I’ve been really fascinated in this Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi” for quite a while. Simply put: “wabi-sabi” is the Japanese/Zen aesthetic of beauty of imperfection, impermanence, and the natural. If you have a favorite pair of jeans that has worn into your body over the years, that is “wabi-sabi.” If you have an old film camera that has brasses over the years and shows its patina and “brassing”– that is “wabi-sabi.” If you find old and aged things as beautiful (the wrinkles of old people or decaying old buildings), that is “wabi-sabi.”
In Ancient Greek times (the “Hellenistic” period) the perceived forms of beauty included perfection, symmetry, grandeur, and materials that would never decay. Much of our aesthetic ideals in the west mirror these ideals.
However in the east, many have followed the “Taoist” principles that everything is constantly changing, in flux, and nothing ever lasts forever. A lot of Zen monks have found beauty in the impermanence and imperfection in life, while doing certain activities (Japanese tea ceremony, in which tea is served in cracked cups, showing beauty in the imperfect). Even in Zen painting, the artist will do most of his/her painting with a single stroke, and never aim for “perfection.”
The word “wabi-sabi” is derived from two Japanese words.
- “Wabi” refers to an austere, natural state.
- “Sabi” refers to a lonely, melancholic sense of impermanence in life.
So the concept of “wabi-sabi” has slightly sad undertones, but in recent years has been made more positive– the beauty of imperfection, the beauty of things that are in flux, and the beauty that nothing will last forever.
Wabi-Sabi for photographers
So how can we apply this concept of “wabi-sabi” to our photography and life?
First of all, realize these “3 simple realities”:
- Nothing lasts
- Nothing is finished
- Nothing is perfect
Furthermore, the beauty of things that are:
1. Nothing lasts
As an American, I love the concept of “legacy” and doing thing for “posterity.” Like everyone else, I have a fear of dying, and of being forgotten.
Many humans throughout history have faced this– that is why humans erect huge statues, graveyards, and mummify themselves (hoping that their “legacy” will last forever, or at least they will become “immortal” in the afterlife).
However if you look at nature, nothing lasts. Even the most sturdy things will eventually decay from mother time.
Many Romans tried to create buildings and architecture that would last “forever”– but now when we visit them, they are crumbling all around us.
Life is impermanent. The only thing certain in life is that we will all (eventually) die– no matter how rich or how many pills we pop.
As photographers, we try to make our work “last” by publishing books, by making prints, or by trying to become uber-famous that future generations will remember us.
But no matter how famous we are in our lifetimes, the next generation will forget about us. Even if the next generation remembers us, the next generation after that will forget us.
Think about some of the most famous photographers in history, and how few young photographers (of the Instagram and Snapchat generation) know of them. Most young photographers have no clue who Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, or Garry Winogrand is. And they never will (unless they go to art school, photography school, or perhaps stumble upon this blog).
So if you think that nothing lasts in photography, you might wonder, “What is the point of me taking photos? All these photos are going to disappear sooner or later. And everyone is going to forget me, why should I make photos anyways?”
For me, I grapple with this issue all the time. Once again, I still have a pretty big ego– and I don’t want to be forgotten. I want to create images, words, and books that will last through the ages. But deep down inside, I know that my time in the world is limited, and eventually I will need to die gracefully, and not clutch to any concept of legacy.
So for me, I photograph, write, and teach to immediately help those around me. I derive great internal (intrinsic) joy from doing work that expresses myself, empowers others, and is helpful. And my small hope is that by helping others, this can create a tidal wave of generosity. I help one individual, that person helps another, and these “random acts of kindness” will continue to create a domino-effect.
When it comes to our memories, nothing ever lasts 100%. Sooner or later we will forget our memories (or our memories will become warped into something totally inaccurate). And this is natural, yet we try to fight “forgetting” by making photos that we hope to last forever.
Yet I think the younger generation has kind of understood this concept intrinsically– therefore the appeal of Snapchat. You send a photo to a friend, that you know is ephemeral and going to disappear. And because you know it will disappear and it is limited (for a brief span of time), you value it more.
It is a good philosophy to think about life. If you realize that your life is limited and will eventually end, you will value it more, and use that short time to do what is personally-meaningful to you. If you knew that you would live forever, you would have no incentive to hustle and work hard to do meaningful work.
I think what it also means is as a photographer, enjoy the present moment– and dwell in the beauty of the moment. When you’re out shooting in the streets, learn to appreciate the beauty in the everyday, mundane things. Appreciate that little flower that is fighting through the pavement to get some sun. Appreciate that old couple holding hands and drinking a coffee together. Appreciate that kid skipping around or drawing chalk on the sidewalk.
I think appreciation of these small things is what brings us happiness and joy as photographers. This is why “street photography” appeals to me so much — we can enjoy the everyday, mundane beauty of the everyday world.
2. Nothing is finished
Realize that no matter how good you get as a photographer, your progress will never be “finished.” The same goes with photography projects, just because you published a book or did an exhibition doesn’t mean it is “finished.” Life is a stream, constantly changing, and constantly evolving.
An artist I am greatly inspired by is Kanye West. For his recent “The Life of Pablo” album he put out, up until the point that he played it at Madison Square Garden, he was constantly making changes and tweaks. Even after that, he is constantly “reworking” some tracks– changing some sounds, lyrics, and melodies.
One of the things that I love about digital media is the fact how flexible, adaptable, and changeable it is. I love the “finality” of printing a book or on a print– there is a beauty to it. But at the same time, I love how I can write a blog post now, and I have less anxiety of it having to be “perfect”, because I can always edit and modify it afterwards (even though most of the time I don’t).
The same goes with my photography projects on my website portfolio, I am constantly editing down my projects (by removing images) or adding images as time goes on. I like the idea that my photography projects are never fully-finished, and that my projects (and everything in life) is a “work in progress.”
If you think about nature, you can realize that nothing is ever finished. If you look at a rock on the beach, how do you know it is ever truly “finished” in terms of having the water pound up against it, changing its form? With human evolution (or the evolution of any animal), it is never truly “finished” — we are constantly changing, adapting, and evolving.
The same goes with technology (there will never be a “perfect” and “finished” iPhone, every iteration becomes a little bit better). And of course the same goes with cameras (there will never be a “finished” or “perfect” camera, every generation gets slightly better).
So relish that everything is a “work in progress.” For me the step to happiness is just to make small daily progress, 1% improvements everyday, and to continue to (slowly) move forward.
One of the phrases I like in Latin: “Festina lente” (make haste slowly).
3. Nothing is perfect
Another big problem I have: I try to aim for “perfection” in my photography (and life).
Big problem: perfection isn’t some measureable variable. “Perfect” is just a matter of opinion.
In my mind, a “perfect” photograph is one that I am 100% satisfied with, and also a photograph that 100% of my audience agrees is an amazing photograph. But no matter how “good” any of my photos are, there will always be a little room for improvement, or someone who won’t like the photograph.
In fact, I am starting to realize the beauty of imperfection. I don’t like photos that are too sharp, too perfect in terms of “dynamic range”, nor do I like photos that are too perfectly cropped. Real life and the streets are messy– some of the imperfect edges of a photograph give it “realness.”
If you’re reading this, I assume you’re a street photographer. Your job is to make simplicity out of chaos. But no matter what, your photos will never be 100% clean. Because the streets are messy, chaotic, and dirty.
So be okay with imperfection in your photography and life. In fact, if you ever reached “perfection” in your photography and life, it would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it?
Know that your progress in photography is a constant evolution; a constant march forward. Your photography will never be perfect, but that is what makes photography so exciting and worthwhile.
Continue to find the beauty of mundane, everyday life. Find beauty in the most ordinary places, and appreciate your imperfect, yet meaningful images.
Zen in photography
- Zen in the Art of Street Photography
- 15 Lessons Taoism Has Taught Me About Street Photography
- Why Less is More in Street Photography (and Life)
- Why You Should Shoot with One Camera and One Lens
- 5 Essentialist Tips in Street Photography
- 10 Principles of Good Street Photography
- Zen in the Art of Street Photography
- Deep Focus
- Free E-Book: Zen in the Art of Street Photography