no·tice: attention, observation, awareness, to know.
I want to share some thoughts with you about the importance of “noticing” in today’s age of distraction, audio-visual stimulation, and the inability to sit in one place and to linger in your own company.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am addicted to being “stimulated.” I hate being bored. I need to constantly be wired whether it be visually (looking at images), whether it be reading, whether it be listening to music, whether it be talking to someone, or whether to be walking around.
I cannot just sit, think, and notice and observe the world around us.
I think the primary asset and strength of a street photographer is to notice.
After all, when we are plugged into our devices, and staring into a 4’’ screen, can we really notice anything in the world that is going on around us?
A beautiful flower
Today I woke up (quite late at around 10am), had a shot of espresso, and looked outside the window. It was storming, wet, and windy— it reminded me of fond memories of Seattle (although it is cold and miserable outside, the coffee shops are warm and inviting). So Cindy and I put on our rain jackets, and start walking to the local coffee shop (Philz) in the rain.
On our walk over, because it was raining I was not able to listen to music while walking, or check my phone, or be distracted by anything else. However while walking to the coffee shop, I noticed a bunch of little “golden poppy” flowers (the state flower mascot of California)— which are quite beautiful. They are a vibrant green in the stems and leaves, and have golden-orange petals. They looked as if they were staring up at me— smiling, or giving me a “hello” or greeting. I pointed it out to Cindy like a little kid— and she told me, “Oh those are nice!”
I think as street photographers, our primary occupation is to notice the world around us, and to appreciate the beauty that is around us.
Being a human being is amazing. Our primary skill (which distinguishes us from other animals) is the ability to socialize, to cooperate, and to communicate with each other. Apparently most depression happens from humans that isolate themselves from society (think about all those Japanese teens who never leave their apartments for weeks at a time, play video games, and eat ramen in their apartments). The best cure for depression is to socialize with friends, loved ones, and family.
I also feel that one of the best cures for the modern human being is to interact with the world.
It is unfortunate that most of our interactions are mediated through “devices” — whether that be our laptops, our smartphones, our tablets, or any other “screen.” We have lost the ability to sit, appreciate the company of another human being (anyone who has had dinner with someone who checks their phone every 10 seconds knows what I am talking about).
When it comes to photography, we have all the tools to make beautiful and meaningful images. However what we have lost is the ability to observe and appreciate the world around us.
The camera as a tool to “notice”
When I started photography, I was 18 years old. I just got a Canon point-and-shoot digital camera (OMG, it had an LCD screen) and it had a few megapixels. I remember when I was growing up, I would always notice things that I thought were interesting or beautiful, and somehow I wanted to capture it— to immortalize it, and share it with others.
So when I first got my digital camera, I was so over-joyed having the ability to not only notice things in the world, but to capture it, and share it with others who I felt were so busy with their lives, that they didn’t have the “luxury” to notice the beauty around them.
Honestly, I know I talk about this generation as being overly distracted, but we have always been distracted when living in a city or civilization.
I remember even when I was in college (before we had smartphones), students were either constantly plugged into their headphones (listening to music), or they were doing last-minute cramming (instead of walking and looking at smartphones, they stared into their books). Not only that, but everyone was always in a rush— they didn’t have the chance to stop, and just observe the beauty of the UCLA campus (which I thought was amazing).
I was guilty of it myself— whenever I was in a hurry, I couldn’t stop and appreciate the beautiful landscape around me. Not only that, but I was always so tunnel-visioned to get to my destination. This prevented me from walking leisurely, from enjoying my environment, and to stop and admire something I found interesting.
Even 50 years ago, you see old photos in the subways where everyone has their faces covered with newspapers. We have always been distracted— after all, it is hard-wired into our systems to notice every little audio-visual distraction.
What is the solution to distraction?
I feel that to “notice” in life is difficult. What is easier to do— remove distractions.
For example, I have a love-hate relationship with my smartphone. On one hand, I love how I can communicate so easily with my family and loved ones. I can message my friend Josh White in Korea via Kakaotalk (for free), or send photos to my mom or sister or Cindy’s family. I can use Google Maps to find my way around a foreign city. I can use Google to quickly check stuff online.
But honestly, 99% of the time it is a distraction. I will end up watching YouTube videos, the latest gossip on Kanye West or Elon Musk, going to tech blogs, and distracting myself and distancing myself from the rest of society.
Everyday it is a struggle. So whenever possible, I always try to turn off my phone, and everyday try to uninstall at least one app, delete one digital file, or to reduce any sorts of distractions.
Even when I am riding the bus, I try to just do nothing—and just observe the people around me. It is hard to see anyone younger than the age of 50 who sits on the bus, and just does nothing— either sit and look out of the window, or look at their hands (without listening to music). Whenever I do see people nowadays who can just sit and “people watch” — I am amazed.
