painting, drawing, or other forms of art.
Pablo Picasso once said that it took him several years to learn how to paint like Michelangelo, but it took him a lifetime to learn how to paint as a child.
See how you can summon and embrace your own inner-artist, your own inner-child, and to make art and to express yourself creatively, even if you have no “formal training” or skills.
Are you interested in painting? Go to the store, buy a cheap canvas, and start painting nonsense— and enjoy the process. If you are interested in drawing, just use a cheap piece of printer paper and start sketching with the closest writing-instrument at hand. If you are interested in writing or blogging, start a free blog and just start writing whatever is in your head, without fear of ridicule or judgement from others.
Stay creative as an artist and a human being— photography isn’t the most important thing in life; to be a productive and happy human being is.
Don’t shoot when you don’t want to shoot
The last point I want to leave you with this: don’t feel like you need to always be making photos.
I get it— the point of these 365 day projects and whatnot. But I think the problem is that it forces you to follow a mechanized routine of making photos to “stay inspired”— rather than focusing on making photos that you are truly passionate about.
I know I’ve made the claim in the past that you “should” make photos everyday. I no longer believe in that— only shoot when you want to shoot, and don’t force it. The more you try to force things, the less enthusiastic and passionate you will be about it.
As a writer, I struggle to always be “inspired” to write everyday. But now, I have taken the advice of Nassim Taleb and only write when I feel like writing. To write when you don’t feel like writing is like grinding your teeth on sand, or like forcing your way upstream.
True art and work should be effortless— like the Taoist concept of “wu-wei” (action without inaction). You need to get into the “zone” or a state of “flow”— where the images just pop out your camera, when the words flow from your fingertips, all without conscious thought or “effort.”
So don’t force your photography. Only shoot because it makes your heart sing, because it expresses your individuality, because it helps you stay curious, and because it make you exclaim how wonderful life is.
Always be joyful in making images, forever be a beginner and a child, and never stop following your curiosity in life.
6:57am, Monday, Feb 15th, 2016 on my ghetto “standing desk” in my apartment in Berkeley, with 4-5 shots of “weak” espresso made at home on my cheap Capresso machine. Today’s jet lag wasn’t so bad, yesterday woke up at 1:30am, today I woke up at 3:30am. Hopefully I can survive today, and continue to enjoy this sense of profound peace and happiness being back home in Berkeley— close to my friends and loved ones.
- The “Personal Photography” Manifesto
- How to Stay Curious
- Enjoy the Process
- Find out What to Photograph, Not How
- A Photographer’s Search For Meaning
- Why Do You Take Photos?
- Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
- Have Creative Confidence in Yourself
- Do You Like Your Own Photos?
- What’s Holding You Back?
- Simple Contentment
- How To Find Your Unique Voice in Photography
- Live a Life of Leisure
- The Cindy Project
- The Things That Matter Most
- The Point Isn’t to Be a Good Photographer, But to Enjoy Life
- Beginner’s Mind
- There is No Wrong Way to Shoot Street Photography
- You Can’t Control the Results, Only Effort
- On Capturing Beauty in the Mundane
- On Searching For the Maximum
- On the Shortness of Life
- Small is Beautiful
- Photography (and Life) is About Subtraction, Not Addition
- How to Be Happy in All Circumstances
- Desire the Life You Already Have
- Should You Shoot if You Don’t Want To?
- The Beauty of “Creative Constraints”