in·spi·ra·tion: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation
One of the things I am always hunting for is “inspiration” in my photography, life, and my writings. However before we get into the subject of “inspiration” — what does it exactly mean, where does it come from, and why is it important?
So the word “inspiration” comes from the Latin word: “īnspīrō” which literally means, “breathe into; excite; inflame; install; implant.”
From the Webster dictionary, it defines inspiration as:
A divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation
However when we think of the general “pop culture” definition of “inspiration” it is:
Something that makes someone want to do something or that gives someone an idea about what to do or create : a force or influence that inspires someone
What I find fascinating about the origin of the word “inspiration” is that it literally has to do with the breath, with the spirit— and some sort of “divine intervention.” Inspiration isn’t something that exists inside of us; it is something that we must inhale from the outside.
We need inspiration from the outside world. If we couldn’t breathe in oxygen, we would choke to death. And in terms of the divine— we often look outside of us for some sort of “spiritual intervention.”
In-fact; the word “genius” (in which we think “cleverness” or “originality”) is actually from the Latin which means “the guardian spirit of a person” or “inborn nature.” I think that all of us have a genius which is hidden within us, but we need “inspiration” to help stroke that fire within us. If we all have a genius implanted into us, it doesn’t need to be found outside of ourselves— we just need the match to ignite ourselves (via inspiration).
Why is inspiration important?
Before we get into the matters of how to find inspiration in our photography and life— we should first talk about why it is important to have inspiration in life.
Inspiration is what keeps us going; what keeps us breathing. Without inspiration we would literally die.
Many of us are born artists and creative children— but as we get older, we get the inspiration and the creativity crushed out of us. This happens through the school system, through grammar-stickler teachers, and parents who want us to get good grades to one day go to college and get “good” jobs, a 3-bedroom house, white picket fence, a dog, 2.5 children, and a BMW.
I remember when I was at my old job, when I was no longer inspired. I felt miserable, depressed— a strong sense of “ennui” (deadening of sensory signals in my body) made me feel trapped. I felt like a prisoner, I felt like a bird stuck in a golden cage. I just wanted to spread my wings and fly away.
Photography was my savior. Photography is what gave me a sense of hope, excitement and joy. Photography helped me exercise some of my creative capabilities— and the fantastic thing is that it didn’t require much. Especially street photography— all I needed was a public place, a camera, and a sense of confidence to make the art which I feel was hidden within my soul— just waiting to escape and be let free.
A lot of us have shitty jobs which we feel trapped in. But regardless of your external circumstances, you can always find freedom. For many of us, that is self-expression through photography.
But what happens when we become jaded with life and photography? We need inspiration to keep our lungs full of creative air. We need our hearts to keep beating. We need a reason to live.
This is why I feel inspiration is important. We will literally die (spiritually, mentally, and emotionally) without inspiration.
How to find inspiration
The world is an amazing and beautiful place. Think about it— how many blessings we have in the modern world. We have access to the internet (which has given us the cumulative access to knowledge from every era), and it is all free.
We can find inspiration in a tree. We can find inspiration in a child playing with rocks. We can find inspiration in music, theater, dance. We can find inspiration in books, records, and television shows. We can find inspiration in words, scribbles on a piece of paper, or in a coffee cup (preferably a strong espresso with lots of lovely crema on top).
We can find inspiration from foreign cities; we can find inspiration in our own (boring) hometowns.
I feel that inspiration is more of an attitude and a way of living, and a way of seeing the world, rather than this shocking and adrenaline-rushed feeling you get when suddenly all the dots connect.
I feel that inspiration is breathing in the air of humanity, of appreciating the energy and spirit that all of society gives us.
Inspiration in random places
For me personally, I find inspiration in the most unlikely places.
I find inspiration in hip hop music (Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Pusha T, Eminem, Nujabes, Lupe Fiasco). I find inspiration in philosophy (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Nassim Taleb, Publilius Syrus, Epictetus, Epicurus). I find inspiration in music videos, in films, and when chatting random people up in cafe’s. Best of all, I find inspiration in coffee shops, and in lovely single-origin espressos.
I find inspiration in heroes who have paved the path before I was even born. I find inspiration in heroic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, I find inspiration in Jesus Christ, I find inspiration in the Buddha, I find inspiration in martyrs who stood up for their beliefs, and were either killed, ridiculed, or driven to insanity or suicide. I find inspiration in writers, poets, and playwrights.
I find inspiration in my friends, my family, and to random strangers I meet. I find inspiration whenever I have a nice caffeine buzz, sit in front of my laptop, and feel my fingers pressing against the keys of my computer.
Avoid boredom at all costs
When I don’t feel inspired— I feel like shit. I feel jaded, upset, frustrated, and cramped. I feel like a pressure-cooker that isn’t letting the steam out.