When I got to the coffee shop today, I stood in line, and even though I was tempted to look at my smartphone and read a book on my Kindle app, I forced myself to just stand in line, to be okay with boredom, and to look around and observe the people around me. I looked at the diverse group of people at the coffee shop— young teenagers sharing a nice conversation at a table, a mom swaddling her child, tech workers plugged into their iPhones, and I was able to notice the cool architecture inside the coffee shop, and all the wonderful conversations.
At that moment, I realized how much of a pleasure it is to be in a coffee shop— because I am able to be amongst humans (I love being around people), being around creativity (a lot of people in here reading or writing), and also having the pleasure to notice the love of humanity permeating through each of us.
Be a people-watcher
I think if you are reading this, you are probably a “street photographer” or interested in the genre of “street photography”— documenting humanity, taking candid photos of strangers you find interesting (or with permission). Basically you are a humanist— someone who loves humanity and is interested in human beings.
For me, I like the idea of photography just being photography (being more inclusive than exclusive). Because sometimes being labeled as a “street photographer” is a bit too restrictive— what if one day you want to shoot landscapes and your kid’s soccer game— can you suddenly not do that?
Anyways, I like the idea of just being a professional “noticer” — not a “photographer.” After all, you can notice and appreciate things without having a camera. However I do find that having a camera is a tool that helps you notice things more. After all, you need to notice things before you take a photograph of it.
Not only that, but being a professional “people-watcher.” After all, street photography is all about being interested in fellow human beings, and just looking, observing them, and often interacting with them.
The step after noticing
I feel that after we notice something, it is also important to engage. For example, whenever I notice a stranger who looks nice (someone who is well dressed, or has spent a lot of time fixing up their hair)— I like to compliment them (because I noticed it), and also interact with them— by doing some small chat, and asking how their day is going.
I feel that interaction is what makes us human— it is the glue which holds humankind together. Nothing lifts my mood more than having an engaged conversation with a stranger or someone I know. Even the ancients knew that one of the secrets to happiness was friendship. The ancients even believed that friendship was more important than your partner, kids, or family. Nowadays with Western society, the “nuclear family” is more important than friends (this is why I think a lot of people who feel ‘trapped’ in their marriages get depressed— because they can never see their friends anymore).
You don’t have to photograph everything you notice
Another point— you don’t need to photograph everything you notice. Sometimes the act of noticing is enough.
For example, I can notice how well a barista foams my almond milk and makes me a cappuccino. I don’t need to take a photograph of it. Once I notice how well the cappuccino is done, I can compliment and thank the barista, and drink my coffee with more satisfaction.
I can sit and watch the fireworks with Cindy on New Year’s without taking photos. I can sit and appreciate the fireworks, appreciate the moment (being alive and being with Cindy), and remind myself how blessed I am.
Why do we love distractions?
I’ll be the first to admit that I love to be distracted.
But why do we love to be distracted?
I feel a lot of us are afraid of feeling alone. This is why we are so addicted to social media— it is a cheap fix to “stay updated” with our friends and family, and also for us to distract ourselves the fact that we might be mentally and physically alone— sitting alone in our apartments, disconnected from our loved ones and neighbors.
The funny thing about civilization is that the more wealthy and prosperous we become, the more physically-distant we become. We move into more expensive neighborhoods which are gated, we stop socializing with our “old friends”, and we move to more exotic cities (away from our families). Even though we might live in cramped apartments with hundreds of neighbors— who knows their neighbor anymore? If you need a cup of sugar or a few eggs— can you honestly say that you can knock the door of your neighbor and ask them to “borrow” some?
I think many of us who are distracted crave for something more genuine— more “authentic.”
I can honestly say that street photography has afforded me that— street photography has made me more bold, more social, and more courageous to talk to strangers that I might find interesting. And honestly at the end of the day, photography is just a bridge to connect me with others. It isn’t about making photos, it is about making connections.
How to “notice” more
So how are some ways you can notice “better”? Some practical thoughts:
- When you go out to make photos, turn off your smartphone (not just set it to silent, turn it completely off)
- When you go to a coffee shop, before you do work on your laptop or check email, spend a minute or two just looking around, and noticing and appreciating others around you.
- Walk slower: I find the slower you walk, the more you can notice interesting things around you.
- Drive less: Whenever I drive somewhere, I cannot notice or appreciate things around me. The car is like a bubble which separates you from the “real world.” Ever since Cindy and I gave our car to her younger sister, we are “forced” to walk or take the bus everywhere. At first I hated it, but now I love the privilege to walk everywhere. The more I walk, the more I notice. And the bus is always a fantastic place to people-watch, and to notice and observe what others are doing.
- Count your blessings: look around you. Look at your fancy camera, your fancy smartphone, your laptop. Think about the millions of people around the world who would love to have all the toys you have. Count your blessings— you can go to sleep without being hungry, you have loved ones, loving friends, a job, access to the internet, and best of all— the curiosity and the passion to make images. Nobody can take that from you.
Now go forth, notice, and make beautiful art which makes you feel more connected, interested, and passionate about the world around you.
11:35am, Saturday, March 5, 2016 @ Philz Coffee in Berkeley.