10 Lessons I’ve Learned from Street Photography

Hanoi silhouette composition ERIC KIM

Prologue

As I contemplate my future and past, I think and reflect much on street photography. How much street photography has given and afforded me, how many new opportunities street photography opened up for me, and all the epic life journeys I’ve been able to experience through street photography.

As I start a very new exciting and brave new life in 2021, I wanted to use this chance to reflect on my past lessons, journeys and experiences and reflections in order to share them with you. My hope is that you gain some practical insight from what I’ve learned, and you can use these lessons to your own benefit and continue to pass them on to others!

ERIC
Providence, 2021


1. For your eyes only

  • simple composition ERIC KIM
  • Hanoi silhouette composition ERIC KIM

To me, the first logical step is to assume that your photography will be for your eyes only. To think to yourself:

If I were the only human being to enjoy my own photos, would I still do it?

If the answer is yes, this is a noble pursuit for you.

The danger lies in trying to make photos to impress others or even worse, to make photos for the “social media treadmill”— the Sisyphean pursuit of constantly uploading “better” and “better” photos in order to accrue more and more likes on social media.

Ultimately the lesson is simple:

Make photos to delight yourself, your eyes, and your own aesthetic tastes.

2. Why the streets?

To me, I love all forms of photography. But for me, street photography is still the one. Why street? For me, street photography is synonymous with social photography. Having studied sociology, street photography is embodied “visual sociology”. I’m the most engaged and turned on when I’m out in public, in the streets, and in the city. For me, paradise is paved (Walter Margerison).

There is no place I like better than the streets. From the bumbling streets of Hanoi, to the romantic streets of Roma Norte in Mexico City, and to the vibrant streets of Cuba or the fashion district (Sante Alley) in Downtown LA. The streets is where I’ve been able to hone my artistic vision, and the streets is where I’ve been able to pave my creative vision, and harden/steel my courage to shoot street photography.

3. The upside of chaos

I’ve never really liked studio photography or standard portrait photography. Why? Too much control. I don’t like to have too much control over lighting, over posing, hair styles, makeup, etc. I prefer the randomness, chaos and chance of being on the streets. With street photography I feel you surrender much to the chaos of the streets and this is great because with this surrender, you open your eyes and heart to so many new epic chances and experiences. When it comes to street photos and the art I’ve been able to make through street photography — much of what I’ve witnessed, seen, and created couldn’t have even come from my imagination. What I witness in the streets is far more fascinating than what I could have done with my own imagination. In other words, reality is more interesting than my own imagination.

4. Photographic education is highly overrated

One of my greatest blessings for photography and art is “via negativa”— my blessing to have not had a standard arts education. I’ve been far more blessed to not been suckered and indoctrinated with standard ways of doing things, approaching things, and thinking about things. In this sense, I was able to approach photography “carte blanche” (a blank slate, empty sheet of white paper) which provided me far more opportunities than closed doors.

Why this incessant need for us to feel we need a formal education? Most of it is a byproduct of our standardized educational system. We feel the need to externalize our self worth and legitimacy through advanced degrees, fancy institutions and other forms of social legitimacy. But our personal goal here is artistic and creative freedom. Artistic and creative daring. To pave new creative paths. To be more bold in our photography and approach, and to be more widely reckless in our creativity.

5. What kind of mentors or masters are useful?

He without a past has no future.

Well the question goes:

Is it possible for us to become great in photography without some sort of foundational knowledge and background?

I see learning from the past masters of photography like creative espressos or shots of adrenaline— they reawaken our own enthusiasm for photography, while still giving us some sort of oversight and guidance. But as every Zen practitioner knows — eventually we must “kill our masters”. I think there is even a Buddhist saying:

If you meet the Buddha on the road, you must kill him.

Certainly the “killing” here is metaphorical. One doesn’t need to forcibly “kill” anyone. The general concept and gist is this:

Our masters will help give us some structure and oversight, but like a good bonsai tree we just use them for initial supports. We must eventually outgrow them, and then follow our own growth pattern and chart.

6. Closer is typically better

“If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa

Typically speaking, there is much wisdom to this Robert Capa quote. For me, I see it as both emotional proximity and physical proximity. The purpose isn’t to be close for close sake— the purpose is for us to be close in order to better feel the emotions of our subjects and have more “skin in the game” (Nassim Taleb) in street photography.

7. Street photography is artwork with human beings

  • Roof top bar Hanoi Vietnam black and white street photography ERIC KIM
  • hands ERIC KIM wrinkles Hanoi woman flash Ricoh gr ii
  • ERIC KIM hanoi selfie
  • Hanoi lake

I’ve come to the realization that street photography is our artwork. Street photography is creating photographic artwork with people in it. Why street photography? Because we delight in people and humans. As a human being, we derive no greater joy besides our fellow joy in our fellow humans. In other words:

To a human being, other humans are king.

You could give someone all the money, bitcoins, Lamborghinis and garden estate villas in the world but without fellow human beings to enjoy these gifts with, these things are useless. Money is useless without having other human beings, toys are useless without having other human beings to play with, and games are boring when we don’t have other humans to play with.

We don’t need a reason to “justify” our street photography to anyone else. To simply say that street photography is our artwork — this is sufficient into itself.

8. Street photography gives us great delight, joy, hope and optimism in life

This is what I love most about street photography:

It gives us deep new hope and joy for the future!

Currently it is difficult to imagine a future. As Cindy says in her “NONFUTURE” film — the fear that everyone has is that a future will no longer exist. But contrary to popular to belief there will be a great(er) future! Thus the best thing we can do is use street photography as an optimistic tool.

Thus don’t think street photography for the sake of it. The great joy and delight of street photography is that it will give us renewed enthusiasm, love, and excitement for the future!

9. Street photography as most fun as a visual compositional game

Gabriel Cuadallo Composition Studies

For composition it ain’t about having great composition for the sake of it. The purpose is:

Street photography composition is play and fun! If we play while shooting street photography, we are more likely to innovate and create new and more epic compositions!

With composition there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” composition. There are dynamic compositions and static compositions. Typically dynamic compositions are superior to static compositions as they give us more faith and hope in life. Static compositions remind us of death.

How does one make more dynamic street photos? Simple:

  1. Integrate more diagonals in your composition
  2. Integrate more “off-kilter” (tilted, “Dutch Angle”) compositions. This means you don’t need a straight horizon to make a good composition. When you tilt your camera when shooting, your photos feel more off-balanced and thus alive!
  3. Shooting head-on: Giving your subject the impression and feeling that you’re about to collide with them. You can do this with the “cutoff technique” in street photography — cross directly in front of the walking path of your subject in order to make a more dynamic composition.
  4. Think about the ‘golden section’ (or also known as the ‘golden rectangle, golden triangle, golden mean): The general gist is that there is a lot of geometry and mathematics behind composition. Just because it fits a compositional grid doesn’t mean it is a good composition, but it does mean your photograph has more structure. I find studying geometry as one of the greatest benefits to my compositions, as it allows me to think more dynamically.
  5. Simpler is typically better: The more I think about it, simplicity is the summit. This means the simpler your compositions can be, the better. This notion can be applied to almost everything — typically speaking a simpler lifestyle is superior to a more complicated lifestyle, and to make something simple is insanely complex (Steve Jobs). Thus when you’re shooting a scene and trying to make the best composition, strive to distill it to the simplest possible parts.

10. Day by day

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  • Crypto Photography walking glitch lady ERIC KIM

Let us treat this day by day. Difficult to ascertain the future, but easy to approach today.

Today is your day to maximize yourself as a visual artist and street photographer. So why delay?

BE BOLD!
ERIC


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By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher