Do you ever have that feeling that you are stuck in your photography that you don’t know what direction your work is going, whether you should give up, or whether your work is meaningful or not?
I have these self-doubts all the time. I often fall into black holes where I feel constant self-doubt, frustration, lack of inspiration, and lack of direction.
What is the solution to this nagging sense of discontent, lack of inspiration, and this dread of not knowing what direction to take in my life and photography?
Don’t gather moss
Let’s take it back to the (very) old-school; Publilius Syrus (a Syrian slave turned play-write/philosopher ~2,000 years ago) who says:
“The rolling stone gathers no moss.” – Publilius Syrus
Apparently the team at myth-busters proved this to be true: whatever stays in motion will not gather moss.
And what is “moss”? Moss is a symbol of stagnation, mold, and death.
So to clarify— the stone is a symbol of you. If you keep on rolling, keep on moving, you will never collect moss. You will never stagnate. You will never die (creatively). Even though you don’t know what direction you are heading, you will not falter.
This is true in business, life, and photography. I know that as long as I don’t stop writing, blogging, and teaching— I will always have an income to pay my rent and groceries (more importantly, feed my coffee addiction). I know with life, as long as I don’t stop meeting new people, as long as I don’t stop reading, as long as I don’t stop being inspired by others— I will always have new ideas. I know with photography, as long as I don’t stop making images, as long as I don’t stop looking at the work of others, and as long as I don’t stop thinking critically about my own work— I will always be motivated to make art.
Do we really know where we’re going?
The common mistake we have in life is that we think we know where we’re going or what direction our life is headed in. Even a bigger mistake: we think we can control the direction our life is heading.
Life is random. We have no idea where we are going, and nobody can predict the future. Sure we can have some sort of general “direction” we are sailing— but lady fortune is the one who guides most of our life-events.
For example: could you with precision predict all of the important life-events that have happened to you within the last 10 years? Could you have predicted that you would get a job-offer that caused you to uproot and leave your community? Could you have predicted meeting your partner at that one dinner-party; which totally changed your life? Could you have predicted stumbling upon that one photographer or artist who totally revolutionized how you saw the world, and how you made images?
Life is a lot more random and messy than we’d like to think.
For me, some of my biggest breakthroughs, innovations, and ideas have come from random events in my life.
For example, my biggest inspiration in the “open source” concept was that I was fascinated with computers at an early-age. I would have never been exposed to computers if I weren’t born in 1988; and happened to be around the time that AOL and dial-up internet came about. Because I was quite poor growing up, I could never afford to buy games or any other forms of entertainment. So I was one of the first online “pirates”— downloading games, applications (early versions of Visual Basic) in AOL chatrooms, through “Warez”.
I came to realize that a lot of people have so much creative capacity and ability— but it is lack of access which prevents them from achieving their personal and creative maximum. When I first heard that there were a lot of developers creating “open source software” to empower those in need— those without money to shell out hundreds of dollars for Microsoft Windows or for Microsoft Word (open source alternatives like Linux and Open Office) truly inspired me.
So with my blog— all this information is open source— meaning you can download, remix, edit, and transmit all this information for free, without constraint. Why? Because I believe in your creative potential— and I don’t want you to be hindered with any annoying advertisements, paywalls, or anything that limits your access to information that might possibly empower you to become the best possible version of yourself.
Going back to this concept that the rolling stone gathers no moss— you never know where inspiration or ideas will hit you. The only pre-requisite is never stop moving. Never stop consuming art, information, or inspiration from others. Never stop being creative. Never stop questioning, never stop thinking, and never stop challenging your own beliefs (and the belief of others).
Bob Dylan once said, “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
Similarly as a photographer— if you’re not busy making images, coming up with new ideas, encountering the work of others, you’re also dying creatively inside.
To come up with new ideas to write and blog about is a constant struggle for me. There are days that I feel lazy, lethargic, uninspired, and empty creatively. But what fills me up and inspires me to do my best work? To encounter the work of the masters from the past, and to breathe new life into what they said decades, centuries, or even millennia before me. Even apparently the word “innovation” in Latin means “to breathe” — and that is what I think innovation is: to breathe new life into the old.
Can’t stop, won’t stop
Never settle. Never stop exploring. Never stop pushing your boundaries.
Don’t feel like you need to know where you’re going— because you will never know with 100% accuracy your future preferences, your future life conditions, or unexpected events which will totally change your world.
Let’s say you’re working on a photography project — you have no idea how your life situations will change which will prevent you from working on that project. Meaning— let’s say you’re planning on documenting a local community, and you want to work on it for at least 1-2 years. But who knows if there is going to be a death in your family, which causes you to move-away.
I think as a practical piece of advice: always stay flexible, nimble, and open to change. Don’t put too much credence on your pre-established plans. Don’t stop moving, and don’t be a prisoner to your own self-imposed plans, especially if reality tells you otherwise.
Creativity is all around you
I don’t mean to say that you need to always take photos everyday— just try to do at least one creative thing a day. Creativity is a lot of different things— writing a poem, going on a walk and coming up with new ideas, making photos, dancing, engaging in intellectual discourse, or even coming up with a rap lyric. I believe creative death happens when you put all your eggs in one basket— and to only limit your creativity within one artistic sphere.
