Photography Should Empower You

Garden Grove, 2015 #cindyproject

Dear friend,

I wanted to write you a letter on the amazing power of photography– how it can be used to empower ourselves. I want to make the point that the camera is a tool that helps us become more courageous, more creative, and more interested in the world. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our cameras, or the fact that we are photographers.

Don’t hide your camera


One of the big mistakes I think we make is that we try to hide our cameras. Especially in street photography– we wish that we were invisible, and that nobody could see us making photos of them.

However in reality, I find that the camera is an amazing tool that has opened up so many doors in my life. The camera has helped start conversations with strangers, has given me the courage (and a reason) to talk to strangers, and also has empowered my artistry (I’m one of those people who always wanted to be an artist, but was horrible at drawing).

We feel disenfranchised

Berkeley, 2015

I’ve been reading a lot about the sociological and psychological implications of technology. While in the past when computers first came out– they were seen as tools for human improvement and empowerment. Steve Jobs and many others called the computer as a “bicycle for the mind.”

Unfortunately I don’t ever hear anyone refer to technology, smartphones, or cameras as “empowering” or “improving” them. The main critique is that technology is actually harming us– by distracting us, by taking us away from the present moment, and also by lusting after newer technology.

Thank God for photography

Seoul, 2013


How has photography empowered me?

Well first of all, I am able to create art with my camera. The funny thing is that I wouldn’t call myself an “artist” per-se; but I do believe that creating photographs with intent, vision, and soul is art. Disregard anyone who tells you otherwise (they’re just dis-empowered artists who you should feel sorry for).

Photography has helped open the door to make connections with others. I’ve met some of my best friends through photography, and being able to share my love and passion with them is inspirational.

Furthermore, my friends have helped improve my vision of the world. Their honest feedback and critique helps me hone my vision as a photographer– and strive to constantly improve myself and my images.

Do you own your camera, or does your camera own you?

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

As of late, I’ve just been shooting with a digital compact Ricoh GR II camera. Why? It’s small, compact, and I can easily carry it with me everywhere I go. It is an extension of my mind– I just keep it in “P” mode, ISO 1600, center-point autofocus, and just take photos of anything that interests me. There is no hassle, no bother, or no cumbersome nature to it. The camera is invisible to me, and blends into my everyday life.

I also have a film Leica MP– and as much as I love the camera, I sometimes feel like a slave to it. It is pretty heavy, cumbersome to carry with me everywhere I go, and because it is film– getting the film processed and scanned can be expensive and a hassle. While I love what film photography and shooting with a rangefinder has taught me, I feel like I’m ready to cut the umbilical cord and move onto a new chapter in my life in photography.

Your camera isn’t good enough

Oakland, 2015

“Your camera isn’t good enough” (says your mind, or random people on the Internet). We all know it, many insecure photographers (myself being one of them in the past) buy and show-off expensive cameras (often with big lenses) to “prove” their worth to others. Kind of how men with self-confidence issues buy really big (or fast) cars.

But is it your camera that isn’t good enough, or you that isn’t good enough? Do you find yourself wanting a new camera, because you don’t feel “inspired” and you think that buying a new camera will empower you? I’m sorry, but this (almost) never happens (trust me, I’ve learned from many years of experience).

I have found that switching to a smaller and more compact camera has helped make the camera less of a nuisance in my life. That has helped me “live life” more, carry my camera around more, and also helped me constantly see the world from a photographer’s lens and perspective.

I see a lot of photographers (with DSLRs and other bigger-cameras) starting to shoot more with their iPhones and smartphones. Sometimes they feel guilty about it. But I say no– smartphone photography can be one of the most empowering ways (and certain democratic) of capturing the beauty around the world. It is compact, always with you, and the most seamless way to make photos (also easy to share with others online).

We all have weird love/hate relationships with our cameras. But just think to yourself, “Is my camera empowering me, or making me feel inadequate?”

Photography augments my vision


A lot of technologists talk about “augmented reality” nowadays– imagine a world where we have the Google Contact Lens (TM) where we see a heads-up display over anything we see in the real world. Kind of like the movie “Minority Report.”

But why seek this new technology– when we already have the ability to see “augmented reality”, with the eyes we already possess?

There is so much interesting beauty all around us; yet we are always too distracted by our smartphones and music to notice. I’ve found that the more I turn off my smartphone, keep my smartphone in my backpack (instead of my front pocket), and not listen to music– I am able to see more of the beauty around me. This leads me to appreciating the beauty around me, and builds a deep sense of gratitude in my heart.

I see it all the time when I’m traveling– tourists who are too busy sharing their memories on Instagram, and not being able to just sit, and appreciate the moment. I’m not saying you should never share your vacation photos on Instagram; but if you’re worrying more about how many “likes” or comments you get on a photograph than being in the moment, are you really enjoying yourself? And why are you traveling? To get more social media high-fives, or to really search your soul and reflect on life?

Visual push-ups

Marseille, 2015 #cindyproject

I’ve heard this analogy of “visual push-ups” from photographer Jay Maisel. The concept is that if you want to improve your vision in photography, look at a lot of great work. Not only that, but spend as much time as you can really seeing the world, and looking at the world. Try your best to notice interesting things, or beauty in the mundane.

The more you keep your eyes fit, the stronger a photographer you will become.

Empower yourself

Berkeley, 2015 #cindyproject

So what is photography giving you? Or taking away from you? Use photography (and the camera) as a tool to give you more happiness, more appreciation, and more creativity in your life. If you find yourself miserable in your cubicle, looking at gear review forums or sites, and feeling kind of shitty about your photography– you’re doing something wrong.

Switch gears; look at great art from the past, study the masters of photography, and use photography to excite you. Use your commute to work to take photos. Use your lunch break to take photos. Take a few photos after work. Take photos of your friends and loved ones. Take photos inside your home.

You have no limits, but your own imagination.



8:10am, Saturday, April 23, 2016 @ my apartment in Berkeley