I wanted to share with you some thoughts on personal liberation on photography— what it means to me, and how I achieved it:
Don’t be a slave in your photography
First of all, I think the first step is to not be a slave in your photography.
I’ve been a slave in my photography for a long time. I’ve been a slave to the opinions of others, I’ve been a slave to my gear, and I’ve been a slave to my location.
1. Being a slave to the opinions of others
First of all, caring too much on the opinions of others is not good for your health and your photography.
I know for myself, photography was a game, or a kind of contest. It was all about who could get the most ‘likes’ on social media, who can get the most followers, or the most comments or ‘engagement.’
I know that photography is an inner-pursuit, but the way that social media is arranged is that I always wanted to get more likes than I got in the past. Whenever I fell short of my benchmark, I felt disappointed. And whenever I would see other photographers with more likes/followers than me, I would feel a twinge of envy.
How I overcame caring about what others thought of me
Even now, I still care a lot about what others think of me. But for the most part, I’ve started to care far less about what others think of me.
I think the secret is to care more about my opinion of myself, rather than what others think of me.
The way I do that in my photography is by disconnecting from social media. Nowadays I spend less and less time on social media. Hopefully I can reach a zen-like state one day when I don’t rely on any social media.
The reason why disconnecting from social media has been so useful is this: I no longer quantify myself in terms of my social media numbers. I no longer quantify myself personally, and no longer quantify my photography.
I think the ‘quantified self’ movement is a noble idea, but is harming us as human beings. If we quantify everything in our lives (putting a number to our happiness, overall well-being, and our progress in life), we are doomed to feel miserable. Because we need to prioritize the condition of our inner-soul, not how many numbers we have.
Also, another thing that has helped me focus on my inner-photography is to photograph with my soul, as if each day were my last, and taking photos that personally challenge me. This can’t be quantified with any numbers, any social media platform — only with my gut, my intuition, and my heart.
2. Being a slave to my gear
Many of us have (at one time or another) fell victim to GAS (Gear acquisition syndrome). The idea is that you blame your lack of progress, creativity, or motivation for the lack of your gear. You think that buying a new camera will “re-inspire” you. But in reality, it never does— regardless if it is a medium-format camera, a Leica, or any other expensive tool.
I know for myself, I always lusted after a Leica, and I thought after buying one, it would fix all my life’s problems. It did, for like a week. But after that, it became any old camera— that collected dust on my shelf (more than I would like to admit).
There is no camera that is perfect. And there never will be. We will always be our own stumbling block, and we will always make excuses.
How I overcame G.A.S.
I still am a sucker for gadgets, gizmos, and gear. But honestly nowadays, I really care less about my camera— as I have found satisfaction.
I still have that ‘what if?’ idea about new cameras, gear, and equipment. I think that I will be better at capturing the decisive moment. I feel that I will make better images, with better image quality.
But one of my biggest realizations is this: creativity breeds on constraints. Which means, the more restrictions/constraints I have— the more creative I will be. So in a sense, the worse my gear is, the better my photography will be.
Currently the only camera I shoot with is the pocketable Ricoh GR II digital camera. I bought it for around $600 bucks, and it has liberated me. I have it always with me, generally in my hand, or my front pocket. I have no fear of losing it, because I can just buy another one. Yet when I would often travel with my Leica, it would cause me fear of theft.
I also know myself, how I am suckered by gear— so I insure against myself. I plug my ears with beeswax when it comes to the calls of the sirens. The sirens are gear review websites, blogs, and gear-obsessed individuals. I stay far away from them as possible, because I know I am easily tempted. I installed website blockers to prevent myself from visiting these websites. And now I no longer have any urges to visit these sites.
I also like to invest in experiences, travel, and (good) coffee instead of gear. I know the second I buy any new camera, it will instantly lose value (like buying a new car). Yet if I invest my money in travel, books, education — I will own these for my entire life, and the lessons will stick with me forever.
3. Being a slave to my location
I’m currently writing these lines in Hanoi, Vietnam. But my ‘home’ is Berkeley, California.
Berkeley is a lovely place, yet I always felt jealousy of other people on the other side of the bridge— San Francisco. They call SF ‘the city’ — because all the ‘cool’ things are happening there.
I always thought if I lived in SF, I would be a more spirited and inspired/motivated/creative street photographer. I fantasized about walking down the streets of the mission, embracing all the colors and street life. I looked at Berkeley as a boring suburbia.
Yet in reality, I know the location doesn’t really matter that much. I can find inspiration for my photography anywhere. And to be honest, the more boring the place I live in, the more I have to work hard to be creative and resourceful. Creativity, like I said earlier, breeds on constraints.
How I overcame caring about where I lived
I therefore have made my peace in terms of wherever I am, that I can photograph whatever city I am in. If I live in Orange County, California (where Cindy’s family lives) — I can take photos of Cindy at home (my ‘personal photography’ project). Or if I’m in Berkeley, I can shoot urban landscapes (did a lot of this on my phone). Or if I’m somewhere else, I can always shoot self-portraits of myself.
For me, of course I still have ‘preferences’ of where I’d like to live (I prefer cities). Yet, I have learned that life is all about adapting to your environment, rather than having your environment adapt to you. Not only that, but as long as I have one good coffee shop in a city, I can be happy. And if there is no good coffee shops, I can just make my own good espresso at home. And if I don’t have any good espresso beans, I can always have instant coffee (after all, at the end of the day, I am an addict to caffeine, and will prefer to take my drug of choice in any form possible).
Seek to liberate yourself in photography. Whatever you consider a ball and chain, cut yourself loose.
Don’t be a slave to the camera you shoot with, to the opinions of others, and certainly not a slave to where you live. Because a great photographer can be happy and creative wherever they are, under any circumstances, and regardless of their equipment.
Also remember, creativity is all about constraints— which encourages us to become more resourceful and innovative.
Let us always make fewer excuses in our life and photography, and make more opportunities and photos.