Worst of all— when I don’t feel inspired, I feel bored. And I genuinely feel that the worst feeling in the world is boredom. I personally do everything that I can to not be bored.
Now that doesn’t mean that I am constantly on my smartphone, playing games, or watching Netflix. I think boredom is more of a sense of attitude of seeing the world.
For example, I can sit on the bus and literally do nothing— just think, and not be bored. Yet I can be at an exciting action movie or in some exotic city and be bored. I can be sitting in my apartment, looking out of the window with a homemade espresso and not be bored. I can however, be in Tokyo, in the middle of Ginza, and be “bored.”
I feel that often we feel boredom and a lack of inspiration when we have too much free time, without any good thing to direct our energy and attention towards.
For example, as a photographer— your job is to create images. Your job is to explore the world, and to capture and relish life. Your job is to find the beauty in the everyday and mundane— and be witness to others of divine beauty. Your job is to filter reality and to present your own unique vision of the world with others.
Your job of a photographer is not to sit in front of your computer, wishing that you had that newest digital camera, thinking that somehow buying a new camera will give you lasting “inspiration.”
I will admit my own failings— whenever I lack inspiration, I feel that buying a new camera, a new lens, or some other gadget will “inspire” me. This is the worst when it comes to writing as well— I feel if I get some new laptop, a new iPad, or a new keyboard or writing application I will suddenly be “inspired” to write more.
But that is all bullshit.
I have bought so many other cameras in the past and I will admit, you will be “inspired” to take more photos in the first week or two. But after that, you will revert back to your baseline sense of “inspiration” — and you will start hunting for that next new camera.
The only true way to find lasting inspiration in your life isn’t to change where you live, it isn’t to change your camera, but to change your attitude.
Furthermore, I encourage you to voraciously devour all sorts of art and creativity from as random and disparate fields as you can. The only rule is to not try to find inspiration in places you personally don’t find interesting.
For example, if you dislike museums and exhibitions— don’t go there to feel like you “need” to be “cultured” or whatnot. If you find inspiration on Instagram— go for it. No need to have some sort of “high-brow” inspiration.
If you find inspiration in gossip magazines, go for it. If you find inspiration in ghetto hip-hop music, go for it. If you find inspiration in sculpture, painting, or leather-making, go for it.
As humans, we never have an “original” thought. All thoughts are a culmination of ideas and concepts from those we learn from.
However, you can put together a novel combination of these ideas to present your own unique spin on things.
For example with cooking— most chefs have access to the same ingredients. What matters is how you combine these ingredients, in which order, and which ratio.
Same with photography— we all have access to the masters of photography. All the photos of the greats are available for free on the Magnumphotos.com website. We have free local libraries where we can borrow photography books by the cart-load. We have the Eric Kim blog where you can “Learn From the Masters of Photography.” There is no lack of information and inspiration out there— the only barrier you have is yourself.
Let yourself be distracted
Sometimes we feel bad for being distracted in the world. Ironically enough, often these “distractions” is what can help us get new ideas and find inspiration.
I personally beat myself up a lot for being “distracted.” However when I am feeling bored and doing something that I probably should not be doing (like browsing random blogs, or watching YouTube videos), I will come across something totally randomly which spurs my creativity.
For example, I was listening to the rap song “Control” by Big Sean and Kendrick Lamar. There is a verse by Kendrick Lamar in which he calls out all the other rappers in the rap game, and says “I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas.” What is his rationale? Kendrick says: “What is competition? I’m tryna raise the bar high.”
Now regardless of what your attitude to hip-hop music is; it is something I grew up with, and find a deep sense of inspiration from.
And for me that line by Kendrick called me out— to elevate my photography game, and for me to also try my best to take blogging to the next level.
So I feel that even for you in your photography— let your curiosity lead you. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t see certain sources of inspiration as “good” or “bad”— they are what they are. As long as you are stimulated, excited about life, and creating what you want to create— you have the closest thing to “happiness” that I personally find.
Inspiration is a process
I don’t believe that inspiration is a feeling where you just want to jump out of your chair and suddenly do “creative stuff.”
Rather, I feel that inspiration is a process— a method in which you apply yourself to create “art.”
Now I feel that this inspiration process is a matter of gathering ideas, synthesizing those ideas, and producing a final product.
Steve Jobs once said, “Great artists ship” — meaning, if you want to be an artist, you can’t just sit on your ass and just have good ideas without producing anything. If you don’t “ship” or produce an idea into fruition in the physical world, you ain’t got nothing.
We all know these people— people who have fantastic ideas, yet never execute. I will argue that executing ideas is 90% of the inspirational process— the other 10% is bunk.
So as a general rule— I recommend you to actively produce and create as an artist and a photographer. This means try to do at least one creative act a day. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to shoot everyday— you can be creative by singing a song, by writing down ideas in your journal, by reading a new book, by blogging, by uploading something to Instagram, or by having an engaging conversation with a friend about an idea you might have.
Another tip is don’t keep your ideas to yourself. Let your ideas spread like a seed, and germinate. Sometimes you have a ton of good ideas, but you are afraid that someone might “steal” your idea or whatever. But once again, if good ideas and inspiration is all about executing ideas— then an “idea” in itself is quite useless. Inspiration is about execution.
Buy books, not gear
I eat books for breakfast. No, really. Whenever I wake up in the morning, first thing I do is jump out of bed, take an icy-cold shower (yes full-cold on blast, it is akin to taking a double-espresso). Then I go to my kitchen and then have an espresso (cold shower+espresso is probably the closest thing you can to feeling like a demigod). Then I take out one of my books (paperback) and read for generally anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours.
There is something strange about books that give you a sense of inspiration and connection. For example, I am currently reading Seneca’s “Letters to Lucilius” which was printed in 1932. The book was published 50 years before I was born. I love holding the book in my hand; I feel connected to my ancestors from the past. I love the texture of the paper, the smell of the crimson-cinnamon pages, as well as seeing random pencil notes from those who have read the book before me. All of this makes me feel connected to history, which also inspires me to produce new ideas of my own.
Furthermore, I rarely find inspiration on Instagram or Flickr, but I find great inspiration from seeing physical photography books.
One of my favorite photography books is “Exiles” by Josef Koudelka. When I look through the book, I feel like I am watching a dramatic film-noir film. I feel connected to Koudelka’s sense of longing, his wandering, and his need to find some sort of meaning in the world. I feel beauty, hope, love, and despair. The way that the pages are sequenced, edited, and printed makes me want to run out of my apartment and take photos.
I also feel that photography books are a much better return-on-investment than any other sort of photography-related gear that you can make.
For example, let’s say you buy a new digital camera for $1,400. 2 years from now you might be lucky if you can sell the camera for half the price ($700). However I have bought photography books which continue to inspire me, which I can sell more than double for what I paid for (for example, I bought “Chromes” by William Eggleston brand-new for $300; now you can’t find a copy on Amazon less than $1200).
And there is nothing better than having a photo-book library. When I need to breathe in some great images from the past, I just walk into my tiny closet-library (overfilling with books), and I will just pick up a photo-book at random, and inhale all of the images. I then feel like the images become part of my soul, and they become embedded and burned into my mind.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to go to photography book stores, and try to find some old photo-books from the past. I love especially the photo books published from the 1950’s— I feel that this era produced some of the best photographers in history. Nowadays most modern-day phonebooks are quite kitschy or lacking in depth, emotion, soul, and humanity.
So if you lack inspiration, a good library, or photography friends, I recommend trying to spend at least $50 every month to buy one photo book that you really really like, and a photo-book that you plan on re-reading more than once.
This is the main problem that I honestly made in my photo-book library; I wasn’t picky enough when buying photo books. I would simply spend too much money ordering way too many books at once, and end up looking at each photo book only once or twice.
I now feel that it is better to have 1 photo book that you look at a hundred times, than a hundred photo books that you look at once.
Because if you look at a certain photo-book over and over again, it becomes embedded into you. For example, if you are trying to dye a piece of clothing, you often need to dip the article of clothing into the dye over and over again, or else the dye will not stick to the clothing. Similar thing is to photographers— you need to constantly ingest their work over and over again if you want any deep and lasting impression.
Even for my “Learn From the Masters” series— I let my curiosity lead me and learned a lot about the great variety of all the masters of photography. But at the end of the day, the only photographer I really admire and have respect for is Josef Koudelka. I admire how he lives for himself— how he lives on a low budget, how he makes photos that he deeply cares about, how he removes his ego from his photos, and his austere lifestyle. I constantly go back to his work, re-read his old interviews, and try to channel my “inner-Koudelka” when I am out shooting on the streets.
So as a practical tip— try to find one photographer you greatly admire, and get to know everything about that photographer. Read all of their interviews, order all their books, and find deep inspiration from them. And of course, when you have finally gotten “enough” of their work, it is time to break the umbilical cord and embark on your own artistic vision and path in life.
Always stay inspired,
8:09am, Tuesday, Feb 16, 2016 (hunched over my laptop on my lovely Ikea dining room table in my kitchen, after 2 nice espressos at home, a little walk around the neighborhood, some chin-ups at the local park. Excited to ingest more creative sources, and to “stay hungry, stay foolish.”
Here are some inspirational articles I recommend you to give a read:
- 15 Street Photography Assignments to Re-Energize and Re-Inspire You
- Keep Shooting or Die
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Street Photographers
- How to Avoid Boredom in Street Photography
- The “One Street Photograph a Day” Challenge
- How to Master the Creative Process in Street Photography
- Why Talent is Overrated in Street Photography
- How to Stay Motivated in Street Photography