HOW TO BECOME A POWERFUL PHOTOGRAPHER
I want you to gain more POWER in your photography. How, why, and what is power in photography?
I. Photography is Self-Empowerment
Okay, so I am an optimist at heart.
Growing up, I was taught:
If you hustle hard enough, and make the best of the opportunities you’re given, you can become successful.
Classic American dream story.
Even now, I believe in the American dream. Truly, if you do hustle hard enough, have faith in yourself and God, and get the right opportunities, you can become a success.
Now “success”– what does that even mean?
My favorite recent definition of success in photography and life:
You’re successful in photography when you look at your own photos, and feel proud of your own photos.
In life, my definition of success:
You’re successful in life when you only do what you’re interested and curious about, and you don’t do what you’re not interested in.
So in the realm of photography, it is all about self-empowerment, to self-improve your photography, and to make yourself the ultimate judge and arbiter of your own visual imagery.
It means silencing the sirens of social media. It means staying the heads of medusa, who try to tempt us with money, power, fame, and expensive cameras.
I’m the anti-Versace of photography:
I want to slay medusa.
II. Why I’m so optimistic
I’ve always been an optimist at heart. Why? Because I do believe, even though life is shitty, you can take that shit and turn it into gold.
Even when I was in high school, I was relentlessly optimistic and positive, to my friends and peers.
I remember an instance which pissed me off: my friend said,
Oh Eric, it is easy for you to be so positive. You’ve never experienced suffering in your life.
I wanted to flip a table.
I then let my fangs dig into him:
Dude, you had no idea what I’ve been through. Have you ever seen your dad beat your mom, and seen your mom shit blood from being so stressed? Do you know what it feels like to give your dad $3,000 from working as a busboy for 2 months, thinking that he will invest that money in a business– only to learn that he went and gambled it away at a casino, and lied about it?
Anyways, I could have ranted on, but my friend got the message.
III. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger
I use my life story as an example, not a model. Not all lives will fit mine. Every life story is different.
But I will speak for myself:
I faced a lot of adversity and fought and uphill battle. But it were the difficulties that made me stronger.
Nietzsche had the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” He is correct.
In building muscle, you need to push your body to the limits to build muscle.
In seeking wisdom and knowledge, you need to push yourself.
In photography, to make good photos, you need to take hard or scary photos.
IV. How to gain more Power
So how do we empower ourselves with photography?
1. Kill your inner-fears
So first of all, you’re not competing against anyone else in photography. You’re only competing against yourself.
When it comes to your fears in photography, what are they?
- Fear of having people say your photos suck?
- Fear of having people not say anything about your photos?
- Fear of making a street photo of a stranger, and getting punched in the face?
What are you really afraid of?
2. Don’t take your fears too seriously.
Often our fears are silly. We are over-dramatic with our fears.
Often, the fears are worse than the consequences.
What I mean by that is this:
The fear of something bad happening is what debilitates us. When the bad thing actually does happen, it actually isn’t so bad.
Let me give you an example: I made a photo of a punk-ass looking kid in a shady neighborhood in Paris. He was probably 16. He went up to me, and surrounded me with 4 of his buddies. He threatened me in French, and I stood my ground. He slapped me, and then I smiled, and walked away.
Now, in my heart, I was afraid. I was afraid he might stab me, punch me, or perhaps beat me up. I wasn’t actually afraid of him, but his buddies.
But the thing is– people smell fear, just like dogs. If you stand your ground, it is often not so bad.
I’ve had a person in Melbourne call the cops on me. And I stood my ground, and refused to take out my film from my camera. Then the cops came, and it wasn’t so bad. They told me I wasn’t doing anything illegal, but just asked me to apologize to the person. I already apologized, but had no problem apologizing again in front of the cops. The person then storms off in rage, and I have made a popular YouTube video (my friend recorded it).
3. Don’t let anyone punk you around.
So I guess the point is don’t let nobody punk you around. Or shove you around.
If you are a doormat, everyone is gonna step all over you.
I saw a lot of people take advantage of my mom. She was too nice. Ultimately my mom won, but at the expense of years of pain, stress, and bullshit.
