I wanted to write you this letter on photography and life.
I just finished an epic week-long street photography workshop here in New Orleans, and it was an absolutely incredible experience. I had such a great time with the students, in terms of teaching, bringing people together, and sharing new experiences together.
It is 7:20am in New Orleans, and I just downed a “Miss Tracy’s Addiction” (Double espresso, Cayenne pepper, Thai coconut milk) at Addiction Coffee and I’m feeling good. Had a nice chat with Dave, the barista here, and ready to do some writing to share with you some ideas.
Just as a random note, I was thinking about this article for the last day, and woke up super-early for you (6:30am after sleeping at 1am), because I felt it could be of use for you.
I’m currently staying at an Airbnb with my friend Todd and Neil, and Chris (new friend, who is also a workshop participant at my week-long street photography workshop here in New Orleans). All three of them have the new Sony A7RII (the 40+ megapixel monster), with Neil and Chris bringing both of them.
About a month ago I gave a talk on street photography at EyeEm headquarters in Berlin. During the question and answer session, there was a member in the crowd who asked me the question: “What is your dream?”
I’m currently sitting at my desk, facing outside. There are beautiful trees, a soft breeze, the sound of birds chirping. I have a “HappyLight” on my left (which helps me wake up in the morning), I have some beloved books to my right, and I’m enjoying a lovely espresso, while doing a little bit of typing.
Life is perfect.
Never forget: you’re living in a paved paradise, heaven on earth.
Think of all the blessings we have in our life:
Running water (imagine all the kids in developing country without access to clean water)
Freedom from hunger (our problem is that we have an over-abundance of food, at least in the west)
The internet (if someone told us that we could have the entire collective knowledge of humanity in the palm of our hands, we would’ve said they were crazy even 20 years ago)
Smartphones (yeah I hate it when people text while talking to me, I do it sometimes too. But imagine what a blessing it is to have this miracle device)
Digital cameras (has opened up so many opportunities to our photography, whereas film is so expensive, takes a long time to learn, and quite elitist)
Healthy eyes to perceive the world and reality (some people are blind, and have never had this pleasure)
Ears to hear the sound of our friends and loved ones, and to listen to some sweet soundtracks on Spotify
The feeling of touch, so we can hold beautiful photography books, feel the texture, feel the weight, and the lovely feeling of flipping the pages
Coffee (I think good coffee is proof that a “God” exists)
Family & friends (as long as we have 1 loving family member or friend, it is sufficient for our happiness)
Roofs over our head (imagine how shitty it would be to be starving, and getting frostbite on the streets of Russia in the winter)
“Free time” (no matter how busy we are with our 9-5 jobs, most of us have at least 30 minutes-1 hour of leisure time a day, to do whatever the hell we want)
Magnumphotos.com, where we can see all the photobooks of the masters online for free (without having to buy them, as they can get damn expensive)
Online social media photo communities where we can share our work, get our work critiqued, offer feedback, and have the opportunity to bridge online communications to offline ones (in the past, you would only ever share your photos with 1-2 friends who were local)
Mechanical birds (planes) which allow us to travel to foreign countries, which might have taken 3-6 months by boat a few centuries ago
To be alive in this present moment, without any major illnesses or sicknesses (imagine all the people enduring chemotherapy, dying in hospital beds, or suffering from aids, gunshot wounds, other miserable and horrible conditions)
Okay I know I’m being a bit dramatic; but just realize that we live in the best time ever in history. Even though I’m having a shitty day, feeling depressed, or not feeling good about myself, I have nothing to complain about (my ancestors were probably dealing with hunger, famine, droughts, and death). Not only that, but the greatest blessing in modern society: the internet.
Know that we live in a “paved paradise” — that sure it isn’t all roses, flowing hills of green, and unlimited apple trees for us to survive on. But in our “paved paradise”, we have people on the streets we can photograph and interact with, we have libraries and photobook stories where we can look at images and be inspired, we have the ability to walk in public places and experience life on the streets, and to have technology (cameras) to document it.
I know I’m just babbling on, but this letter is also a reminder to myself. There are so many things that I wish for in my life, and things that I am dissatisfied about. But I need to remind myself of all the positives, not the negatives.
If we see our lives as “paved paradise” — the world is like our own jungle gym to explore, to have fun on, climb up and down, and sometimes fall off.
Paradise isn’t some far-away foreign country or city, like India, Tokyo, Paris, New York, San Francisco, or LA. Paradise isn’t some nice sandy beach, where we can drink a Corona with lime. Paradise isn’t having a little mountain cabin in the woods, surrounded by trees and deer. Paradise isn’t being a millionaire and not having to work a day of your life.
Paradise is the life we currently have. The friends that we have. The relationships that we have. The food in our fridge, the coffee we can enjoy in the morning, the camera that we currently own, and the freedom of time we have to make images. Paradise is the hug of our child, of our partner, the high-five you give a stranger, the smile that a stranger gives to you, someone letting you merge in traffic, or the one person who left you a comment or “like” on Instagram.
How to Experience Heaven on Earth
Lately I’ve been trying to practice “walking meditation” — which is essentially walking mindfully, and not being distracted.
I am constantly distracted; which prevents me from appreciating this “paved paradise” we have around us.
So I have been removing all the distractions from my life, as much as humanly possible, by trying to do fewer things in my day, to turn off my phone when I’m walking around, not listening to music while walking, and certainly not texting-while-walking.
When I practice “walking meditation”, I try to walk about half the speed I am normally used to, and I try to notice all the beautiful small details around me. The little crack in the pavement, the little birdsnest in the nook of my apartment roof, the sound of the birds chirping outside, the gentle hum of traffic passing me, the feeling of the pavement pushing against my shoes, and noticing the way that the light and shadows hit cars, peoples, and reflect.
Being able to practice “walking meditation” has also helped my photography in the sense that I can find beauty in the small details of my “boring” city (Berkeley). Once again, I suffer from the “grass is greener on the other side syndrome” (I always think I would be so much happier in San Francisco, because it is better for street photography, more people walking around, better art scene, and it is more hip).
But I need to realize that Berkeley is my paved paradise. I have everything I need here. Rather than changing where I live, I need to change my attitude. Rather than seeing what Berkeley lacks, I need to focus on seeing what Berkeley offers me; which is everything.
So friend, if you live in a boring ass place, know that there is beauty all around you– you just have to slow down, turn off your smartphone, and appreciate the small details all around you.
Also don’t feel that you have to constantly be shooting “street photography” with people in it. Hell, if you like it– shoot flowers, landscapes, macros, whatever makes you happy. Don’t worry about not being considered a “serious” photographer. Don’t even call yourself a photographer, call yourself a human being that happens to like to take photos for fun.
Don’t take photography too seriously; don’t stress yourself out, and have fun.
So instead of going out to “take photos”, just go out for a nice walk, enjoy the nice breeze, the warm sun, and bring your camera along (just in case). Perhaps stop by the local cafe, enjoy a nice coffee, and count the blessings you have in your life.
Thursday, September 10th, finished writing @ 9:03am after a lovely v60 pour-over and espresso. Fortunately that weird throat-swelling thing isn’t happening. Reminder to self; don’t have more coffee for the rest of today.
Random life updates:
1. The beauty of being back home in Berkeley
So being back home in Berkeley has been truly wonderful and a blessing. I’ve been enjoying the “small” and “simple” things in life; spending time with friends and catching up on random chit-chat, walking around my neighborhood (with the Ricoh GR, shooting b/w high-contrast JPEG + RAW) and taking photos of rubbish on the ground and flowers, doing chin-ups in the local park, cooking new dinners for Cindy everynight (I’ve made her a pretty bomb cast-iron garlic lamb-shank and plum-sauce duck), finally had the chance to catch up on 100+ emails this morning (sorry if it took me so long to get to you, I still feel guilty because I am not able to answer the other 100+ emails that are sitting in my newsletter email inbox), reading books that I am passionate about (Steve Jobs biography is incredibly inspirational), and having my family over (recently had a lovely family dinner with my mom, my younger sister, Cindy, and both her parents).
2. Book offer on “Learn From the Masters”
Oh not sure if I told you this, but I actually got a book offer from a small book publishing company called “Rockynook” who are interested in publishing the “Learn From the Masters” book. I am going to hash out the details with them about printing, the contract, and other legal details sometime in the next few weeks. I am really excited; I hope to put a paper-back book that I am proud of, and that can bring a lot of value to the lives of others.
The thing is that there are two non-negotiables that I plan on asking for: 1) To have a free PDF edition online for free, in accordance with the ‘open source‘ philosophy and 2) For them not to own copyright of the text (I don’t think anybody, including myself, should own the ‘copyright’ to any information). If they say “no”, I will thank them for their time, probably figure out if I can self-publish this (which might be a fun opportunity), and stick in accordance with my virtue and morales.
One thing that I learned from Steve Job’s biography is to NOT COMPROMISE. Not compromise regardless of how much money companies or people try to throw out at you.
I’m not saying that corporations are trying to control me, but I need to remind myself not to “sell out”. Apparently corporations constantly approach rappers and ask them to make rap songs about their products, and offer them a shitload of money.
And friend, I am ashamed to admit that honestly, I think all the cameras I have accepted in the past (Ricoh GR, Fujifilm x100s, x100t, XT-1 + 23mm 1.4 + 27mm f/2.8 lens, Pentax K3) has made me a slave to these camera corporations. I am a selfish human being, who cannot refuse free stuff. But the problem of receiving these free cameras is that I no longer own my own opinion, and I am being consciously (or subconsciously) influenced in promoting products.
I can honestly say that I have never promoted a camera to you that I didn’t personally like. But at the same time, I realize that it is unethical for me to accept free gifts of any kind (I also get free smartphones from Samsung, which included a Galaxy S3, a S5, a S6, Note 3, Note 4) that I myself wouldn’t spend money on. And to be frank, as much as I love the Samsung phones, if I had my own money, I would just buy an iPhone.
But sorry for the random rambling– essentially what I wanted to say is that I am extremely excited for this book offer. But if they don’t allow me to print and publish this book with them and keep it “open source”, I am going to have to say no (even though I might have the potential to earn $200,000+). I’m just making up that number, but I think morally, ethically, and based on my principles– I should accept NO amount of money that wouldn’t let the information NOT be “open-source.”
But damn, it’s awfully hard rejecting money. But at the end of the day, I don’t live for myself, but I live for the community, for society, for humanity, and for you.
Anyways, will keep you in the loop friend, until next time, Godspeed!
Oh and another note: you might have noticed that I disabled the comments. I did so because I feel massive guilt not being able to read all the comments on the blog, so for now, I will keep the comments off (until the near future). Thank you for your understanding :)
“You can’t control the results, only the effort.” – Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is a guy I admire very much he’s about my age, and has accomplished a lot. He’s a best selling author, practicing stoic (highly recommend his book, “The Obstacle is the Way), passionate blogger, and overall down to earth guy.
I read this quote on his Twitter a while back, and it really struck a chord with me.
In life, we are told that if we work hard, we will achieve everything we want in life.
We can control the effort we put in, but not necessarily the results.
For example in street photography. What can you control in terms of effort? You can decide to shoot everyday, to be focused (turning your phone to airplane mode when shooting), you can decide to invest in photographers books (and not gear), you can call up another photographer to do a critique session together, you can study composition and learn how to “work the scene”, and you can study the work of the masters.
But you can’t control the result.
What is the result in street photography? You ultimately can’t control whether you get a good shot or not. You can’t control the weather (although you can control when you go out and shoot), you can’t control what people look like, you can’t control what the city you shoot in looks like, and you can’t control whether all the elements of a scene will come together perfectly.
But we can control the editing process; deciding which shots to keep, and which to ditch.
So this is today’s meditation: detach yourself from the results, and enjoy the process.
I’m easily disappointed. I want every photo I take to be brilliant. But 99.9% of the time, I take shitty photos. If I get 1 shot I’m happy with every 50 rolls of film, I’m doing well.
The problem I have with shooting digital is this: it makes me focus too much on the results, not the effort.
Having an LCD screen on a camera is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that when we’re starting off as beginners, “chimping” helps us quickly learn from our mistakes. But as we get more experienced, the LCD screen is a crutch; it is more of a nicotine addiction. Checking the LCD screen is a sign of our insecurity.
Furthermore, assuming that a good street photographer only gets one good shot a month, the likelihood of one photo being half good is a extremely low probability. Checking your LCD screen every hour, or checking your photos on your computer everyday, has a very low “signal to noise” ratio. “Signal” are the good shots that we get. “Noise” is the bad photos that we take. So after 8 hours of shooting in a single day will result in a few (or no) good photos and a lot of bad photos.
Furthermore I find that the expense of shooting film is a blessing, not a curse. Why? Whenever I’m about to click the shutter, I got “skin in the game”, meaning, everytime I click the shutter it costs me something. Therefore I am very considerate before I take an image. I’m a lot more picky and selective before I shoot.
“But don’t you lose a lot of shots because you’re afraid to click the shutter?”
Not at all. What I do is this: I’m picky with the scenes I decide to shoot, but once I find an interesting scene, I’ll shoot an entire roll of film on it.
For example, I might go an entire day of not seeing anything interesting. But once I see something good, I’ll “shoot the shit out of it.” So rather than taking 1-2 photos of everything, just identify 3 good scenes a day, and try to shoot 30+ photos of each scene.
If you shoot digital, take 50, 100+ photos of the scene. For one of Alex Webb’s most famous “Barber Shop” image in istanbul, he shot 10 rolls of Kodak Kodachrome on it. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Sometimes you got to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cheese.”
Apparently even Josef Koudelka shoots 1,000 rolls of film a year. And his book “Exiles” which took him over 10 years contains fewer than 80 images. Less is more.
Morale of the story? Shoot a lot of photos, but be very selective which you decide to keep.
Don’t be disappointed
Ultimately you shoot street photography because you love it. You have enough stress and disappointment from your job, income, family life, etc. Why add additional stress, anxiety, and disappointment to your photography — which should be your joy and passion?
Hustle hard when you’re shooting on the streets, but fuck the results. Of course you want to get good shots, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t.
How can we be less disappointed when we’re shooting on the streets? Some ideas:
1. Don’t chimp
Turn off your LCD preview. If you can’t control yourself, tape it up with gaffers tape. Better yet, shoot film (then you truly won’t be tempted). I have no self control when it comes to chimping, so shooting film is the ultimate solution.
Also make it a point to look at your images infrequently as possible. I’d say if you shoot digital, let your photos “marinate” for at least a week before looking at them on your computer. On top of that, I’d suggest waiting at least a month before deciding to upload them. For me personally, it takes me about a year before I can fully emotionally detach myself from my images and identify whether my shots are truly good or not.
2. Enjoy the walk and a nice coffee
One piece of advice I got from my friend Jack Simon: don’t go out and shoot “street photography.” Just tell yourself: “Today I’m going to go on a nice walk, enjoy the city, have a nice chat with some strangers, and enjoy a nice coffee. And I’ll just take photos of whatever is interesting to me along the way.”
Enjoy the process. The journey is the reward.
“The good traveler is not intent on arriving.” – Laozi
3. Don’t upload your shots
I think more photographers should keep their work offline, and not publish their shots until they’re truly ready.
This is also great because it allows us to make images we’re happy with, rather than just uploading images that please others.
Whenever I upload an image to social media it is a lose/lose situation. If I get a lot of “likes” on a shot, then that becomes my new standard. And if I get any fewer “likes” than that, I get disappointed.
For example, before I deleted Instagram from my phone last week, I would get (on average) 800-1000 “likes” a shot. This made me hungry for more. But whenever I got “only” 500 likes, it would make me feel shitty. I would self doubt myself, my inner serenity would be disturbed, and I would feel like a failure.
Not uploading any new shots has been insanely refreshing. I feel more peace of mind, more happy, and less stressed.
So if you’re addicted to social media and the approval of those little virtual red hearts, try an experiment: go 30 days without using any social media. Just uninstall Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, whatever from your phone for a month. See how you like it, you can always reinstall it after the 30 days.
Don’t worry about making good photos. First of all, just enjoy yourself. Have fun. Don’t add unnecessary pressure or stress or disappointment in life. We already deal with enough of that bullshit.
But still, hustle hard, try to push your limits in street photography (only compare yourself to yourself), and realize photography is a journey.
Godspeed my friend, you got this shit!
*On the way from Stockholm back to Berkeley! So excited to see cindy back home, and wish me a safe flight. Got 2 transfers, one in Frankfurt, another in Montreal. Gonna also try fasting from eating, apparently it helps with jetlag. We’ll see. Lots of cool new stuff I have planned for the blog, plan in printing more physical books (art books and instructional manuals), etc. So stay in the loop, and thanks always for your love generosity, and time in reading this.
I want to share some meditations and thoughts that are currently on my mind– and perhaps tell some stories. Thank you for being a good friend and listening :)
Okay, so I woke up today, lied in bed, and suddenly this thought came to my head:
“Cultivate Your Own Garden”
I woke up naturally in bed, and am still pretty jetlagged, so I knew it was probably pretty damn early. It was pitch black, I slept last night at around midnight (compared to around 8:30pm the night before), so my body was pretty exhausted. But at the same time, I knew that I had to write this article on this concept of “cultivating your own garden” — it felt like my moral duty.
I dragged my wretched body to the shower, took an ice cold shower (feel much better now), looked in the mirror, and saw the deep, black bags under my eyes. God, for a 27-year old I look like a fucking old man.
Regardless, I felt a great sense of privilege and duty. I have a stronger calling in life, than just lying around in bed and sleeping. Here was a thought that came to mind, one of my favorite passages from Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” (one of the 3 books I would have on my deathbed). It took me a bit flipping around my personal (paperback) book copy to find it, but here it is:
“At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man‘ Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm? ‘Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!’ Was it for pleasure then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort? Look at the plants, the sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy at their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world-order; and will you refuse man’s share of the work, instead of being prompt to carry out Nature’s bidding?”
I walk out into the kitchen, prepare a nice espresso, and look at the clock: 5:00am. Not bad.
Cultivating your own garden
So friend, I want to share with you a story. Currently my younger sister Anna is having some difficulties in her life; in terms of finding what her life’s passion is, what makes her happy, and how to live a fulfilling life to contribute to society.
As a follower of “Stoic” philosophy, one of my main tenets in life is to live my life for others; for the good of others and society. So at first, I gave my sister advice in terms of asking her: “How can you best use your God-given talents, to contribute to the most people of society, as a whole?”
I quickly realized that this was the wrong answer to give her. Because she didn’t know what her talents were, nor did she know a way she could apply her talents to help “society at large.”
It is a pretty difficult concept to think about how one can help hundreds, if not thousands of people out there. I am lucky in the sense that I know that I can reach a large audience with this blog, as I have the stats that show me that I am doing it. But at the end of the day, I write this letter for you, my dear friend, not for the many. It is easier to try to help one individual, than try to help millions (and much easier to visualize too).
But before one tries to help society, another person– I believe that one needs to help themselves.
This is where this concept of “cultivating your own garden” comes from.
Another philosopher I greatly admire is Epicurus, a Greek philosopher (341-271BC) who made one of the most influential schools focused on the pursuit of happiness. He was born on the Greek island of Samos, and he operated “The Garden” — a school devoted to philosophy and communal living, which was based outside of Athens.
I first came across this concept of “cultivating your own garden” from a book written by a scholar on Epicurus, titled: “Reclaiming Epicurus“. Here is a nice quote from the book:
“All that is very well but let us cultivate our garden” – Voltaire
The whole philosophy of Epicurus was this; to seek “pleasure” by seeking “absence of pain”. The 4 tenants of Epicureanism were distilled into these concepts:
Nothing to fear in God;
Nothing to feel in Death;
Good can be attained;
Evil can be endured.
In other words:
Don’t be afraid of God
Don’t be afraid of Death
Realize you can be happy with little
Don’t be afraid of bad things happening to you (because you will be able to have the strength, courage, and tenacity to endure it).
What made the philosophy of Epicureanism highly criticized was that it sounded like it promoted the values of social detachment, as it encouraged individuals to retreat from society, and seek inner-solitude, peace, and contentment (rather than interacting with the public world at large). This is why the Stoic philosophers criticized Epicurus and his followers, as they thought them as selfish, navel-gazing good-for-nothings who simply lived for their own pleasure.
The early philosophy of Epicureanism is very similar to Buddhism– to seek happiness in life, first rid yourself of stress, anxiety, desire, and frustration. Then you can reach out to help others.
Don’t think you’re selfish
Okay friend, so I know a lot of people who want to seek happiness in life. They are frustrated with their own lives. They are dissatisfied with their jobs, their family lives, their lack of time to do what they are passionate about, their lack of money, and deal with a lot of stress and anxiety in their lives.
So what is the first step to living a fulfilling life?
I think it is by starting to cultivate your own garden.
Imagine you have a garden. To cultivate your own garden is to take out the weeds, insects, pests, and other shit from your own garden (before attending to and helping out the garden of others).
So imagine your garden which is infested with aphids (eating your delicious tomato plants), with snails (little fuckers who also like to eat everything), with your plants wilted and dying (they need more water, light, attention, and love), and weeds growing out of control.
Before you just add water and sunlight to your garden, you need to first start by removing the pests. You need to kill the aphids (pesticide or attacking them with ladybugs), you need to kill the snails (take them off your leaves, and toss them into a garbage bag with salt– no that is cruel, I did that as a child and it mentally scarred me), you need to also make sure you don’t have random wild animals eating plants from your garden in the evening (perhaps cage off your plants with some wire).
Secondly, you need to start nourishing your plants. You can start off nourishing your plants by starting to add water, fertilizer, light, and love.
Then and only then, can you start having a healthy garden. And then and only then, can you start attending to the gardens of others in your neighborhood and helping them out. After all, it makes no sense for you to try to help tending the gardens of others (if your own garden is a fucking nightmare).
I think this is a good philosophy we can apply to life.
So to restart, our own garden infested with pests and insects is like our own lives being infected with negative people, with back-stabbers, with shit-talkers, gossipers, and other people who drain you of mental energy, physical energy, and emotional energy. You need to start off by eliminating all the negative people in your life.
“But they are my friends! What will they think of me? Isn’t that me just being selfish? But I know they’re not perfect, but who is? I just want to help them out!”
Let me bring you a real-life example:
My father is someone I have cut out of my life recently, and it is something that I did that pained me a lot. Long story short, he was a mentally and physically abusive father to my Mom, compulsive gambler (would sometimes gamble away our rent money, and even gambled away some money I lent him as a 16-year old), and leech to the family. I don’t blame him; I honestly think he had some serious mental issues that he just took out on the family. Now I have nothing but love for him, but I have made the conscious decision to cut him out of my life, because he was like a cancer, a tumor, or a black cloud that was sucking out energy, life, and joy from my life.
The problem was this: because he added so much emotional guilt and blackmail to my life, I couldn’t be of help to others. I was constantly thinking negative thoughts in my life, and that would deeply affect the lives of those close to me.
First of all, I would take out all this negative emotions and thoughts on Cindy. This would then cause her more stress and anxiety (if she didn’t have enough). Not only that, but I would tell my personal issues regarding my father to my mother, who would also feel guilty for not being a more supportive mother.
I tried to essentially “save” my father, by trying to spend more time with him, by trying to console him, and trying to be a “good son”. Part of this was me trying to be a good human being, part of this was this sense of “filial piety” (Asians feeling indebted to their parents), and part of this was a feeling of guilt– that I somehow owed him something (when in reality I didn’t).
But anyways, the more time I spent with him, the more his negativity, brainwashing, and cancer of bullshit ideas started to permeate my thoughts. The only way I can describe it is this: imagine if someone threw you into the sewer, and suddenly you were covered with shit, piss, and imagine how you would smell. No matter how hard you try, you can never really scrub off that smell from your body.
Similarly, spending time with negative people is the same way. Once you are exposed to their filth, stench, and negativity– scrubbing that shit off can be near-impossible.
So anyways after about a year of trying to re-connect with my dad and help him, I realized that before I could help him, he had to help himself. And if I truly wanted to dedicate myself to help the “common good” of society as a whole, I needed to cut him off from my life, to remove his negativity– to cultivate my own garden.
So I cut of all ties with him. I blocked his phone number, his text messages, his emails– any sort of way he could communicate with me.
In the beginning it was so fucking painful and difficult. I would seriously get nightmares that he would suddenly die, and then I would feel extreme guilt and remorse that I didn’t do more to help him out while he was still alive. I would feel like a bad son, and feel like a horrible, selfish human being.
But as time went on, I finally started to have some clarity of thought. I started to feel more positive, and less negative. I felt like the dark clouds from my mind’s sky were starting to part; and I could see the light.
Seeing the light
There is a Taoist saying that in order to see the light, you need to take away the dark clouds from your mind.
So to continue, life and happiness is all about removing the negative people, influences, and thoughts from your life.
To use the garden analogy again; it is more effective to remove pests from your garden, then to start using fertilizer for your plants.
Going back to my Dad, I still feel guilt and remorse for not reaching out to him. I talked to my sister Anna about this the other night, and honestly at the end of the day, some people are “unsaveable” and that is just a damn shame. But c’est la vie. That is life. Life goes on. And the only thing we can do is trust God (or whatever super-being or universal will you may believe in) that everything will turn out okay in the end. In Taoism they call it “wu-wei” — not forcing things, and letting the intelligence of the universe guide you through life.
Life is fucking hard
Yeah, it is true– life is fucking hard. I know friend, life is really fucking hard. As Seneca once said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
But if you really want to help others; you need to start off by helping yourself.
So don’t feel bad or guilty, start off by helping yourself.
Let me share some more personal anecdotes and stories of how I learned how to cultivate my own garden, before trying to help others. I don’t mean to share these ideas as a way to say that I am somehow better than you or “enlightened” — because I’m not. I’m just another wretched and psychologically troubled human being trying to rid my mind of negativity and bullshit, in order to live a “happy”, “fulfilling”, and “productive” life.
1. Be selfish with your time
The most valuable currency you have in the world isn’t money, but time. Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. If you lose $100, you can easily earn another $100. But if you lose a year of your life, you can never “gain” another year of your life. Life is a ticking death clock, and everyday you are living one less day of your life. Death approaches one day at a time.
The ironic thing is that we are so stingy with our money, but (overly) generous with our time (to a fault). This is because money is a tangible thing, whereas time is intangible. Therefore we don’t value our time.
So the first thing that I learned is that in order to cultivate my own garden, I need to be stingy, frugal, and selfish with my time.
I said this before, but one of my new goals for this year is to (as little as possible) go to “meetings”, especially partake in this beastly thing called “networking.”
At the end of the day, it is a huge waste of your time. Apparently the way that Seth Godin is able to be so prolific as a writer, blogger, and author is that he doesn’t go to any meetings.
Not only that, but every “meeting” can fuck up your entire day and schedule.
For example, I have been to a lot of “networking meetings” in San Francisco. It takes me an entire day. I have to leave my house, either drive into the city (now I don’t have a car, I would have to take public transportation for 1.5 hours), wait for the person, try to contact them, have a coffee, and then maybe have a lunch, eat a little too much, then get food coma, want to take a nap, go home, and end the day not feeling productive at all.
Another personal rule I have been trying to institute in my life: I don’t schedule anything before noon. Why? The morning is my golden time to read, write, and do things that I feel truly make my “heart sing”. I am the most productive in the mornings, so I need to be as selfish and greedy with that time as humanly possible, in order to help the greater good.
So also for you my friend, learn to be more greedy with your time. Don’t have an “Atlas Complex”– feeling like you need to hold the weight of the entire world on your shoulders. Give yourself some space, time, and energy for yourself (before giving it to others).
For example, be selfish with your time after work. After 6pm, make your default answer “no” to any sort of extracurricular activities you aren’t passionate about.
The funny thing is especially with a lot of introverted people, they feel constantly pressured by extroverts (people like me) to go out, party, hangout, and have a good time. They are constantly criticized for being “loners” and there are billions of self-help books that teach you to “never have lunch alone”, to always go out and network, to always build new connections, and to always say “Yes” to every single opportunity that comes.
But no, fuck that. Say no. If you want more time to shoot street photography, you need to CUT from your life. You need to cut extracurricular activities. You need to cut those pre-scheduled gym classes or 7pm Yoga classes you aren’t passionate about. If photography is the most important thing in your life (or you want more time to shoot), say NO to having dinner or a beer with friends or people you don’t really care about. And even if they are someone you care about (but shooting photography is more important than having dinner and chatting about random stuff), have the courage to say NO.
What else can you say “no” to in life to find more “free time”? Some ideas:
No to Netflix
No to smartphone notifications (either set your phone on mute, turn off notifications, uninstall apps that bother you, or do what I do; uninstall one app from your phone a day)
No to networking meetings
No to dinner or drinks with people you don’t really care about
No to “side-projects” from your boss at work
No to checking email after 6pm and you’re done with work
No working on the weekends
No playing video games
No reading newspapers
No reading magazines
No surfing the web (reddit, Facebook, other social media sites)
Be selfish, greedy, and protective of your time– it is the most valuable thing in life you have.
Then use that spare time to cultivate your own garden, however it makes you happy. Use that time to shoot photography, visit exhibitions on the weekends, read photography books, meet other photographers, have your work critiqued by others, sit at home and edit your shots, sequence new projects or series, print your photos (either on a home printer or in a darkroom), develop some film, watch a photo documentary (make sure to watch “Salt of the Earth” by Sebastiao Salgado), or cook a meal for a loved one (everyday I am trying to cook a new fancy dinner for Cindy).
And realize at the end of the day, photography isn’t the most important thing in life. The most important thing is your personal happiness; which you can derive from photography, any sort of other creative pursuit, friends and family you truly care about, and living a life in accordance with your own personal values and ethics.
2. Disassociating yourself with others
I have a problem: I cannot say “no” to people. I am a total push-over. I have always been one of the kids who have been easily peer-pressured into doing things against my own will. Even now as an adult, I have a hard time saying “no” to my good friends, especially when they peer pressure me to drink alcohol (I prefer not to drink alcohol anymore, as it makes me feel shitty, gives me hangovers, and ruins my sleep), when it comes to going out late at night (I prefer to sleep early now, so I can wake up early and write), when it comes to eating unhealthy food (I don’t like excess fat on my body, and unhealthy food makes me feel like shit). I am so easily influenced by others, and don’t want to disappoint others.
Here is some wisdom that I have learned from Epicurus (another Stoic philosopher) who has helped give me some peace of mind when it comes to ignoring what others think of me, and following my own heart and path:
“You should be especially careful when associating with one of your former friends or acquaintances not to sink to their level; otherwise you will lose yourself. If you are troubled by the idea that ‘He’ll think I’m boring and won’t treat me the way he used to,’ remember that everything comes at a price. It isn’t possible to change your behavior and still be the same person you were before.”
“So choose: either regain the love of your old friends by reverting to your former self or remain better than you once were and forfeit their attention.”
Sometimes when you pursue some new passions and directions in life, you will be ridiculed, tempted, and detracted by friends, colleagues, co-workers, family members (who might be jealous of you):
“Formerly, when you were devoted to worthless pursuits, your friends found you congenial company. But you can’t be a hit in both roles. To the extent to cultivate one you will fall short in the other. You can’t seem as affable to your old cronies if you don’t go out drinking with them as of old. So choose whether you want to be a charming drunk in their company, or dull and sober on your own. You can’t expect the same reception from the group you used to associate with if you don’t go carousing with them regularly anymore.”
It is really fucking hard, but we need to value our own beliefs and virtues over what even our close friends might think of us:
“You have a choice: if you value dignity and restraint over being called a ‘sport’ by your old mates, then forget other considerations, renounce them, walk away and have nothing more to do with that crowd. If you don’t like that, then commit to the opposite course with all your heart. Join the [wretched] set, become one of the degenerates– do as they do and indulge your every impulse and desire. Jump around and yell at a musical performance, what’s to stop you now?”
Sometimes we let the dregs or mental residue of the past hold us back.
If you have ever moved away from home, and going back home and visiting your old friends, it might feel awkward and strange. You have moved on a lot mentally and life-wise as a human being, but it seems your friends are stuck in the same old place, doing the same old shit as before. They haven’t really “grown up” in the same way you feel like you have.
Another problem that I have is that I feel indebted to my friends, because they were my friends in the past, and I feel like I need to be close friends with them now.
But in reality, you aren’t the same person you were a year ago, 10 years ago, and certainly not 20+ years old.
So don’t feel bad breaking ties with friends that you no longer associate with, with friends that no longer share similar life-goals and visions as you, and feel some sort of “obligation” towards them.
Be selfish, but for the greater good. Learn how to cultivate your own garden, your own beliefs, your own values, your own morales, and know that you do carry the risk of being called an outcast by your (former) loved ones.
But that is the price of freedom, and remember as Epictetus said, “Everything comes at a price.”
3. Disappoint people
In cultivating your own garden, you will disappoint and perhaps piss off some people.
For example, I find one of the things that screws up my clarity of thought the most is answering emails. To be frank, I don’t get a lot of emails anymore, and most of them are lovely emails from past students, from friends, that are giving me thanks or words of encouragement. But then again, there are a lot of emails that I get that are “work-related”, that distract me from my pure passion in life; writing, reading, teaching, and helping our my loved ones.
Whenever I want to get into the “zone” of writing, I need to abstain from checking my inbox for at least 2-3 days. I want to share another story from “The Second Book of the Tao” of a master bell-maker, who was able to focus his mind and create the most beautiful bells (after emptying his mind, and going into seclusion):
“After three days of meditating, I no longer have any thoughts of praise or blame. After five days, I no longer have any thoughts of success or failure. After seven days, I’m not identified with a body. All my power is focused on my task; there are no distractions. At that point, I enter the mountain forest. I examine the trees until exactly the right one appears. If I can see a bell stand inside it, the real work is done, and all I have to do is get started. Thus I harmonize inner and outer. That’s why people think that my work must be superhuman.”
Similarly, my problem is that I am easily distracted. I am like a pigeon, if I see something shiny, I totally go off-course.
So my deepest apologies if you are reading this, and I haven’t answered your email yet. Trust me, it is for the greater good.
And honestly, at the end of the day, nothing is really that important in your email inbox. Nobody is going to die. Nobody sends you an email and tells you, “Eric, your mother has just passed away.”
Furthermore, any information that is really important somehow finds its way to you.
But once again, my fear is that I am afraid of disappointing people, of letting people down, or being “irresponsible.”
But once again, you need to learn how to disappoint people, let people down, and be “irresponsible” for the greater good. By focusing on your life’s task, you will (unintentionally) hurt the feelings of others.
So when pursuing your passion in life, let’s say it is photography– you are going to have to make sacrifices. Perhaps on the weekend, and your primary concern is to shoot. But a good friend invites you to some party, and you don’t want to go. Be honest and tell them that you already made plans. Your friend might be sad and disappointed– and that is tough. But it is the price you need to be willing to pay to “cultivate your own garden.”
Okay, it is now 6:42am, I am starting to feel my throat do that weird swelling-up thing (had 3 espressos), and my body is feeling pretty fucking exhausted.
To sum up, learn to first cultivate your own garden before trying to help the garden of others. Start off by cutting off the extraneous bullshit of your life, by cutting out negative people and pests from your life, and then finally having the space in your garden to give your plants light, water, fertilizer, and love– in order to grow.
Your photography is like a garden. You need to give it time, attention, and love to grow. You can’t expect to simply water it every once in a while, let it become overgrown with weeds, if you want your little seedling to become a juicy strawberry plant. And the strawberries (or fruit) is an analogy for the work that you produce.
Don’t feel guilty by focusing your time and attention on yourself before others. If you’re barely paying the rent, don’t burden yourself by trying to donate $100 to help starving kids in Africa. If your mental state is not good, don’t burden yourself by trying to relieve the suffering of a friend. If your photography is suffering, learn to first cure yourself of your mental ills before you go out party and have beers with friends.
Cultivate your own garden, then help water the gardens of others.
Written at Saturday, September 5, 6:46am, in my beautiful home in Berkeley.
Plans for today
So some random stuff– I will probably crash, take a nap on the couch, read a little bit more Stoic philosophy, and today I am really excited to visit Dolores Park in the Mission in SF with Grace and Justin, two of my closest friends. We will have a nice picnic, enjoy a nice lazy lunch and day, and have the time to catch up with them after being on the road for two months. I am so blessed to have wonderful friends like them.
So also don’t forget friend, sometimes cultivating your own garden is to spend time with loved ones. Because at the end of the day, fuck our art and photography and whatever. It is the relationships that (ultimately) matter the most, at least for me.
I want to tell you the exciting start of my day today. I want to share with you as vividly how it felt, and what is on my mind.
I woke up, still feeling a bit drowsy, yet felt alert. I looked around my surroundings. I was in bed, lying next to the love of my life (Cindy). I was a bit hot, and for some strange reason, my body woke up at this natural time. I knew it was probably really early (some ungodly hour), but the first thing that came to my mind was this:
“Thank you God for giving me another day of life, I didn’t expect this, but this is a bonus. I will use this day as faithfully as I can, to the best of my abilities, because I don’t know if I will wake up the next day, and when I will die.”
I’m not sure why I woke up with this strange sense of gratitude. I think I do now, but will get to that in a second (after taking another sip of this lovely espresso I made).
Anyways, the first thing I do is jump in the shower, and blast it on cold (best way to wake up in the morning). I brush my teeth, go to the living room (on my tippy-toes because I know my neighborhood downstairs is sleeping, did some brief yoga stretches (God I feel like an old and achy old man), put on some clothes, put on some hair wax (makes me feel more “legit” before writing).
I look at the clock on my kitchen stove, and it reads:
Oh man, it’s pretty early, but I feel pumped and ready for today.
I just made myself an espresso, and sat down on my kitchen table, with my iPad setup with my keyboard (I just gave away my Windows 8 Laptop to a charity, a friend named Anne runs an organization that teaches programming to underprivileged children, so I have no more laptop), and wanted to share some thoughts with you.
Being alive fucking rocks
Well first of all, I wanted to share with you how fucking awesome it is to be alive, and no matter how much we bitch and moan about our lives, we are blessed.
I have a really good friend named Glen Goh, who lives in Vancouver. He did one of my workshops with Adam Marelli in Venice/Verona a few years back, and we have become good friends since then. He is a devout Catholic, loving husband, loving father, keen and passionate photographer, and overall great human being. He is quite well-off, but he doesn’t flaunt his wealth, and is very frugal, humble, and knows his values and principles.
Anyways, the other day Cindy and I got a very kind email from him. Dr. Morgan, a professor of philosophy that he would take to mass every Sunday, just passed away. We briefly met him when we visited Glen and his wife Sharon in Vancouver. Father Morgan was over 80 years old, lived in an “old person’s home”, was a distinguished professor in Philosophy, and still had fire in his eyes. Even though he was old and frail, he still refused to use a wheelchair, and would try to walk everywhere he could. He was full of energy, gratitude, and humor. Also as a side note, I told him about my love of Stoicism and studying the ancient Greek/Roman philosophers. Dr. Morgan recommended me reading Thomas Aquinas, who I plan on reading.
But anyways, Cindy told me the news of Dr. Morgan dying right before I slept, so perhaps that is why I suddenly woke up today, full of gratitude, and ready to live my life.
You only live once
To be honest, I have no idea when I am going to die. I think about death a lot, especially as someone who is only 27 years old. I honestly at the moment don’t know if I believe in an afterlife (I’m still a practicing Catholic, although not a very good one), but I try to live my life according to the life and teachings of Jesus, to the wisdom of the sages of Stoicism, and even the wise words of Laozi and the Taoist sages.
But regardless of what your background, nationality, religion, personal spiritual beliefs– whatever; know that life is a gift that is to be cherished, and to be appreciated. We are only given one life on this earth, albeit short. Why not use the best of it while we aren’t here?
The secret of happiness: the avoidance of “unhappiness”
Friend, I think at the end of the day, we all want to be happy. So I want to share some of my meditations on happiness and making the best of your life while we’re still alive on this little green planet.
First of all, I am starting to believe that happiness isn’t the “pursuit of happiness”, but the avoidance of unhappiness.
What do I mean by that?
Well, according to the Epicurean school of philosophy, the philosopher (Epicurus) said that pleasure was the key to happiness. But not the hedonistic type of pleasure where all you are is having sex, eating good food, participating in orgies, getting drunk and fucked up, and whatever. No, it is avoiding pain (mental pain, and physical pain). And he makes a good point; that we know whether something is really necessary or “good” in our life, whether we feel pain in the absence of it.
For example, according to Epicurus, the only 3 main things which cause true pain (which we would die without) is food, water, and freedom from the cold. We feel pain when we are hungry, we feel pain when we are thirsty, and we feel pain when we are cold.
But the funny thing is that these are “nature’s wants”– and they are very subtle and easy to achieve. We live in a society of affluence, where food is cheap and attainable. We have access to clean drinking water (if you want to appreciate water more, watch “Mad Max: Fury Road). We have access to warm clothing (and to those of us who live in warm climates like California, you can survive without a jacket, unlike my friends in Sweden).
But there are all these superfluous things that we don’t need in life, and don’t feel physical pain in the absence of them. This includes having a lot of money (not having a lot of money doesn’t give us physical pain, unless it leads to hunger, thirst, or pain from the cold), this includes driving a fancy car (if you ‘only’ drive a Honda Civic and not a BMW, you are not in physical pain, only perhaps jealous), this includes fame and fortune (you don’t feel physical pain if you have 0 followers on Instagram), and many more things.
Let me continue to hash out thoughts, because this is the best way I can communicate, thank you for bearing with me friend (I know my grammar is horrible, I think I am actually slightly dyslexic, I just recalled that my mom used to take me to “speech therapy” courses as a child).
Anyways, let me get back to the point: What is superfluous (unnecessary), and what causes us “unhappiness”?
So let me map out some things (this time in bullet form) what is superfluous):
Having a lot of money
Having a big house
Having fancy clothes
Having an expensive camera
Depending your self-worth on the opinion of others
Having a lot of followers on social media
Having a high-rank in your company
Being famous and being recognized in the streets
And let me map out what makes us unhappy in life:
Being jealous of friends, family, those who make more money than you, who are better-looking than you, and those whose life you wish you had.
Having a shitty boss who is far too demanding, and gives you stress, anxiety, and overworks you.
Feeling stuck in a job that you hate.
Not feeling like we are able to fulfill our “creative potential”.
Having expectations of others (that they will work as hard as we do).
Feeling sorry for ourselves.
Comparing ourselves to others.
Anyways, all of these things that I listed aren’t things that “we” necessarily share. It are the personal ills that I have faced in my life. Everything I write is from personal experience, and I want to share all my scars and pains with you.
Remove 1 thing everyday
So once again going back to the idea of happiness. I think happiness is best dealt as a “negative” concept– in which the avoidance of happiness is far more robust than the “pursuit of happiness.”
According to Taoism, the fool tries to add 1 new thing to his life everyday. The master tries to remove 1 thing from his life everyday.
Therefore, if you want to truly be happy; don’t seek happiness in terms of pleasure, comfort, or “good” things. Seek pleasure and happiness in your life by cutting out the bullshit; 1 negative thing a day everyday.
So for example, here are some things that I am slowly trying to cut out of my life:
1. Avoiding social media
“Oh my God Eric, you are the king of social media! You are a horrible photographer, the only reason you are ”famous“ is because you know how to game SEO, and pay Google to put you on the top of these search engine rankings! You have no skills. You are a fraud. Sooner or later, your pyramid of cards is going to topple, and I will be here looking at you, and laughing.” – Sincerely, hater
Okay I have received some similar quotes to the one above (this one is fictional). I have a lot of “haters” on social media; but honestly at the end of the day, they are my most “benevolent teachers” (as Laozi would say). They call me out on my bullshit (although in a bit overly critical way), but I love them nonetheless.
But the problem with social media is this: there is an unfavorable asymmetry (credit Nassim Taleb).
What do I mean by an “unfavorable asymmetry?”
What I mean is this: in social media, we have more to lose than gain.
For example, the pain of getting a few comments (or worse, no comments or likes at all) is worse than the joy of getting lots of comments and like’s on photos.
For example, before I uninstalled Instagram from my phone about a week ago, I would get on average 1,000+ “likes” per image. Now in the past, I would have been absolutely fucking thrilled to get those many likes on my images. But now, it has become my new “norm” (I guess this is kind of how lottery winners feel after winning a million bucks, first extreme happiness and appreciation, then “regression to the norm.”).
Anyways, the thing is whenever I got my expected amount of “likes” (1,000) I would feel indifferent and “whatever”. If I got more than 1,000 likes (let’s say 1,300) I would be fucking thrilled and quite excited, but not so excited that I would do cartwheels. I would take back a step and say I didn’t feel “fucking thrilled”, but more like “pleasantly amused.”
But whenever I got anything less than 1,000 “likes”, I would feel like shit. I would ask myself, “What did I do wrong? Do people suddenly not love me anymore? What’s wrong with this image?” This would then disturb my inner-serenity, and I would start to second-guess and doubt myself. I would start to feel anxious, frustrated, and thinking about the next image I could upload to Instagram to get “at least” 1,000 likes again, so I could feel good again.
So according to my personal example, the pain of not getting a lot of love on social media outweighs the slight joy of getting more love on social media than you expect.
In psychology, they call this the “treadmill effect”, or the “hedonic treadmill.” We are never satisfied. Enough is never enough. We always want and crave more.
2. Avoiding trying to earn more money
Let’s say you start working at an entry-level job at a corporation making $40,000 a year. First year out of college it is fucking awesome, because you were surviving on student loans and eating cup noodles to (barely) survive.
Then you see your colleagues at work who are (obviously) a lot richer than you. They drive BMW’s, wear Rolex watches, talk about their upcoming trips to the Bahamas or New York City, and the fancy restaurants they just ate at.
You now feel jealous and inadequate. Whereas when you started, $40,000 was a lot of money (especially compared to your friends who are still working at the grocery store or at baristas at Starbucks, because they couldn’t get a job with their humanities degree). But now, you need more money, at least $50,000 a year.
So now you try to figure out how to play this tricky game of “corporate politics” – and how you can step over people and work your way up the ladder. You start clocking into your job early. You start wearing nicer (more “professional” clothes). You don’t leave your job until your boss leaves. You send emails on the weekends, and always ask for more responsibilities. You start leaving work later, and start doing “working lunches” at your desk. You start gaining weight, you feel more frustrated, and more anxious. You are desperately waiting for the performance review at the end of the year, so you can get that slight bump in your salary.
At the end of the year, that time comes, and you don’t get the raise. You don’t get that promotion. You also sit down and you realize that an extra $10,000 a year (after taxes) isn’t actually that much more money (just a few hundred bucks a month).
You feel frustrated, confused, and upset. Isn’t more money supposed to make you feel more happy, and isn’t having a fancier title supposed to make you feel more important?
How do I know all of these feelings? Because that person was me.
Anyways; let’s say I did make that $50,000 a year. I would then “upgrade” my lifestyle (they call this “lifestyle creep”) by spending more money eating out more, buying nicer clothes (shopping at Banana Republic instead of H&M), I would trade in my used car from 1990 for a new car, and buy new smartphones, iPads, and other electronic gadgets. After each material purchase, my happiness is given a slight bump. Then it goes back to baseline, until I get that next promotion/pay raise.
Let’s say the next year (or perhaps 2), I start earning $60,000 a year. Once again, I move into a nicer apartment, start socializing with other “richer” people, and start talking about fancy cars, sports games, and designer goods. I now start moving up the social ladder and hierarchy, and start associating with richer people. Once again, I start to feel poorer and less adequate, unless I earn $100,00 a year. Then I need to earn $200,000 a year. Then I need to earn $500,000 a year, and then $1 million a year. Fuck a million dollars, I want to be a billionaire. I want to own a boat. I want to own a private jet. I want to own my own private sport’s team. I want to own my own island. I want to own my own spacejet, I want to fly to Mars and colonize it. I want to escape death. I want to be a God.
