Why Unlearning is Better than Learning

Tokyo, 2016
Tokyo, 2016

Dear friend,

I love learning, but the problem is that when I learn too much, I can become overwhelmed.

Rather than focusing on action, I get too caught up in theoretical ideas.

How can we be students of living for our entire lives, but stay fresh, pliant, and creative?

Unlearn one thing a day

Downtown LA, 2015
Downtown LA, 2015

One of the great philosophical insights I got from the Taoist book, “The Tao Te Ching” is that to gain true “wisdom” — we should aim to unlearn one thing a day, instead of learning a new thing everyday.

I would have to say for my personal photographic journey, it has also been about unlearning.

For example, I used to think that in street photography, you only were allowed to take 1-2 photos to capture the “decisive moment.” However upon studying the work of the master street photographers, I found that the “decisive moment” was mostly a myth. Great photographers would often “work the scene” to get the one “decisive moment.” Even Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Sometimes you need to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cheese.”

So once I “unlearned” the idea that street photographers were only allowed to shoot 1-2 photos of a scene, I felt liberated. I started to build my confidence, and started to “work the scene.” This helped me get some of my best photos that I am proud of.

In my photography, I also unlearned the idea that there are any “rules.” For every “rule” I’ve learned in photography, there has been a counter-rule.

For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson taught us not to crop our photos. But some of the best photographers in history have cropped their photos quite heavily (William Klein, Elliott Erwitt, and many others).

Another thing that I believe in (you should stick with one camera, one lens) — is also untrue. Araki is a famous Japanese photographer who is known for having hundreds of cameras, and yet has created an amazing body of work.

So for every “rule” there is always an exception.

Rather than seeing these as “rules” — I think it is better for us to think of them as “suggestions.” A suggestion is a tip, a nudge of advice, or an idea that can help stimulate us.

What else can you unlearn in life?

Tokyo, 2011
Tokyo, 2011

The biggest benefit I had in studying sociology was to unlearn the societal rules and bullshit superimposed on us by others.

For example, I was told that if I earned a lot of money, gained prestige and power — I would become happy. Studying sociology (and also living my life) has taught that to be untrue.

I also believed in the past that if I got over 100+ likes on a photo I would be happy. That has also been B.S. — the more likes I get on a photo, the more I desire.

The same is also with money. It is true that not having any money brings misery. But having a lot of money doesn’t bring you happiness. I’ve found out for me that finding a balance between poverty and being wealthy is desirable.

What else holds you back?

Downtown LA, 2011
Downtown LA, 2011

What are some “rules” you superimpose on yourself in your photography that hold you back, and restrain you?

I do believe that if our rules are self-imposed for creative purposes, they can help us. For example, the practice of sticking with one camera, one lens can force us to be more creative with our work. Sticking with only black and white or color can also give us a “creative constraint.”

However what damages us is when we listen to others, and let their “suggestions” become cages for us.

Your creativity is a bird. It wants to fly. Don’t let it get caged in (even if it is a golden cage).

What myths can you “unlearn” in your photography?

Downtown LA, 2011
Downtown LA, 2011

So friend, think to yourself — what can I unlearn in my photography on a day-to-day basis? Below are some ideas you can “unlearn” to be more creative in your photography:

  • You need to take a photograph everyday
  • You need social media to become “successful”
  • You need to have an exhibition or publish a book of your work to be “successful”
  • You should only stick with one camera or one lens
  • Film looks better than digital
  • You can’t take good photos in the suburbs
  • Your 9-5 job is holding your photography back
  • Your creativity is limited by your gear
  • Shooting wide-open makes better photos
  • If your photos aren’t good enough, your camera isn’t expensive enough
  • You need fancy post-processing to make your photos look good

Create your own rules for your photography, and always see photography as a chance for you to have fun, and explore your creativity. Nothing holds you back, only yourself.


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