Even myself, in my early days of my business, I got taken advantage of. Even now, I often let too many people get my time and attention for free. I still let people walk over me. But the good thing is, I’ve learned to stand up for myself. Because if you’re at the playground, and bullies are punting you– if you don’t stand up for yourself, ain’t nobody else gonna stand up for you.
Nassim Taleb in his book “Skin in the Game” gives a practical way of living:
Give no shit, but take no shit.
Eloquent, simple, and to the point.
V. What do you want from photography?
The simple answers people respond with, in terms of what they want from photography include:
- To get more followers
- To get more likes
- To travel
- To get sponsored
- To make better photos
- To improve my composition
- To become more confident
But the question is– why?
Why do you wanna do any of that?
So in a sense, photography is an opportunity for you to self-assess your goals, and focus in life.
I won’t lie, even now, I still care a lot to be in the limelight. I’m an attention whore. It’s true. At parties, I love being at the center of attention. I like to make crude jokes. I like hugging strangers. I often cross social boundaries.
But that’s just me. You gotta know who you are.
Who are you? And how does photography help you reach your goals of self-understanding?
Don’t force other photographers to think and act like you.
I used to superimpose my views on others. Now, I’m just like, “Take it or leave it.”
So whenever I write anything on this blog, you have the power to accept or eject anything I share. **You have the power of choice. **
VI. Be more opinionated
Another sad thing in modern reality: nobody has an opinion anymore.
We are told, it is bad to have an opinion. We want everyone to get along.
I say no. It is good to have an opinion.
True art comes from opinionated folks. If Picasso wasn’t so opinionated in terms of how he saw the world, he might have still been painting like Michelangelo and wouldn’t have created cubism and made himself Picasso.
Same for me. I used to want to be Henri Cartier-Breason, but now I want to be ERIC KIM. Ego-centric? You bet it. Morally wrong? Maybe. Empowering? You bet your pants.
You need to be an opinionated photographer.
For example, you need to be opinionated in terms of what camera to use. You have your own tastes. Know what camera, lens, or setup you like to shoot with. And proudly assert your opinion. Don’t compromise.
Even when you go out and make photos, you are asserting an opinion about reality. You deem what is interesting and boring to you.
To be an opinionated photographer,
Don’t make photos of what you find boring.
Also know to have the power to not look at boring photos. Just avoid any photos that you find boring. Unfollow folks on social media, don’t be afraid of hurting their feelings. And don’t study master photographers whose work bores you. Don’t be an art school kid– call out bullshit when you smell it.
For example, I like the colors of William Eggleston’s work. But I do not see him as a color creative genius. I haven’t drank the Kool Aid.
Similarly, I really like the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but he certainly wasn’t the best photographer in history. He was a pioneer. I think Josef Koudelka is far better.
Even today, a lot of people hate ERIC KIM. That’s fine. Sometimes I don’t like me either.
Lesson: only look at the photos of photographers whose work you actually like. Ignore boring photographers and photos.
VII. Shoot yourself!
Know thyself – Oracle at Delphi
Shoot yourself. Shoot who you are.
I’m an aggressive person. I shoot quite aggressively in street photography. I get close, use a flash, and shoot wide (28-35mm).
If you’re not an aggressive person in real life, please don’t shoot aggressively.
If you’re a more calm, zen, relaxed photographer that is cool. Shoot like Saul Leiter or my buddy Rinzi Ruiz, who I see the ultimate cool Zen photographer.
Ignore everyone who criticizes your style.
Essentially anyone who criticizes your style is actually saying:
You should shoot like me, because I’m the best photographer.
For example, Cartier-Bresson didn’t like how other photographers used wide angle lenses, cropped, or interacted with their subjects. But that was HCB being self-centered, thinking that everyone else should shoot like him. That’s the definition of a tyrant. I don’t like photography tyranny.
Lesson: shoot according to your own personality and style, and ignore everyone else.
Some final points:
- Photography is a tool for self-understanding. Use photography as a tool to understand who you are as a human being.
- Question yourself– why do you find certain photo scenes interesting and others boring?
- Have the confidence to call other photographers work boring.
- Only look at photos which excite you, or photos you like.
- Have the confidence to un-follow photographers whose work you no longer like. Don’t be afraid of hurting their feelings.
- Take more risks in your photography. The more risks you take, the stronger you will become as a photographer.
- Ignore everyone else, just listen to yourself as a photographer, artist, and human being.
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