We are all born into different situations in life. Some of us are born rich, some of us are born poor. Some of us are born with parents who taught us photography; others of us learn photography later in life.
One of the biggest complaints or frustrations I know a lot of people have is that they don’t have enough time, energy, or motivation to go out and make photos.
We all have jobs that we hate, constraints in our schedules, or we might feel “trapped” by the external constraints that life gives us (having to make a living, feed our kids, support our partners).
However regardless what your situation is; the goal to become a great photographer is to make the best out of your situation (regardless of what it may be).
My friend Peter
One of my friends and former students Peter Zhang works at a tech company in SF. His job is okay, makes him a good living, and allows him to pay his bills.
His passion is photography, but he probably won’t make a living from it.
However what he does in his daily life inspires me: he leaves his apartment a little bit earlier, and uses that time to shoot the SoMa neighborhood in San Francisco where he works. Even though he is stuck in an office most of the day, he is able to clock over 15,000 steps daily— walking during the day, walking at lunch, and walking after work to make photos.
Everyday he shoots (and walks). And over time, he has been able to build up a pretty strong body of work in the SoMa neighborhood. I encouraged him to continue working on his project for a long time, and hopefully doing an exhibition or a book.
The grass is always greener on the other side
Now of course, not all of us have the luxury of living in a big city like San Francisco. At least that is what I told myself. I live in Berkeley (East Bay), which is across the bridge from San Francisco, and often I feel frustrated that “Berkeley is too boring.” But then again I have other friends who live in even more suburban places, who would die to live in Berkeley (they find it much more interesting).
I feel to be truly fulfilled in photography is to make the best photographs that fit your lifestyle. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, perhaps that means doing a “personal photography” project of your kids while they’re growing up (Sally Mann, Blake Andrews, Jared Iori is a great example). If you live in the suburbs, check out Bob Owen’s “Suburbia” series— he was able to make socio-economic-politically interesting images of Americans living in the boring suburbs (yet he was able to make them interesting).
If you live in the forest or the woods, make the best damn photos of nature you can— or perhaps even make self-portraits of yourself if you have no subjects to photograph.
When I lived in Michigan (East Lansing), I was frustrated that there was literally nobody walking in the streets. And the “downtown” area were just a bunch of boring-looking students. So this inspired me to try something new; to shoot “urban landscapes” — finding emotions in man-made structures. This opened a whole new avenue to my photography.
Even nowadays in Berkeley, I try to make the best of my lifestyle. Nowadays as Cindy works on her intense examination preparations for her Ph.D. (Oral Examination, where she needs to read 400 books in 4 months) I am mostly doing domestic stuff at home— cooking, cleaning, and helping support her. I don’t have that much time to go out to the streets and shoot. So instead, I photograph her, our life together, and make portraits of family, friends, and other strangers I come across.
Literally 90% of my time in Berkeley is spent inside coffee shops— so I will use my opportunity inside coffee shops to approach strangers, and shoot “street portraits” of them with permission. Ever since Cindy and I gave away our car to Cindy’s younger sister, we’ve been taking a lot of public transportation (bus, subway). So whenever I’m taking the bus, I will take candid photos of strangers on the bus, and the same on the subway. The next step is to make more photos while I’m in an Uber.
Do you make the world fit you, or do you fit the world?
This is a huge philosophical debate I have in photography and life: do you make the world fit you (Nietzsche, will-to-power, Uberman approach) or do you fit the world (Taoist, Zen, Buddhist) approach?
There is ultimately no “right” or wrong.
Based on my personal experiences, I have been able to make the world fit me (being able to blog, teach street photography workshops for a living). But at the same time, I find when I am trying to control my external surroundings too much, I get frustrated (this is where I just “go with the flow” — a Taoist approach).
So I feel it is finding a blend, or a hybrid approach. I don’t have any of the answers for you (only you do).
I encourage you to constantly experiment. I’ve been studying tons of different philosophical approaches in life, and none of them work 100% perfectly for me. And honestly; my life will never be 100% perfect— but everyday I strive to be more productive, more energetic, more loving, more supportive, less petty, less worried about money and fame, and less bored.
You don’t need to quit your day job
If you have a family to support and feed; it might be a good idea to make the best out of your situation (quitting your job and deciding to travel the world would be irresponsible). Then take the best damn photos of your family, friends, and photos during your commute.
If you are a single person, nothing really holding you down— experiment with your life, and try to create your own lifestyle. Quit your job, explore and travel the world, and try to be entrepreneurial.
Or perhaps you can do a hybrid approach— keep that boring desk-job, and on the side try to start up your own business or startup. You have time before work (6am-8am), time during your lunch break (12-1pm), and time after work (7-9pm). That is a potential 5 hours a day you can work on your side-project. And of course, you have the entire weekend (all of Saturday and Sunday) to build your new idea. So what are you waiting for? How bad do you want it?
You will never be satisfied
I am in a precarious situation— I have built up my “ideal” lifestyle over the last 6 years— I don’t need to go into an office, I do what I love (blog, read, teach), I can travel, and I am not bound to a certain location. I have family and friends that I love, and I feel the work I do is meaningful.
Yet I am not 100% satisfied— and I have no idea why.
I think ultimately humans are hard-wired to never be satisfied. And that is what kept us to continue to innovative, grow, and improve society.
I am grateful for all the things I’ve done on this blog— the articles, the e-books, YouTube videos, etc— but I feel like there is still so much more I can do (this is what gets me up in the morning). I think if I were 100% satisfied with things, I would just go into a cave, meditate, and become a recluse.
But what has brought me the most happiness and sense of purpose? To help others. Every time I teach a workshop and I see a student break through his/her fear barrier or make a creative insight; this brings me to life. Whenever I hear that an article, e-book, or YouTube video has helped teach or empower a photographer, I feel alive. Whenever I help Cindy and she gives me a big hug from behind (while I’m doing dishes) I get the greatest feeling of accomplishment— that warm glow.
Furthermore, it is to constantly learn, grow, evolve, and push my thinking forward. I am still ignorant of so many things in the world (poetry, literature, history, science, philosophy, photography, art) — and knowing that I have much more to explore and discover keeps me excited.
Make the best out of today
Sorry, I know I got off-track a bit; but essentially to sum up this letter I want to encourage you: make the best out of your own life’s situation.
Wake up a bit earlier, and take photos on the public transit on the way to work. If you’re stuck in your car, shoot out of the window (safely, if you’re stuck in traffic). Make photos of your kids, loved ones, friends, and family members.
When you’re bored at work, look at the MagnumPhotos.com website and study the portfolios of (all) the masters. Or read articles on this blog, or learn 100 lessons from the masters. Use your lunch break to make some photos around the office, and try to be an active creator— not consumer. Start your own blog, your own website portfolio and connect with other like-minded photographers.
What are you waiting for friend? The world awaits your genius.