The best photographers aren’t the ones who only do photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson was deeply inspired by painting and drawing. Sebastiao Salgado was deeply inspired by socio-economic-political inequalities. David Alan Harvey finds most of his inspiration in novels and literature. By being able to “cross-pollinate” your creativity in different spheres, can you come up with “new” ideas— combining and mixing ideas and making it something novel and fresh.
What other interests do you have in life besides photography? Do you love theater, painting, poetry, dance, hip-hop music, political activism, feminism, classic literature, or playing the saxophone? What did you study in school — did you study political science, sociology, engineering, computer science, accounting, English? How can you apply all of your outside interests to your photography?
Before I was interested in photography, I have always been passionate about writing and blogging (I’ve been blogging ever since I was 16 years old). Not only that, but my interest in photography happened concurrently when I got interested in sociology. So my interest in “street photography” is simply an amalgamation of my interest in sociology + photography (for me street photography is applied sociology; the opportunity to analyze, investigate, and communicate my feelings about society and communities).
When I was in college, this is when Facebook and other social media networks started getting popular. So what did I do? I began to study “social media” in earnest— while blogging, researching “media studies”, and eventually teaching a 1-unit seminar at UCLA titled: “The Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks.” This lead to me getting a full-time job at Demand Media (parent company of eHow, where I was an Online Community Manager) and also lead me to starting this blog— applying everything I knew about social media, sociology, street photography— all while keeping this information “open source”, free, and easily-accessible.
Back to basics
To truly see how you are unique in your own photography and world-view, go back to basics. Go back to when you first picked up a camera. What first interested you about photography? What was the passion that you had? Was your passion exploring? Was your passion seeing the world with a fresh new pair of eyes? Was your passion documenting your own personal experiences? Or were you an aspiring artist that didn’t know how to draw? (my story).
Re-live that child-like curiosity you had when you first started photography. Whether you were 10 years old, or whether you were 50 years old when you first picked up a camera. Or perhaps was it when you first started to take photos on your iPhone— when you cared more about capturing “the moment” rather than worrying about how many megapixels your camera had, how much “bokeh” was in your photos, or whether your camera was full-frame or not?
You don’t want to “arrive”
Never stop moving. You will never reach a point where you will have “arrived” in your photography or art.
And please hope to God that you will never reach that point. Because that point when you think you “know everything” and you stop searching for truth, stop moving, and stop creating and innovating— that is when you are dead. Don’t forget this quote (not by Steve Jobs, but he said often):
“The journey is the reward.” – Steve Jobs
Stay strong my friend. Never lose that child-like sense of curiosity, keep exploring, and suck out the marrow of life (and take a few photos along the way).
10:10am, Wed, March 2, 2016 @ Free Speech Movement Cafe at UC Berkeley. Feeling inspired after reading Steve Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson, “The Discourses” by Epictetus, “Letters From a Stoic” from Seneca, and “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman (a book I got assigned in College but never read, until now).
Random life updates
Life in Berkeley has been quite nice— spending more time at home (being like a house-husband, cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries, preparing lovely meals for Cindy in the evenings, and making bomb espressos for her in the morning). More time to meet friends, meet family, read more, write more, meditate more.
Part of me gets the urge to travel again (going to NYC in a few weeks), but part of me loves this deep sense of tranquility I have being at home. Part of me yearns for adventure, but part of me tells me not to simply distract myself.
I sometimes feel like I know my purpose in life (helping others and empowering others through writing, teaching, and giving advice) but more often than not— I feel lost and without direction.
But I need to give myself the same advice I am giving you: never stop moving.
I don’t know what direction my life is going, but all I know is that as long as I don’t stop moving, my muscles and mind will never atrophy; and I will never die (at least creatively).
I also plan on writing more books on “basic photography” — I am working on a “Photography 101” book that can hopefully teach real beginners on photography-basics (I hope I can write it and send it to my mom, and help empower her).
I am also quite happy for the “Street Photography Contact Sheets” book I recently put out— I’ve had the idea of writing the book for at least 2 years, but never had enough contact sheets to publish. Now that it is out there, I am ready to continue to power-on with enthusiasm on new projects, to breathe new life into some ideas that I had in the past.
I’m also collaborating with Cindy on working on more printed materials— little handbooks hand-bound by Cindy, and also prints on textured paper of some of my favorite photos.
Lots of cool stuff to come— thanks for always helping me along this journey, and supporting me along the way.
Also as a last note, I still have some few spots in my NYC/SF workshops— if you’ve wanted to conquer your fears in street photography and take your work to the next level, don’t miss out (the last workshops I am teaching before I live a year in Vietnam). I know the workshops aren’t cheap, but trust me— it will be an experience you don’t want to miss out on:
- Mar 19-20: NYC / Introduction to Composition
- Mar 26-27: NYC / Conquer Your Fears (only TWO spots remaining)
- April 16-17: SF / Conquer Your Fears
- April 23-24: SF / Discover Your Unique Voice
- Oct 1-2: Melbourne / Conquer Your Fears
- Oct 8-9: Sydney / Conquer Your Fears
- Nov 5-6: Singapore / Conquer Your Fears
- Nov 12-13: Tokyo / Discover Your Unique Voice
- Nov 19-20: Kyoto / Introduction to Composition
For any questions regarding upcoming workshops, contact email@example.com
Never stop being inspired
If you want to keep your inspiration flowing, I hope you enjoy these articles:
- How to Find Inspiration in Your Photography
- 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
- What’s Holding You Back?