20 Photography and Life Lessons From Publilius Syrus

eric kim street photography portrait toronto
Toronto, 2014

Publilius Syrus was once a former slave— turned playwright and philosopher. He was best known for his “aphorisms” — a collection of self-contained quotes which is full of insight, wisdom, and advice. You can see all of his insights via “The Moral Sayings of Publilius Syrus.”

Whenever I need some direction in life, I always revisit these aphorisms and thoughts from Publilius Syrus. Here are some lessons you can learn, and apply to your photography:

1. Don’t work on more than one project a time

Melbourne, 2016
Melbourne, 2016

“To do two things at once is to do neither.” – Publilius Syrus

We all know that multi-tasking is a myth. Whenever you try to do more than one thing at once, you end up doing nothing.

The solution: only do one thing at a time.

If you want to improve your photography, focus on just doing one thing at a time.

For example, if you want to improve your vision — focus only on black and white or color for a year.

If you want to create a body of work, focus only on 1 project at a time.

If you want to improve your framing, only use one lens and camera at a time.

Think of how you can limit your options.

Remember to do two things at once is to do nothing.

2. Don’t rush yourself


“There is no fruit which is not bitter before it is ripe.” – Publilius Syrus

Working on a photography project takes a long time. And you don’t want to finish your project and publish it before it is ripe.

“Nothing can be done at once hastily and prudently.” – Publilius Syrus

When you try to rush your progress in your photography, you won’t improve. If you want a redwood to reach great heights — you need patience.

Don’t think of your progress in your photography in years. Think decades.

Also when you’re not sure whether your photos are any good or not, consider how you can let your photos and “marinate” a while (before figuring out whether you like it or not).

A great insight by Pubilius Syrus which you can apply to any aspect of your life:

There is nothing which the lapse of time will not either extinguish or improve.” – Publilius Syrus

For me, as time goes on — there are certain photos that I end up liking more. And other photos I end up hating more.

Time is always your wisest counselor.

3. Desire little

Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject
Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject

No matter how much we have, we will always desire more. No matter how much we achieve, we will always want more success.

The secret of photography? Being satisfied with what we have. Working hard in our photography — not to please others, but to please ourselves.

We’re always obsessed with getting more cameras, more social media followers, more gear, more likes, and more fame. But if we learn to curb our desires, we will find more satisfaction and happiness in life:

“That mortal needs least; who wishes least.” – Publilius Syrus

Another great insight:

“Who has the greatest possessions? He who wants least.” – Publilius Syrus

How much do we need? Enough:

“He can have what he wishes who wishes just enough.” – Publilius Syrus

4. Don’t plan your photography projects too much in-depth


Another good insight we can take from Publilius Syrus — always remain flexible with your projects, goals, and visions:

“A well-planned project often turns out ill.” – Publilius Syrus

When we try to plan a project too much in-depth, we become rigid with the details.

For example, let’s say you’re working on a photography project — and you have it mapped out for the next 2 years. But what if suddenly one of your kids gets sick and you can no longer work on it? What if you are working on your photo project, and suddenly the situation changes?

You need to plan as you’re working on the project. Meaning — remain flexible, fluid, and don’t stick too rigidly to your plans:

“The gladiator lays his plans after he enters the arena.” – Publilius Syrus

5. The more you give, the more you will receive:


“The more benefits bestowed; the more received.” – Publilius Syrus

How do you gain “success” in your photography and life?

Simple: figure out how to add more value into the lives of others. Because the more value you give, the more rewards you will receive.

For example, as a photographer — think of how you can add value to the lives of others. Can you do this by creating utterly amazing images that inspire others? Can you do this by sharing your insights, tips, and how you edit/post-process your photos?

Can you add value to your photography by creating a photo book? By including prints? By offering classes, workshops, or talks?

If you’re not receiving enough from others; you’re probably not giving enough to others.

6. Quickly forget the favors you give others


“Never forget a favor received; be quick to forget a favor bestowed.” – Publilius Syrus

It is easy for us to forget all the things that others give us. We forget gratitude to our photography teachers, to our masters, and all our friends who have helped us get to where we are.

Yet we tend to feel indignant — because we think we help others more than others help us.

Whenever others help us, never forget them. But whenever we help others, let us quickly forget it.

This way we can continue to help our fellow photographers. We can continue to offer our guidance, feedback, and constructive critique to others. And we will never feel bitter for not receiving (as much) in return.

7. Beware “free”


I wish I knew this when I started off in photography — whenever a company, a person, or an organization offers “free” things to you — or some sort of help, there will always be a “catch”:

“To receive a favor is to pawn your freedom.” – Publilius Syrus

My dream was to get free things from companies, to gain fame, wealth, and power. But in reality, the more free things I got — the more enslaved I felt.

Why? If you receive something for free, or get a favor — you feel indebted to the other person to say nice things.

If you value your freedom above everything else — beware getting things for free, for getting “favors”, or for anything else that causes you to become indebted to someone else.

8. Use your money wisely


“Money is worth something when good sense disburses it.” – Publilius Syrus

Money is not an evil in itself. Money is worth something when we use it wisely.

How can we best use our money? We can best use our money to pay rent, pay the bills, feed ourselves, help our friends and family, to empower ourselves through our art, to travel, and to have experiences.

How can we poorly use money? By using it to buy superfluous things we don’t need, to fall victim to luxurious goods, to show off, or to hide our insecurities.

As a photographer, your best investment with your money is on your education. To invest in photography classes, workshops, travel, photography books, or mentorships. To see the world, to have novel experiences, and to publish your work.

Don’t waste your valuable cash on things you don’t need. Do you really need that new camera body, lens, or gadget? Will it really empower you? Or will it just empty your wallet?

Education and experiences over gear.

9. Always have a backup


“It is well to moor your bark with two anchors.” – Publilius Syrus

In life, you always want backups or redundancy to prevent yourself from being screwed over.

If you’re shooting a wedding or a commercial gig— you need to expect your gear to fail. You always need a backup.

If you shoot digital photography, you always want a backup of your photos (or better yet, several backups). Backup on extra hard drives or on the cloud.

If you’re traveling for a long time (and don’t expect to see any camera stores along the way) — bring a second body (just in case).

10. Value your own opinion of your photos (over the opinion of others)


“Consult your conscience; rather than popular opinion.” – Publilius Syrus

Why is it that we care more about the opinions that others have of our photography and art, over our own opinion of ourselves?

As humans, we want approval from others. It makes us feel appreciated, safe, and secure. Yet if we live a life according to the opinions of others, we will never create the art we want to make for ourselves.

Many photographers fall into the trap that once they become successful — they seek to keep pleasing their audience. They seek to please more and more people. And before they know it, they’ve lost their unique voice, which made their work valuable in the first place.

“Seek to please many, and you seek a failure.” – Publilius Syrus

Why do you want the approval of many people? Isn’t the approval of just a few people enough? Especially if they are close friends, colleagues, and people whose opinion who matters to you?

“Let your life be pleasing to the multitude, and it can not be so to yourself.” – Publilius Syrus

And never forget— the most important person to impress in your photography is yourself.

So take a look at your photos, and before you ask others what they think about your work, ask yourself: “What do I think of my own photos?”

11. Don’t just take one photo of a scene

New Orleans, 2015
New Orleans, 2015

1-contact-nola-2 1-contact-nola-1

“Let fly many arrows; and no two will hit in the same place.” – Publilius Syrus

We generally make the mistake of only taking 1-2 photos of a scene, and moving on. Rather, try your best to “work the scene” and take many photos of the scene. Because who knows— a subtle change of perspective, framing, or timing can make the difference in the photo.

Shoot many arrows, or shoot a lot of photos— and no two will hit the same place.

12. Don’t become a slave to the opinion of others


“To depend on another’s nod for a livelihood is a sad destiny.” – Publilius Syrus

Sometimes we get addicted to external admiration on social media. We get addicted to how many likes we get on our photos, how many followers we have, and how many comments we get.

Don’t depend on the feedback and “likes” of others. Or else you will perpetually be in a state of anxiety — always wanting more and more approval from others.

13. You’re only as good as your last photo

“Men will judge your past deeds by your last.” – Publilius Syrus

People are forgetful. They won’t judge you by your best actions of the past— they will simply judge you by your last action. Psychologically, we have a bias towards recency. What is recent is relevant, and easily memorable.

Know that in a personal relationship, it is easy for your partner to remember all the good things you’ve done for them. They will only recall (the bad things) as well as your most recent actions. So make sure to make each action count.

Similarly, people will judge you by your last photo, your last project, your last book, or your last exhibition.

You always want to improve your work. If you feel your recent photos aren’t as good as your past photos, don’t feel obliged to share them. Only share your best work — because that is what people are going to know you for.

14. Build strong habits

Prague, 2015
Prague, 2015

“Powerful indeed is the empire of habit.” – Publilius Syrus

Based on my experience, the best photographers aren’t the ones who are the most “talented.” Rather— it is the photographers who have the strongest drive, hustle, and positive habits.

One of the most powerful habits a photographer can have is tenacity — the ability to stay motivated and inspired over decades.

How can you build positive habits in your photography? Simple: just do what you love, and do it often.

The great photographers don’t need to force themselves to take photos all the time, and to work on long-term projects. They do it because they love it; because it is their passion. They can’t help not but to make photos.

With you — follow your heart, gut, and soul in photography. Build habits that will help you always carry your camera with you everywhere you go. Build a habit to look at great photography. Build a habit of looking at your photos with an objective eye. Build a habit of soliciting negative feedback on your photos (rather than positive feedback). Build a habit of thinking long-term in your photography. And perhaps build a habit of not checking social media so much.

What positive habits would you want to have in your photography? Decide what you want for yourself— and work towards making it a daily endeavor.

15. Don’t be afraid of ‘copying’ others; it will always be unique

Lisbon, 2015
Lisbon, 2015

“When two do the same thing; it is not the same thing after all.” – Publilius Syrus

One of the biggest fears I know photographers have is this: they’re afraid of imitating or “copying” others. They want to have their own style, voice, and vision — and by doing what someone did before, they’re afraid of not standing out.

But in reality, no matter how hard you try to copy someone else, it will never be the same. Because you’re different. You will make different photos. You are in a different context — even if you have a similar photo project idea.

Just think about all the photographers who have done a project on America. Every version is different and unique. Because each photographer who has shot America has their own unique vision, life experiences, and perspective.

If you want to pursue a photography project that has “already been done before” — just do it. Because you haven’t done it before. Disregard anyone who tells you not to do a project because it has “already been done.”

16. Don’t stop shooting


“A rolling stone gathers no moss.” – Publilius Syrus

As photographers and artists, we all hit dry spells. We have moments where we hit a wall, and don’t feel inspired.

The secret to overcoming photographer’s block is to just keep moving. To keep shooting. If we keep making images, looking for inspiration in the world, and looking at great images — we will never collect dust or moss.

Keep rolling forward.

17. Eliminate fear

Huntington Beach, 2015
Huntington Beach, 2015

“Fear never advanced any man to the highest standing.” – Publilius Syrus

What are your biggest fears in photography and life? Are you afraid of taking a photo of a stranger in public? Are you afraid of starting your own photography business? Are you afraid of traveling to a foreign country? Are you afraid of starting a Kickstarter to fund your photography project or book?

Know that fear has prevented many great people from achieving their potential. Never let fear get in the way of your dreams.

In-fact, do the opposite. Do what scares you. Because fear is often a good guide— the biggest growth opportunities are things that we fear.

For example, when it comes to street photography — I have a personal rule: I must photograph what I’m afraid of. So whenever I see a person or scene that makes me feel nervous, self-conscious, or afraid — that’s my mind telling me: “Hey Eric — this is a potentially good scene. You’re only feeling afraid because you know it might be a good shot.”

Shoot what you’re afraid of. Pursue what you’re afraid of. Reach the highest peaks in your photography and life. Don’t let fear hold you back.

18. Everyone needs to start somewhere


“Do not despise the lowest steps in the ascent to greatness.” – Publilius Syrus

No matter how famous or successful a photographer is, they always started from humble beginnings. Every great photographer was once a newbie — who didn’t know how to use their camera, didn’t know what to photograph, or how to get their work out there.

So if you’re starting off in photography, be humble, patient, and hard working. Don’t feel frustrated. Know that the ascent to greatness in your photography will take a while. You will need to start on the low steps, to reach the highest peaks.

19. Shoot everyday as if it were your last

In-and-out, 2015
In-and-out, 2015

“Every day should be passed as if it were to be our last.” – Publilius Syrus

You never know when you’re going to die. Today? Tomorrow? The day after, a week after, a month after, a year later? A decade later? A few decades later? You never know.

If you live your life like you’re going to live forever, you’re never going to achieve your personal maximum in photography. You need to have a sense of urgency.

Imagine like today were your last day on earth. What would you photograph? What would you not photograph? What photo projects would you start pursuing, or perhaps complete?

20. Focus on making great photos

Istanbul, 2014
Istanbul, 2014

“You need not hang up the ivy branch over the wine that will sell.” – Publilius Syrus

One of the common misconceptions that a lot of us have: we think that if we were just good enough at marketing ourselves, we would become more successful.

It is true that great art often needs great marketing. But in reality, most of us don’t (yet) have great photos.

I find once you’re a great photographer, it is very easy to find people who will help promote and market you (as long as you have great photos).

So don’t worry about building a social media following, or becoming famous. Work on becoming the best photographer you can. Focus on building a meaningful body of work — and when you’re finally ready, publish it as a book or exhibit. Then it will be easy to find bloggers to interview and feature your work, to have future exhibitions, and to spread your name and work.

Put in the hard work to make great photos— and then your work will eventually sell itself.


SF, 2016 #cindyproject
SF, 2016 #cindyproject

I have a secret to admit. I am not passionate about photography — but life. Life is the most interesting thing to me— photography is just a tool to help me suck more marrow out of life.

Whenever we learn a philosophy about photography, let us see how we can apply it to life. And vice-versa.

What life lessons can you learn that will keep you motivated, inspired, and encouraged until you die?

Photography isn’t the most important thing in life. The most important thing is to do meaningful work, to have meaningful relationships, and to be grateful for what we have.

Know that human nature is fixed. We will always be dissatisfied, we will always compare ourselves to others, and we will never have enough. Yet we can still retrain ourselves to break out of our laziness, our sense of self-doubt, and conquer our fears.

It is a daily practice for us to count our blessings, for us to focus on our art, and for us to train our brains to think positively.

Never give up in your photography, art, and life. Keep moving forward.

Don’t forget: “The rolling stone gathers no moss.”


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