Photography is a meditation on life and death.
I. Why do you make photos?
Whenever I go out and make photos, I ask myself— am I being true to myself? Am I making photos that are true to me— my worldview, my perspective, my feelings, and do my photos bleed onto the sensor?
I remember in the past, I made too many photos caring about others. I made photos that would get a lot of likes on social media. I wanted to just increase the number of likes I got on my photos— and to compete against my peers.
But I forgot to ask myself the most important question:
Why do I make photos?
I spent a long time thinking about it. I started to write a lot of Personal Photography letters, as letters to you, and letters to myself.
I think the secret is this:
Photograph with your blood.
II: What is in your DNA?
YOUR BLOOD is what is in your DNA. It is your life experiences. It is your artistic experiences. It is the message you are trying to get across.
The problem with modern society is that we no longer put blood or soul into things we do. In the past, before we did a sacrifice (religious ceremony) we had to draw blood. Even in Wild West movies— you see how individuals become ‘blood brothers’ by cutting themselves, and binding the blood with others.
III: Don’t censor yourself
In writing, I try to bleed on the page. I’ve been through a lot of tough shit in life— and for a long time, I’ve censored myself. It was because of FEAR— fear of what others would think of me, and whether others would judge me.
Now, I am trying to censor myself less— to share what is really on my mind. I feel that I need courage to speak up for others. I need to speak up for bullshit when I see it— without fear of what might happen to me. I want to sacrifice myself for the collective.
IV: Soul photography
With photography, I try to add my soul into the photograph by talking to the strangers I talk to, or trying to inject my emotions into the photos that I make.
For example, if I am feeling shitty and depressed, I might made darker photos— drawing myself closer to others who I perceive to be solitary and lonely. This is what inspired me to shoot my SUITS project and DARK SKIES OVER TOKYO. I bled onto the film, and bled onto the digital sensor with those photos.
With Cindy, I try to make photos that encapsulate our love and life story. The good times, the bad. The joyful, the boring. The sweet, the dark.
Ultimately what I want to do with the #cindyproject is to inspire and encourage others to start their own Cindy Project— to know that their loved ones are the most important individuals in the world, and they are far more important to document than to travel to foreign places and photograph the ‘exotic.’
V: Your loved ones will die (often before you)
My biggest epiphany while living in Hanoi is this — my life is short and limited, and the time of my loved ones is limited. My mom is early 60’s, and I want to make every moment with her count. Instead of spending more time living abroad— I would like to be close to her, to Cindy’s mom, to Cindy’s family, and my sister. To me, family comes first.
I used to think that my family was holding me back — but in truth, I was holding myself back. I have been talking with Cindy more recently about having kids and the future. I am excited. I know that I can do my creative work regardless of where I live. I want to be close to my (two) moms — and to my family. Because they will die one day (my moms will die before me) so I don’t want to waste a single or day of my life. I am not the best— but I have been trying to call my mom more often, to give her words of love and encouragement. Also to help out my sister Anna become the best version of herself.
VI: Happiness is being close to family
So my ideal concept of raising a family is this: living in Cindy’s mom’s house— and having lots of aunties and grandmothers taking care of our kids. I would much prefer to be living in some boring ass suburban environment with loved ones, than to live in some swanky NYC penthouse apartment— feeling cold, lonely, and far away from humans.
VII: I love RISK and FEAR in street photography
The primary form of photography I love is street photography. I love it because it is fucking hard, and scary. You need to take risks, and you need to make yourself vulnerable. Emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Whenever I am about to click, I need to muster up my courage. To me, street photography is real life training. To help me be more brave — I like to think of myself as a SPARTAN photographer.
My new rule for myself is this:
If I see something that scares me, I must do it.
Applied to my real life,
Whenever I want to do something that scares me, I must do it.
Often what we are scared of are things we want to do— but are too afraid to do.
So I think in life, we can use fear as our guide. Our FEAR is our friend— who tells us how to take more chances in life, to take more risks, and not be afraid of death.
VIII: How to bleed more in your photos
To bleed onto your sensor, here are some tips:
- Shoot what is personal to you: Photograph your kids, family, parents, loved ones, friends, and others you care about. Only you can make those photos — not even Google Street View can.
- Use whatever camera: Use your smartphone, point and shoot, DSLR — whatever. You don’t need an expensive pen to bleed onto the page as a writer. You don’t need an expensive helmet to climb Mount Everest. You don’t need expensive shoes to deadlift at the gym. Use whatever is cheap, easy, and compact.
- MEMENTO MORI: Remember that you will die. Your loved ones will die. Never waste a single moment.
Last thought: let’s say you want to buy a new camera because you think it will make you a better photographer. Let’s say that camera is around $1,500 USD. And if you are paid $20 USD an hour, that is 75 hours of your life to buy that one camera. That is almost two work weeks to get a camera.
Rather— wouldn’t you take 2 weeks off work, and just pursue what you are passionate about? What if you only had two weeks left to live— what would you photograph and what would you not photograph?
Even a step further— consider all that time you are taking to research new cameras you want. How many hours a day do you look at gear review forums or gear blogs? If you spend 10 hours to research a camera, reading reviews, etc— you are spending $200 of your own time (on top of the camera’s price) to buy it.
I say value your time above all. And photograph today like it were your last.
To find more personal meaning in your photography, pick up a copy of PHOTO JOURNAL: Personal Photography Reflections.