I’ve been really into the soul lately — in terms of how we can integrate it into our photography and life.
1. Why the soul?
In life, I’m becoming more spiritual. I’m finding more appreciation in nature, the beauty in the mundane, and counting more of my blessings. For a while, I was too obsessed with a lot of rational thought. A lot of modern thought.
What has partially cured me is going back to the ancients. Reading the philosophy of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Epicurus, and Jesus has made me feel clean again. I find more zest in life. More excitement, more enthusiasm, and more happiness.
2. Does a soul really exist?
I like to think that the soul is what governs our thoughts, our movement, and our lives. Of course, we cannot point at a spot in our brain and say: “This is where your soul is.” And of course, in a rationalistic way — a ‘soul’ doesn’t exist. But then do concepts like ‘love’ exist— besides the feeling of dopamine in your brain when you see your partner or child?
Science can teach us how to build an atomic bomb; but does science teach us whether we should drop one on another country?
Science can teach us how our heart beats; but can science teach us how to create art to make our heart beat faster?
Science can teach us what molecules, DNA, and chromosomes we are made out of — but can it teach us how our body re-integrates into the earth after we pass away?
Can science teach us how to motivate ourselves to find beauty in life? Can science teach us how to make more artistic images? I don’t think so. This is where the soul comes in.
3. Trust your photographic impulse
You know the feeling. You see a person, a scene, or some light— and you feel this urge in your chest to make a photograph.
You can’t explain it. It doesn’t come from any rational part of your brain. It just seizes you — like a ship being seized by a massive wave.
The feeling is from another world.
I am starting to see photography more like a spiritual act. Photography is about finding beauty in the world— through either natural or man-made objects. Photography is about finding more gratitude in the world. Realizing that anything can be beautiful — if we just look closely enough.
We need to listen to our photographic impulse. This is where all creativity comes from.
To ignore your photographic impulse is like a small death. It is when you betray your artistic self. To not make a photograph when you feel compelled to is almost like choking yourself. You cannot breathe without making that photograph.
I think conversely; you should never make a photograph when you don’t feel compelled to. You should only make photographs that make your heart and soul sing. You shouldn’t make photos everyday as part of some silly 365 day project. You should only make photographs which remind you what it means to be a human being. What a blessing it is to be alive, to have your vision, and sense of perception of the world around you.
4. Trust your soul when you’re making photos
I feel the best compliment you can give another photographer is this:
“I can see your soul in your photographs.”
What greater gift than to tell them that?
I feel the best photographers I know are the ones who show their soul in their photos. Meaning, I can see and feel their emotional state in their photographs.
For example, if you see the world in a dark and depressed way— does that show in your photographs?
If you’re more of an optimist in life, and living life happily with joy — do your photos reflect that?
Looking back at my images, I realized that some of the earlier photos in the #cindyproject were a lot darker— more moody, and more depressing. This is because Cindy was going through a lot harder times in her Ph.D. She was struggling. I was struggling with her. I tried to photograph our experiences as faithfully as possible; and I can feel my soul through the images, and the soul of Cindy reflected in those photos as well.
Living here in Hanoi as of 2017, things are a lot calmer than when she started her research. And I think that reflects in the photos. The photos have a lighter touch — more optimism, hope and joy.
So when I say put your soul in your photos; make sure that you are the only one who can make that image.
If you make a photo of the Eiffel tower— where can I see your soul? Anybody can do that. Google Maps can do that.
What I want to see is an image that only you can make. A personal photograph. A self-portrait of yourself. A photograph that shows your perspective of the world. A photograph that shows your emotions. A photograph that reflects your artistic and aesthetic sensibilities through your post-processing.
I want to see how you tell stories— through the photo projects you work on, and how you edit/sequence them.
I want to see how you interact with people, based on the types of images you make. Do you prefer to keep a distance, or do you prefer to get closer to people physically, emotionally, and spiritual? Do you open up your hearts to your subjects, or are you a detached observer?
5. Lose yourself
I think when you photograph with your soul; you lose a sense of your body, your ego— a concept of ‘self.’
We are all self-conscious. I know I am. I want people to love, appreciate, and like me.
But when I’m really in the zone of making photographs, I forget who ‘Eric Kim’ is. I become the camera. The camera becomes me. I make photos based on intuition, without even thinking. I disappear into the streets. The streets talk to me, and I listen.
When I’m really focused on making photos and composing a scene— focusing on the edges of the frame, the diagonals, and working different angles — I feel like nothing else exists; only what is inside that 3:2 frame.
6. Trust your gut
I feel to photograph with our soul, we need to stop thinking. The soul isn’t a rational thing. The soul is a metaphysical thing, that we cannot point out. We can never explain a soul, nor can we prove it exists (nor can we prove that it doesn’t exist).
Therefore, turn off your brain. I turn off my brain when I go out and make photos by turning off my phone, turning off music, and taking off my headphones. I try to walk slower than I normally do, and I love feeling the weight of my camera in my right hand. I walk, observe, and let the world come to me. When I see something and my soul calls to me, I lift my camera and make a photograph.
When I’m making photos, I don’t ‘edit’ — meaning, I don’t decide whether the photo is good or not. That is to decide later.
When you’re out on the streets, make photos based on your gut. If you even have a 1% feeling that a photo might be good, it is worth taking.
The biggest problem I suffer in my photography is this: I let my inner-critic and that inner-voice fuck me up. It says:
“Oh Eric, don’t take a photo of that. It is boring. What will your followers think of that image if you uploaded it? Common; you’ve taken better photos in the past.”
That voice causes me to fall into ‘paralysis by analysis’ — I start to think too much. Then I become paralyzed. I end up not making any images. I lose my flow and my mojo.
