Eric Kim crown

Why You Must Not Call Yourself a Photographer

Eric Kim crown

Dear friend,

A practical word of advice: don’t call yourself a photographer. Rather, call yourself a “visual artist”, or better yet—an “artist”— or better yet, a child.



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1. Don’t restrict yourself

Eric Kim anatomical head

This is my thinking:

The term “photographer” is too restrictive. A tree doesn’t classify itself as a “tree”— rather, it just focuses on growth. A tree continues to strive for more nutrition, digging her glorious roots deeper into the crimson earth. She draws more oxygen and nitrogen from the air. She synthesizes the materials from nature, and grows stronger, bigger, with more muscular trunks, and longer branches. She keeps growing, steadily, slowly, and without end.

2. Why do you like to make pictures?

You are a visual artist. You are fascinated by the visual world. You probably were once interested in painting or drawing as a child. Perhaps you also liked to play with play dough — making your own clay statues. Perhaps you liked to create your own cities with LEGO’s — in your own image.

A photographer is someone who uses a camera to capture reality, and make visual art. Therefore, our ultimate aim isn’t to make photographs, but to make visual art — via photography. In other words, photography is the path unto becoming a visual artist. And photographs are just another medium or channel to express your visual artistry— via making pictures.

3. Avoid the fate of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Hands. Paris, 2015
Hands. Paris, 2015

Henri Cartier-Bresson never wanted to be a photographer. He saw photography as merely “instant sketches”. What (I think) he really wanted was to be a painter. Early on his career, he studied painting. He also wanted to label himself as a “surrealist” but was discouraged by Robert Capa— who said that the term would hurt his “commercial viability”.

Hands of a 92 year old woman. Hanoi, 2017
Hands of a 92 year old woman. Hanoi, 2017

Anyways, going back to HCB, he struggled his entire life to make visual art with photography— but I think he was never truly satisfied. He kept trying to paint with his camera, and not feeling quite “there” — even after decades. Finally, he gave up photography, and retired to painting and drawing for the rest of his life. Sad story, his paintings and drawings were never as good as his photographs.

4. Combine all your visual artistic visions

My leg. Saigon hotel, 2017
My leg. Saigon hotel, 2017

The reason why I bring up Henri Cartier-Bresson is to tell you what to AVOID in your life— a lifetime of pursuing the wrong thing.

Of course, you like to make photographs. But once again, don’t limit yourself to only photography. I think this will hurt your long-term creative opportunities.

Swans. Kyoto, 2016
Swans. Kyoto, 2016

William Klein did photography, painting, fashion, typography, and design. He has remained prolific his entire life.

Face mask. Hanoi, 2017
Face mask. Hanoi, 2017

Richard Avedon created a bridge between the fashion, commercial, and photographic “fine art” world. Avedon refused to let external society define him — he decided to define himself through his own style of photography.


Josef Koudelka (whom I consider the true master photographer of all time, more so than Henri Cartier-Bresson) has refused to do photographs that wasn’t true to himself. He has pursued his singular artistic vision himself, living like a nomad without a home, in poverty, selfishly pursuing his own photography and art. And his photographs transcend photography— they are like raw and visceral zen paintings, with life, drama, warmth, emotion, and soul embedded into the stitching of his photographs.

5. Never stop playing


As a visual artist, you have so much to play, explore, and learn. Don’t just make photographs, paint pictures. Draw, sketch.


Make digital pictures via photoshop, illustrator, or procreate app on iPad. Draw in a notebook, or on printer paper if you’re bored at work, or at (even more boring) meetings.

6. Stay true to your own artistic vision

To be a true visual artist is to find aesthetic joy in all of the visual world. To find joy in color, shape, form, texture, and aesthetic joy in looking at people, architecture, nature, the organic, and inorganic.

Above all— trying to make pictures according to YOUR own personal view, perspective, or opinion of reality.

As a visual artist, you decree what is beautiful and deserves to be looked at. You are a JUDGE— a judge of the aesthetically beautiful, sublime, and divine.

Consider, whenever you are about to click the shutter and make a photograph, you’re judging the scene. You’re judging the frame, and you’re judging what to include in the frame, and more importantly— what to exclude from the frame.

7. Discover your own personal truth, only for yourself.

Welcome. Purple. Dc, 2017

I’m still on a personal journey and state of “eternal self-becoming” through art, life, and philosophy. Don’t listen to me, this is all advice for myself— which might, or won’t help you.

My ultimate opinion is that you should have your own opinion about what you do, what you think, how you live your life, and how you express yourself as a visual artist.

Poetry, painting, music, sculpture, architecture. Library of Congress ceiling

Be strong, and never lose faith in yourself.


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