Make Someone Feel Beautiful

SF, 2016
SF, 2016

Dear friend,

I just did an interview with my buddy Michael and one of the things he asked me was, “How has your approach in photography changed the last 2 years?” Fantastic question– this is what I told him:

I used to be interested in capturing candid street photographs– capturing beautiful moments of everyday life. But nowadays, I am less interested in making photos; I am more interested in making connections– especially with strangers and close loved ones.

I just did a workshop in SF this past weekend over the concept of “conquering your fear” in street photography. I feel that fear holds us back from so many things in life– the fear of starting a new company, the fear of approaching a stranger you find interesting, the fear of becoming an artist, or the fear of stepping outside of your comfort zone.

What I feel that we need to do is not to necessarily conquer our fear in street photography and life, but to harness and to channel our fears.

For example, whenever I am out shooting on the streets, nothing really interests me anymore. But when I do see someone or something interesting, I feel nervous. I feel my heart start to beat harder, I feel the sweat pour down my back, and I have an insatiable urge to make a photograph.

In these moments, I know that I have something (possibly) good and interesting I want to photograph.

What I’m focusing on now

Another thing I told my buddy Michael is that currently I am more interested in shooting “street portraits”– photos of strangers with permission.

Not only that, but I am shifting more to black-and-white nowadays– I love the simplicity, minimalism, and sublime-Zen nature of monochrome. While I love color photography, I started to feel that color was a distraction. Black-and-white helped me focus on emotion, soul, gestures, and what I found crucial and critical in an image.

A beautiful encounter

In the beginning of my workshop, I saw this girl with blue hair and braided pigtails– and she looked fantastic. I encouraged Lin, one of my students to approach her. Afterwards, I wanted to make a photograph too– but I was too nervous to approach her afterwards.

However I knew I would be kicking myself in the face if I didn’t even try as well– so after mustering up my courage, I also approached her. And she was willing.

I set my Ricoh GR II to “P” (program) mode, and asked her to stand in front of the doorway (nice soft light, learned this from Steve McCurry). I put my camera to “macro” mode, so I could focus really close with my 28mm lens. She first looked stiff, and so I asked her to “play with her braids” — which made her hands much more engaging, and helped loosen her up a bit.

Contact sheet
Contact sheet

I chatted with her a bit afterwards, and found out that she was with her parents (who both just got out of an alcoholics-anonymous meeting) and was spending time with them that day.

When I first approached her, she was stiff and reserved, but the interaction I had with her was able to make her laugh and smile a bit. I didn’t realize this, but one of the students told me that afterwards she said that I made her feel “beautiful” and “like a model.”

Which got me thinking– shouldn’t we make our subjects feel beautiful? Shouldn’t we put them in a positive mood? Shouldn’t our photography empower our subjects, and make them feel good about themselves?

I feel that so much of photography is documenting pain, poverty, and misery in the world. While that type of photography is very important, I feel that there is a huge dearth or absence of “positive photography“– photography that makes people feel good (both the photographer, subject, and viewer).

Life is short. I don’t want to add more misery and depression to the world. I want to make beautiful images that uplift my subjects, uplift my viewers, and uplift myself. I want my photos to be a testament to the beauty in the world– beautiful people, beautiful places, and beautiful moments (especially in ordinary or ‘mundane’ situations).

So friend, I encourage you– don’t be afraid. Have the courage to make the types of images you want. Have the courage to approach strangers you find interesting, and as Sebastiao Salgado says– figure out a way to make them look “heroic and honorable.” Find the beauty in the ordinary or the mundane, and uplift yourself, your subject, and your viewer.

There is so much beauty in the world; why not focus on it?


Tuesday, April 19, 2016 @ 8:33am, finally starting to wake up after restless sleep, but a nice espresso at home.

If you want to learn more about street portraits, download my free book: “The Street Portrait Manual.”