7. Photography is meditation
I liken to shooting street photography like walking meditation. I get in the zone, by walking, slowly, trying to empty my mind, and letting the world outside of me fill me up.
By not forcing my photographic process, I have become more creative.
The Taoist/Zen saying goes: a bowl is only useful when it is empty. The same goes with a house— a house is only useful based on how much negative space it has inside. The same goes with our creative soul — we need to empty it as much as we can, in order to fill it up.
8. Kill your masters
How do we empty our creative souls? A suggestion: stop looking so much at other people’s work. Only focus on your work.
I believe it is good to find outside inspiration. Every master was once an apprentice. Even Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael had their masters.
But once they graduated, they killed their masters. They paved a new path for themselves. They still valued the lessons they learned from the past, but they started to make their own rules for themselves. They experimented, tinkered, and tried out their own ideas— boldly, and without fear. They were like the great Achilles — bold, magnificent, and triumphant. Without fear of death.
9. Who are you?
You need to know your own soul. Very few of us (myself included) know who we are.
Meaning, what causes your soul to sing and dance?
For me, I feel spiritually moved whenever I am in mass in Church, when I am listening to my favorite hip-hop music, when I am looking at ancient Greek/Roman statues, when I have blessed single-origin espressos, when I see the beautiful face of Cindy in the morning, when I have lovely 3-hour dinners with close friends, when I read poetry from Horace, when I read Stoic philosophy, when I meet other passionate photographers, when I teach, when I write, meditate, walk, and deadlift.
I know my soul can be easily be made timid— through hateful comments on the internet. So in order to make my soul more courageous; I immunize myself to attacks from the internet by just ignoring anonymous online comments. I also listen to music which lifts my spirits— which takes my mind to the next level.
As with photography, I only choose photos that uplifts me— that moves and stirs me emotionally. If my own photos don’t move my spirit; how do I expect them to move the spirit of my viewer?
10. Your photos need emotion
I feel the purpose of all art is to change the thoughts, emotions, and hearts of the viewer (and of course, of yourself). A photograph without emotion is dead. A photographer without a soul isn’t a photographer, but an image-making robot.
I don’t want to sound harsh — of course we all have souls. And all of us as photographers shoot with our soul. But the problem is listening to our inner-voices; our inner-soul, and not being afraid to follow our hearts.
I often get this feeling: I look at one of my photos, and I personally love the photo. But I am afraid what others will think. But why should I care? If this photograph was made with my soul, and stirs me emotionally — it deserves to exist. It deserves to be shared with others. Because it won’t emotionally move everybody — but it will have the chance or the opportunity to do so.
So if you have a photograph that moves your heart and soul — you must share it with others. It is your duty.
11. Practical tips to capture soul in your photos
Okay, I know a lot of this is pretty fluffy stuff. Here are some practical ideas:
a. Disregard composition; focus on emotions
I think we often get too obsessed about composition and form.
Who cares about composition, if the photo has no soul?
To me, the soul and emotions are tightly inter-linked.
Therefore, start off trying to photograph more emotions. Photograph loneliness, sadness, joy, and excitement.
The best way to photograph emotions is to photograph hand-gestures, body-language, and through eye contact. Photograph people’s hand-gestures in different ways. Just focus on the hands.
For body language, is your subject hunched over, leaning towards you, or leaning back?
For eye contact— try to get your subject to look into the lens, or perhaps away from the lens. Have them look up, down, left, and right. Remember the saying: “Eyes are the windows to the soul.”
b. Photograph your loved ones
If you want to practice photographing with more of your soul, don’t photograph strangers. Photograph your loved ones. Photograph your partner, your kids, your parents, cousins, relatives, friends, or if you have nobody to photograph, photograph yourself.
You know your loved ones better than anybody else. You are more intimate with them than strangers. This allows you to photograph more openly, freely, with your heart, and with your soul.
You can also try making self-portraits of yourself, as a practice and exercise to better understand your own inner-mind state, your own emotions, and your own soul.
c. Put your viewer in your shoes
The ultimate aim of a photographer should be to put your viewer in your shoes. To have your viewer feel what you feel. To have your viewer perceive what you perceive. To have your viewer take on your perspective of the world. After all, that is the point of composition and framing— deciding what to leave in the frame, and deciding what to leave out.
The great painters are the ones who could put the viewer in their shoes.
If you make a street photograph of a stranger— how does the photograph make you feel? And not only that, but can you relate, empathize, or feel compassion for that person? Furthermore, could you do in a way that your viewer will feel the same emotions as the subject in your photograph?
I feel the best way to do this is through many ways— through capturing certain light (either photographing during golden hour to capture a more melancholic mood), perhaps using a flash (to highlight anxiety and energy), and by using different camera angles to emphasize different feelings (shoot from a lower-angle to make the person look larger-than-life, and shoot from a higher-angle to make the person look smaller-than-life).
One of the best ways to put the viewer in your shoes is to study great cinema and film. Study the camera-angles in those films. I recently watched the film ‘Moonlight’ and was blown away, I felt like the kid in the movie.
12. Don’t think too much
Ultimately, don’t overthink it. You shouldn’t be out making photos thinking to yourself: “Am I photographing with my soul or not?” You either are, or you aren’t.
My practical suggestion is let your inner-child thrive. Embrace that pure state of creativity when you started off as a beginner. When you had no concepts of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in photography. When you let your spirit and soul soar, with no constraints or boundaries in your photography.
Return to that innocent, pure state, by throwing away all the rules of photography, by killing your masters, and following your own heart, intuition, and soul.
Stay true to yourself,
Learn how to photograph with your soul: