Leading lines, steet photography. Subway, station, Kyoto, uji

Why You Must Follow Your Own Voice in Street Photography

Leading lines, steet photography. Subway, station, Kyoto, uji

Dear friend,

Never let anyone tell you how to shoot street photography, what “street photography” is and isn’t. Rather, define street photography for yourself, and shoot according to your own terms.

Why definitions in street photography will hold you back

Street photograph of woman walking in Kyoto, 2017
Kyoto, 2017

“Don’t call me a street photographer, call me a ‘zoo photographer!’” – Garry Winogrand

Street photography is just a term, an umbrella concept, which makes it easier for us street photographers to differentiate and self identify ourselves in a simple way. If you’re interested in photographing people, strangers, documenting humanity, either with or without permission, “street photography” is a better term to use than “pet photographer.”

Seoul, 2009

When I started to shoot street photography, I didn’t actually know what it was. I just was drawn to photographing strangers without their permission, without really knowing what I was doing or why I was doing it. I thought I was a weirdo — wanting to photograph strangers.

Santa Monica, 2010

I started to upload my street photographs to online forums, and a lot of people told me that they liked my “street photography”. This excited me, because I thought to myself:

“This is great! There is actually a genre of this type of photography that I’m interested and passionate about! I’m not the only weirdo!”

eric kim street photography - the city of angels - black and white-4-street-portrait-hearts-tattoo-downtown-la
Hearts. Downtown LA, 2011. Street portrait with flash and permission.

Thus, I was able to google “street photography”, and felt connected to a larger community, and was also able to learn more information on how to shoot street photography, the history, and useful techniques in street photography.

Polite. Osaka, 2018
Osaka, 2018

However the problem was this: I started to lose my initial child-like naïveté in street photography. Rather than focusing on making photos that I enjoyed and had fun shooting, I started to fall victim to shooting how others told me how I “ought” to shoot street photography. I started to get a lot of criticism and backlash that I was shooting street photography “wrongly” or that my photos weren’t “street photographs”, but rather “street portraits”.

Technical terms of ERIC KIM // illustration and photo by Ken Kurzweil
Technical terms of ERIC KIM // illustration and photo by Ken Kurzweil

After 10+ years of shooting street photography, having written 20+ books on street photography, and having taught thousands of students around the globe in my street photography workshops, this is one of my biggest lessons (both to myself, and to you):

Define and shoot street photography on your own terms.

Why follow your own voice in Street photography?

Sergio Larrain photo next to New York City Subway.
Sergio Larrain ipad photo next to New York City Subway.

This is my rationale:

  1. To truly innovate in your photography, you cannot let others hold you back. You must constantly experiment, try out new approaches, new techniques, and not let the old-school dogma in street photography (like that of Henri Cartier-Bresson) hold you back. You must ignore what others say in the field of street photography, and simply experiment, explore, and see what works for you.
  2. Your temperament, style, approach, and life philosophy is different from others. Thus, when others teach how you “should” shoot street photography, they are simply teaching you what works for them. However, what works for others won’t necessarily work for you. Thus when it comes to learning from your teachers and masters from the past, gain inspiration from them but don’t become their slave. For example, I’m extroverted and you might be introverted. What works for me probably won’t work for you (and vice versa).
  3. Philosophically, the concept of a genre is silly. A genre is just a man-man trap; a glass cube or glass ceiling to constrain you. Genres make it easy for people to categorize you and put you inside a box. However realize, your genius as a photographer is far more multifaceted than others think. Thus, follow your own gut, your own inner genius, and your own voice in street photography (and life).

Assignments to discover your own voice in photography

Depth, high angle. Man mopping floors. NYC, 2018
Depth, high angle. Man mopping floors. NYC, 2018

Some assignments:

  1. Don’t use social media (Facebook, Instagram) to share your photos for a month. This will help you get off the social media treadmill, and have some quiet and space for your own inner voice in photography to speak. This will cause you to compare yourself and your work less with others, and to define your own style, and your own unique voice in photography. Creative isolation is essential if you want to evolve into a unique species. Try uninstalling social media from your phone for a month, or if you’re crazy like me — delete your Instagram.
  2. Don’t self censor your urge or will to photograph, no matter how silly or cliché the photograph may seem. Shoot stupid stuff, and photograph your food and coffee if you so desire. Spend less time around pretentious photographers and art snobs. Allow yourself to shoot like a child, and to be a bit foolish.
  3. Find inspiration outside of photography, in any field of art, whether it be music, dance, theater, cinema, sculpture, or anything that interests you. Cross pollinate your artistic influences, to discover your own unique honey as a photographer.
man bending over, picking up two red bags, new york city
Man with red bags. NYC, 2018

Lastly, never doubt yourself. Life is too short to self-doubt yourself, or be a slave to the opinions of others.

Wolf Gucci slipper. NYC, 2018 (belonging to Rich da Kid)
Wolf Gucci slipper. NYC, 2018 (belonging to Rich da Kid)

Have faith in yourself, experiment, have fun, and shoot street photography on your own terms, and follow your own unique voice in photography and life.


Street Photography 101

If you’re new to street photography, start here:

Master Street Photography

Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Mastering Street Photography
Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Street Photography

Become the best street photographer possible by picking up a copy of Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Street Photography. This book is full of all my distilled knowledge and wisdom on street photography over the last 10 years, crafted specifically to empower you in street photography.

For more free resources, presets, and PDF visualizations on street photography, join my free ERIC KIM NEWSLETTER to stay inspired and empowered.

Also join ERIC KIM EXPERIENCE if you want to take your street photography to the next level and conquer your fears and meet new peers.

To join a positive and passionate community, share your photos in ERIC KIM FORUM. Look forward to having you friend :)

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