Okay let me stop for a second– I think I got a bit out of hand. But you know what I mean.
Enough is never enough.
Being grateful for what you have
Be grateful for what you have. Be content in this present moment, and know that everything is perfect.
At the moment, Cindy and I don’t have a car. Cindy’s younger sister (Jennifer) got into a car accident and needs a car pretty badly (she commutes in LA, and for anyone who has ever lived in LA, it is literally impossible to survive without a car there). So Cindy came up with this crazy idea: why don’t we try to live a year without a car?
So we have been “car-less” the last 2 days, and it has been the fucking best thing ever.
I seriously don’t remember the last time I “walked” in Berkeley. I also only remember taking the bus once or twice. I spend too much of my time sitting on a chair at home, and generally the only walking I do is to my car (from my apartment) and back.
But not having a car is probably one of the best things that I have done for my happiness (once again, happiness is about subtraction than addition).
Now that I don’t have a car, I am forced to walk everywhere. At first I was like, “But what if I want to visit SF, or visit my family, pick up some stuff at IKEA, or go to Costco?” But not having a car is a “creative constraint” – I need to find out more ways to survive “locally”, and it has been amazing.
First of all, walking around Berkeley has helped me appreciate the small things more. I notice other families walking in the neighborhood, and see the joy that the parents have with the kids (never notice this when I’m stuck in a bubble in my car). I walked around with my camera and ended up taking a bunch more photos than if I were in my car. I started to walk to the local Whole Foods (which is literally right around the corner), and have been buying food everyday, and cooking new dishes for Cindy everyday. I enjoy the feel of the sun on my face, the feeling of the pavement under my feet, and the steadiness of mind, and feeling of “zen” while I am practicing “walking meditation.”
In a car, I am often more anxious and stressed. I always feel perpetually late for meetings, I hate being stuck in traffic, I always cram my brain and distract myself with podcasts and music, and I always compare myself with others and their cars (having a Prius is “lame” compared to a BMW M3).
But not having a car is the ultimate freedom; if you commit to not having a car, you don’t feel jealous. It is a voluntary choice, so you don’t feel the pain of comparing your car to those of others. You never feel like you need to “upgrade” your car, because you know you won’t have a car in the first place. I guess this is the peace of mind my friends who live in San Francisco have (nobody there owns a car).
Furthermore, taking the bus has been a joy. I have started to chat with strangers on the bus (nice conversations), say hello to the bus driver (always surprised to hear a stranger say hello, I guess most people who ride the bus are quite miserable), and I am even thinking of shooting more “bus street photography”. I also notice my outside surroundings more when on the bus. Furthermore, I am able to read while on the bus (cannot do this when stuck in a car).
But you might think: “But Eric, don’t you feel limited and restricted not having a car?”
Yes I do– but once again, I need to be crafty and ask myself, “How can this limitation be a benefit? And I have found many so far.”
Another example; after I got my laptop stolen in Paris (best thing that has happened to me), I got my Windows 8 Laptop/Tablet. It served me well for about a month and a half, and taught me the beauty of Google Docs and using the “cloud” – and knowing that I don’t need an Macbook computer to survive.
But I just donated that Windows 8 laptop/tablet like I mentioned, and my only “laptop-like” device is my iPad at home. The setup I currently have is this: I have a “encase” iPad/keyboard stand, an iPad Air (original), and a bluetooth Apple keyboard attached to it. I am using “IA Writer Pro” as my word processor, and it is the ultimate zen. I literally am not distracted by any superfluous things, except for the text on the screen.
Also another thing I did so I wouldn’t be distracted; I hid all the apps that I don’t really need into a drawer. Furthermore, to the best of my ability, I have uninstalled all of the superfluous applications from the iPad (for example, I don’t have email on the iPad, Facebook or any other social networking sites, or even the Kindle app, games, etc).
People sometimes ask me, “Eric, how are you such a prolific writer and get so much writing done? How do you focus?”
Focusing is quite easy if you eliminate distractions.
Trust me, I am the most easily distracted person you will ever meet. I am like a pigeon, if I see something shiny, I will drop everything I am doing and therefore run to it.
So once again, the key to focus is a negative (“via negativa” as Nassim Taleb calls it in his book “Antifragile”). You need to remove distractions. You need to remove superfluous activities from your life (networking, gym classes that you hate, family events that aren’t important to you, acquaintances you feel you ‘should’ meet, answering emails when you’re off work, etc). You need to remove hobbies and interests you aren’t really that passionate about (if your primary passion is photography, I’m sorry– I recommend you to drop those cello lessons, your interest in writing, your interest in music-production, or video-gaming).
Our life is short, if we want to truly be happy and great, we need to eliminate all the superfluous and unnecessary things in our lives, and only focus on the essentials.
So for me, I have been trying to slowly (but surely) remove extraneous activities from my life. Let me give you a personal taste:
Videos: I am starting to realize; I don’t really like making videos all that much, especially on YouTube. Sure there are a lot of videos I made in the past that I thoroughly enjoyed in the past, but nowadays I feel that making YouTube videos feels more like an obligation than a passion. I don’t wake up in the morning and say to myself, “Fuck yeah, I’m going to record a YouTube video today!” So unless I have a natural urge to upload a video (or record one), I’m going to stop making videos.
Interviews: I enjoy doing interviews for the blog, but it isn’t my primary concern or passion. There are many other people who do it far better than I do (I highly recommend Blake Andrews’s blog. So I will still do interviews in the future, only when I have a good opportunity– otherwise I can cut it from my diet.
Powerlifting: few of you know, but powerlifting is (or used to be) one of my big passions. I have always had an inferiority complex growing up (being a skinny Asian kid), so I started to hit the gym starting high/school college to get stronger, and bigger. I used to be obsessed with “bodybuilding” (eating a lot of protein shakes and building muscle mass), which soon transformed into a passion for powerlifting (lifting really heavy weights). I found that the problem with powerlifting was this: I would tire myself out too much from powerlifting (wouldn’t give me enough energy to write or do other interesting mental-activities) and after eating a bigass meal (10 eggs+bacon) after a workout, I would be essentially useless for the next 5 hours. So now I just have been sticking to pushups, chin-ups, and 1-legged squats (pistols) to just avoid being a fatass. The benefit? I don’t waste time driving to the gym and back, and don’t have to wait in line for the weights. I can do my workouts efficiently at home, and get back to my most important activities (writing and reading).
Networking: “Networking” meetings rarely ever go anywhere. I only go to them in the hope that they might benefit me in the future– either monetarily, with prestige, or some sort of “opportunity” which will make me more influential or famous. But fuck it, I don’t need any more money, and I certainly don’t care if I have more followers on social media. So my goal is to not network as much as humanly possible, and only spend time with friends and human beings that I genuinely appreciate being around.
Internet: I have mostly subtracted the internet from my diet. I now only use Google to search recipes for dinner, Google Maps to find directions, What’s app to message international friends, and that is pretty much it. The internet (especially blogs) can be so fucking distracting, and kill your clarity of thought. Yeah, the irony is that you’re reading this blog right now. But don’t feel obliged to read any of this stuff, feel free to close this tab and move on. But if you find value in it, I am very happy to have you here friend :)
So these are some of the few things I have been trying to cut out of my life (which are distractions), and now after slowly cutting and editing down my life, I found out what is my true passion and calling in life: writing. It is the thing that puts my mind most at ease, it is the thing that most puts me in a zen-like “flow” state, and it is the thing that I feel like I do that contributes the most to society. Secondly after writing is reading (to come up with ideas and materials to write). Thirdly it is to photograph (helps me connect with others and society). Fourthly, it is to spend time with loved ones and family (yeah I know this should be higher up there, but unfortunately it isn’t at the moment). But at the end of the day, I know my personal relationships will be far more important than my “work.” But please forgive me friend, I am still a work-a-holic American.
Practice an attitude of gratitude
Another secret of life and happiness? Practice gratitude; always. Be grateful for what you have, rather than what you don’t have.
The funny thing– I own a Leica MP and 35mm f/2 Summicron Leica ASPH lens. It is probably the best film camera rangefinder setup that money can afford.
Yet I am not grateful. It isn’t enough. I look at dick-envy with those with digital Leica Monochrom’s, and think that I would be so much happier and creative with them. Sometimes I dream of the bokeh of the Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH (FLE) lens.
But fuck that– I need to remind myself; be grateful for what I have, grateful for the people in my life, and grateful that I am alive.
Honestly at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter (how much) material possessions (or how little) material possessions you have in life. At the end of the day, having good friends, family, and loves ones is the most valuable treasure.
Furthermore, life is the ultimate gift.
I mentioned (way earlier) in this essay how I woke up, jumped out of bed, and was like, “Fuck yeah, another day of life, thank you God!” I want everyday to be a day like this.
But the funny thing is that this is literally the first time that has happened to me in my life (maybe once in the past that I cannot recall).
I once read that in order to be happier in life, write a gratitude journal. What is a “gratittude journal” you ask? In a little notebook (every night before you sleep), write 5 things you are grateful for. It can be for life, for food, shelter, Wi-fi, good coffee, nice beer, whatever. I think even taking it a step further and writing down 5 things you are grateful for in the morning is even better (you start off the day with fresh new eyes; the world is full of possibilities).
So let me share with you the 5 things I am grateful for today (this morning):
I appreciate being given the gift of another day of life.
I appreciate having good friends at the cafe near my house who give me free coffee (and the nice espressos I had this morning).
I appreciate waking up in the morning next to the most beautiful woman in the world (Cindy).
I appreciate waking up early 3am to do what I am passionate and love (writing).
I appreciate that I am perfectly content with everything I have in my life at the moment.
What are one of the big things that causes me a lot of mental pain and anguish? Being ungrateful– and hankering after what I don’t have and what I lack.
So for example, I sometimes lust for a new car, I sometimes lust for a new laptop, I sometimes lust for a new smartphone, I sometimes lust for new clothes, I sometimes lust to live in SF, I sometimes lust to have more money in my bank account, I sometimes lust to own my own home, I sometimes lust to be more famous and influential, I sometimes lust for an expensive espresso machine, I sometimes lust for a new camera.
But if I kill all these desires and lusts, what am I left with? Perfect contentment with what I have, and the life I currently live.
Don’t have preferences
Another thing I have learned which might be helpful to you friend; don’t have preferences.
Once you have preferences, you set yourself up for disappointment.
For example, let’s say you “prefer” to shoot with rangefinder cameras. Let’s say you own a digital Leica (an older M9). But then someone steals it. And you also get laid off your job, and you have no money left in your bank account. Now you feel like a slave. You feel upset, frustrated, and angry, because you “prefer” shooting with a Leica, but you can no longer afford one. So going “backwards” (getting a DSLR, or even worse, a Fujifilm camera) will make you feel inadequate and frustrated.
The solution? Be happy with any camera you currently own, are given, or can afford.
Let’s say that you have a preference for shooting street photography in a downtown area closeby your hometown (but still a 30+ drive). You set yourself up for disappointment. Why?
If you’re busy with work, life, and kids, you won’t always have the time to go down there and shoot. You will be frustrated by your preference of shooting in that area. You feel that if you aren’t in that area, you can’t be creative.
The solution? Be grateful for the neighborhood you live, and shoot in your own neighborhood (or even take photos of your friends, family, loved ones). Don’t have a preference for shooting “street photography” (all photography is photography).
Let’s say that you have a preference for drinking designer coffee (like I do). Any espresso pulled on anything less than a “La Marzocco” machine isn’t sufficient. You are a coffee snob (I am).
But the problem is, when you have a preference for good espressos, you can’t deal with shitty gas station coffee. You have an 8-hour drive to see your family in LA, and you are “forced” (poor you) to stop by a Starbucks and have a shitty espresso. The problem? Not everywhere can you find a fancy hipster cafe with good espressos. So by having a preference for good espressos sets you up for disappointment.
The solution? Be appreciate of good espressos, but don’t become dependent on them. Be as happy as drinking instant Nescafe coffee as an expensive $3.00 espresso from Blue Bottle (a tip I need to remind myself).
This goes with everything; with preferences to the type of food you eat, the types of restaurants you visit, the places you visit on holiday, the clothes you wear, the lifestyle you have, the artwork you collect, the photography books you purchase, the books you read, the schedules you setup for yourself, the watches you own, whatever.
Don’t have preferences, and you can be happy in all circumstances, whether shitty or “good.”
Another tip of something I have been trying (very hard) to do in my life: not use the words “good” or “bad”, or “better” or “worse.”
Once you start comparing things as “better” or “worse”, you start putting negative labels on things.
For example, what I learned from Taoism (“The Second Book of the Tao” by Stephen Mitchell is excellent) is that things are neither “good” nor “bad” – they are what they are.
For example, one might say that a beautiful white horse that can run at top speeds is “good.” But can the horse catch a mouse? No.
Another example: a lot of people would say that winning a million dollars is a “good” thing. True? Not necessarily. Suddenly after winning a million bucks from the lottery, all your friends turn against you. Old family members start phoning you, asking you for money. You are now in the tabloids, harassed by paparazzi. You start becoming paranoid, and trying to find out ways to hide yourself (and your money) from the public. You start going into depression, you start using your money on cocaine, hookers, and Ferrari’s. You still feel empty. You have nobody to trust anymore, and you want to kill yourself.
Some people would say having a Leica camera is a “good” thing. Not necessarily. A Leica can’t focus very closely (minimum focusing distance is .7 meters). It is quite heavy (made out of solid brass). It is difficult to use and doesn’t have autofocus. If you own a digital Leica, the buffer is slow, the camera sometimes doesn’t turn on, and even the old Leica M9’s have cracking sensors. So a Leica camera isn’t “better” than a Fujifilm x100-series camera. It is just different. More expensive as well.
Sometimes people ask me what is my favorite place to shoot street photography, or the “best” place for street photography. Once again the problem is that once I say “better” it implies that the other place is “worse” for street photography. But in reality, they are just different. You can’t compare apples and oranges. For example, the experience of shooting street photography in NYC versus Michigan is totally different– there are benefits/disadvantages of both. NYC has more people in the streets, but Michigan has more interesting urban landscape. NYC is a bit more hectic and crazy and “interesting” – but the downside is that it has already been shot to death (hard to make an “original” photo in NYC). Michigan can be seen as boring, but the benefit is that the people are friendlier. So don’t think that the city you live isn’t good enough for street photography. Find the hidden benefits.
So long story short; try to eliminate the words “better”, “worse”, “good”, or “bad” from your vocabulary. This will give you ultimate freedom and happiness.
No choices is the ultimate freedom
In the “Second Book of the Tao” there is an interesting story about a man who talks to a shadow. The man asks the shadow, “It must be so depressing to be a shadow. You never have any control over your life. You are just constantly following people, doesn’t that make you feel frustrated?”
The shadow then replies to the man:
“No actually not, it is actually quite nice– not to be stressed with making decisions. Wherever people go, I merely follow. I don’t ask questions. I don’t judge whether the decision is right or wrong, I just go along for the ride and enjoy it.”
When I first read the story I was like what the fuck– I don’t want to be like that shadow. I want to be free and have unlimited freedom! I want to do what I want to do without others trespassing on my court (the typical American mindset).
But in reality; not having any choices is the ultimate freedom.
Why is that?
Well to start off, the universe has its own intelligence. What will happen, will happen, and should happen. “Everything happens for a reason.” Or they call it “Murphy’s law”: “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” (watch the movie ‘Interstellar’ for more insight into this concept).
As human beings we think we can exert control over everything in life. But at the end of the day, we only have some control in life. At the end of the day, we can’t control whether a drunk driver will speed past a red light, hit us, and we will die. We can’t control if we’re in a plane, there is turbulence, the plane gets hit by a lightning bolt, and everyone dies. We can’t control if our parents had some sort of rare disease, and we find out (at age 28) that we have it– and we only have 2 years left to live. We can’t control if people on the internet talk shit about us (I know, just read my YouTube comments). We can’t control whether we will meet the “love of our life” or our “soulmate” (I am just fucking lucky I met Cindy in college). We can’t control these “[butterfly effects(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect)” in life, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tsunami halfway across the world.
So the morale of the story? Go with the flow. Don’t try to control things in life.
In Taoism, they call this “wu-wei”: action without action. Not trying to force things. Letting the right decision make itself.
So how have I applied this to my life to be happier?
I try to give up my choices.
For example, I have pared down all of my physical possessions to just 1 of each (okay 2 pairs of clothes when traveling)
I have 1 camera and 1 lens (Leica MP and 35mm f/2 lens)
I have 1 type of film (Kodak Tri-X pushed to 1600)
I have 1 pair of shoes (Nike Free Flyknit 4.0)
I have 2 pairs of boxers (ExOfficio Boxer Brief)
I have 2 pair of shirts (UNIQLO airism)
I have 2 pairs of socks (quick-dry)
I have 1 backpack (Thinktank Perception 15)
I have 1 smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S6)
I have 1 laptop-like device (currently an iPad Air)
I have 1 watch (my beloved red Casio G-Shock)
I have 1 book-reading device (Kindle)
This has given me so much peace of mind and zen it isn’t even funny. I don’t have to make a decision, and this limitation of my physical stuff is fucking true freedom. I don’t have to make a choice about what to use, because I am pared down to the essentials.
Applied to mental concepts this idea of limitations and no choices can work as well:
I have 1 best friend (Cindy)
I have 1 main activity (Writing)
I have 1 main reading interest (Philosophy)
I have 1 favorite beverage (espresso)
I have 1 primary form of exercise (pushup)
I have 1 “social media” to publish on (this blog)
I wear only 1 color (black)
Having no choices (or fewer choices) is something that Steve Jobs and Barack Obama apparently does. Steve Jobs (when he was still alive) only had 1 outfit: his signature black turtleneck, blue jeans, and white shoes. Barack Obama only has 2 suits (one black, one navy) so he has less “decision-making anxiety” and fatigue– and can spend more mental energy making important decisions.
Another concept which shows that having fewer choices and no freedom in life can be a good thing: they call it “paralysis by analysis”. The concept is that sometimes you become paralyzed by having too many choices, because you have so many things to analyze. The last time you went to the grocery store to buy some cereal, do you remember how many fucking types of cereal there were? Making that decision was such a stressful endeavor, wasn’t it? The last time you had to buy a camera, remember all the camera reviews you had to read before you found the “perfect” camera? The last time you tried to buy a car, there were so many fucking choices (different colors, car brands, car models, packages, trims, etc) that stressed you out– no?
Barry Schwartz explores this concept in his book: “The Paradox of Choice”, in which the irony of being a human being is that we think that having more choices leads to more happiness. But in reality, having more choices in our life adds stress, complexity, and frustration to our lives.
The solution? Remove more choices from your life, make non-reversible decisions (when you buy something, throw away the receipt), and don’t regret or ruminate on the decisions you’ve already made.
Having no choices in photography
So how are some other ways you can remove choices from your life, to add more happiness and creativity in your life?
Remove the choice of what kind of subject matter to shoot. That means focusing on one theme or project. Set yourself a “creative constraint.”
For example, make the decision that you cannot shoot anything except “street portraits.” Then you aren’t stressed out; you know exactly what (and what you can’t) shoot. By having focus on just “street portraits” – you know exactly what you’re looking for, and you become focused on faces as a subject-matter, and you end up creating a strong and consistent body of work.
For example, when Richard Avedon did his book: “In the American West”, he only shot with an 8×10 camera, black-and-white large-format film, people in the shade, and against white backgrounds. There were all these limitations, constraints, and lack of choice in his project. But what he did choose and add variety in were his subjects, their poses, and facial expressions. It is one of the best portrait series ever done in history.
Similarly, Josef Koudelka only photographed Gypsies for 10+ years, and they were his only subject matter. Not only that, but he had no choice except one camera and lens: a cheap SLR (I believe it was an “Exakta” camera) and a 25mm lens and black-and-white film. By disregarding any other subject matter, he was able to focus on photographing the Gypsy people, living with them, getting to know them, and creating one of the most incredible socio-ethnographic photographic projects titled: “Gypsies” (yes, the politically correct term is now “Roma” people).
Honestly, having more than 1 camera and 1 lens is just stressful to me. Having more than 1 camera and 1 less is more choices, so my suggestion: commit yourself to literally selling off (or better yet, giving away) all of your cameras, and just commit to 1 camera, 1 lens for a year. And if you shoot film, only 1 type of film. If you shoot digital, only stick to color or black and white. Having no stress in terms of what camera to use is more happiness in your life. I have even taken off the camera application away from the homescreen of my smartphone, and have vowed (for the next year or so) to shoot as little on my smartphone as possible. Only black-and-white film on the Leica (at least for the end of the year, before I move to Vietnam with Cindy).
Set another “creative constraint” by not having a choice to where you photograph. Create a 1-mile radius from your house or workplace, and you are only allowed to shoot there for a month (or better yet, a year). You will probably be forced to step outside of your comfort zone, and force yourself to be creative.
Photography isn’t about finding exotic things, visiting exotic places, and making interesting photos of strange things. Photography is about using the material life has already presented you, and making the best photos with what life has given you. Some of us live in NYC, some of us live in the suburbs of Southern California. Regardless of your position or situation in life, make the best photos with what you have been given in terms of your environment, living situation, whatever.
I know nothing
Okay I’m not some fucking guru or someone who thinks that they know anything. I am not some enlightened Buddhist, nor can I levitate while meditating.
The truth of the matter is I am a wretched soul, full of all these demons, stresses, anxieties, frustrations, and unsteadiness of heart.
I am just sharing with you some ideas that have personally worked well for me (at the moment), so I recommend you to just try it out, and see if it works well for you. Pick and choose. And if you think I’m speaking bullshit, feel free to tell me: “Fuck you Eric”, I don’t mind. Because I say that to myself all the time, in the pursuit of trying to find happiness.
So dear friend, I hope this letter served you well, and has helped ease some of the thoughts on your mind, and will eventually lead to (a little bit more) happiness in your life, and less stress, anxiety, frustration, and worry.
Finished writing at 5:25am, after 2 nice espressos, a little nap, some pushups, and relaxation. Friday, 9/4/2015, at my home in Berkeley.
Some random plans for the rest of today:
I have to wake up Cindy in about 30 minutes (for her to have an early start to the day and do some reasons for her classes). I have no fucking clue what I have planned for the rest of the day, which is total bliss.
I want to do a little more reading (finish re-reading the “Second Book of the Tao”, visit Artis coffee (the cafe near my house), walk around a bit, ask my younger sister Anna to come over for dinner, and maybe take another nap later. Oh yeah, and excited that I’m going to see a blues show with Cindy in SF today at around 10pm. Hope I won’t be too exhausted after waking up at 3am.
Anyways, thank you for always reading my friend– and Godspeed. Always be grateful for the life you have (rather than the life you don’t have). Count everyday as a blessing, live life to the fullest, and go out and shoot :)
There is so much negativity and bullshit out there in modern life. I always hear people bitching and moaning about the difficulties of their lives, how they want more money, how their camera isn’t good enough, how their significant others are horrible people, and how the world is going to shit. The media is constantly spewing negativity, with news about terrorist attacks, gun shootings, peoples’ heads being cut off, and how the economy is going to shit.
Honestly, I don’t blame anybody or the individual. I blame more of society and modern media, as well as the human bias that we focus on the negatives more than the positives.
In psychology, we all have a “risk-aversion” bias, meaning, we hate to lose $100 dollars more than winning $100. We value security and not dying over anything else.
This was a good biological bias when we were hunter-gatherers in the savannah. After all, those who were anxious and risk-averse were the ones who didn’t mistake a lion for a friendly kitten. Those who were high-strung, anxious, and cautious were the ones who survived. Those who thought that everything in life was rosy, carefree, and easy generally died off (or were probably expelled from the tribe because they were seen as lazy slackers).
Fortunately we now live in a modern world in which all of our basic needs are met. Most of us have access to clean water, we don’t starve to death, and we have protection from the cold. Sure there are many people out there still living in poverty, but fortunately most of the “modern” world have enough to survive and not die.
However we still have our hard-wiring in our brains that make us focus on the negatives, not the positives in life.
For example, rather than being grateful for what we have, we focus on what we don’t have. Rather than being grateful for the money we earn and have in the bank, we are anxious and scared of becoming homeless that we try to accumulate endless amounts of money. Rather than focusing on the positives of our friends, family, and co-workers, we focus on their negative attributes and how they can improve.
Reality isn’t objective. Reality comes down to how we see and interpret the world.
For example, most people would say it is “objectively” good to be a millionaire. However in reality, a millionaire can be miserable if all of his/her best friends are billionaires. They might “only” drive a BMW 3-series, while all their buddies drive Ferraris. Even apparently billionaires are the most envious people on the planet. Even if you own your own private jet, your best friend (another richer billionaire) can own his own private island. Even if you own your own private island, your friend might own their own spaceship. Even if you own your own spaceship, you can’t escape death (no matter how rich you are).
Another human bias: we always compare ourselves to one another. For example, even though I have the “best” film camera (Leica MP and 35mm summicron lens), I am often jealous of my friends who own “better” film cameras like a Mamiya 7ii. Sometimes I compare my 35mm Summicron f/2 lens to my friends who have a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux lens and feel inadequate and jealous. Even though I have 20,000 followers on Instagram, I feel like a “nobody” compared to my friends who have 100,000+ followers on Instagram. No matter how “good” I have it, there is always someone out there who is richer, more talented, more “respected”, more popular, or “better than me.”
Nothing is ever good enough for us. Once we finally buy that new camera we want, go on that fancy vacation, that promotion we’ve wanted, that raise of money, we get accustomed to it after a while. Then we want the next “better” thing. They call this the “hedonic treadmill.”
So how do we overcome this sense of jealousy, negativity, and feeling of inadequacy in our photography and life?
It is simple: Be grateful for what you have.
The quickest way to become rich is to eliminate desire. The quickest way to improve your self-esteem is to not give a shit what others think of you. The quickest way to remove dissatisfaction on social media (not having enough followers or likes) is to delete your account.
Not only that, but another solution: Focus on the positives, not negatives in life.
There is a new trend in psychology called “positive psychology.” I think often people misconstrue positive psychology a bunch of people, sitting in a circle, holding hands, chanting mantras, and saying that everything in life is rosy.
However the way I think of positive psychology is acknowledging the pain, negativity, and bullshit of everyday life but yet deciding to focus on the positives, not the negatives.
Focusing on the negatives of life is a waste of time, energy, and the worst return-on-investment. Focusing on the negatives won’t improve your life. It will just make you more miserable and dissatisfied.
No matter how shitty your life is, or how shitty your day was, there are always positive things to be grateful for.
For example, whenever I have a shitty day, I try to journal in a moleskine 3 things I am grateful for. This helps me focus on the positives, not negatives of my day. Some things I write in my “gratitude journal” include
Being alive, and having the gift of sight.
Having friends and family who love me.
Having a healthy and sound mind.
Gratitude of knowing how to speak English.
Gratitude that I was born in a society in which Internet exists, and I have access to the unlimited source of knowledge from the entirety of history.
The fact that I don’t go hungry at night before I sleep.
Appreciation for coffee and caffeine (I couldn’t get any writing done without it).
Appreciation of the talents and successes of my best friends.
Having Cindy, the love of my life, who pushes me to become a better person.
For a loving mother, sister, and family.
Enjoying a nice walk in the park with the sun shining, birds chirping, and the lovely sound of trees blowing and swaying.
That all the photographs of Magnum Photographers (and books) are available for free on magnumphotos.com
Freedom to move around as I please, and not be a prisoner in a jail cell.
The gratitude of living with other human beings (not being stuck on Mars by myself or on a spaceship).
These are a few of the things I have meditated about, and shown appreciation for. I find that when I fill my mind with gratitude, I feel happier, more positive, and more willing to give love to others.
Don’t get me wrong, even though I’m a pretty happy guy, I get depressed and sad too. Sometimes after reading a lot of YouTube comments or negative hate on the blog, I feel shitty. Sometimes when I’m traveling by myself overseas and can’t find anybody to share a meal with me, I think negative thoughts of all the problems of my life (how I don’t have enough financial security, how so many people on the internet don’t like me, and how much I miss Cindy and friends back home). I often dwell on stupid thing I said, or regret not being more generous, or accidentally upsetting people or not being more considerate. I feel gloomy at time that people ignore my emails or Facebook messages, all out of this sense of insecurity that I want everybody to like me.
But the reality is, the more I dwell on these negative thoughts, the shittier I feel.
Something I have done which has helped me stay more positive is to read philosophy twice a day. For about an hour in the morning (to prime my brain with positive thinking) and about an hour before I sleep (to shut up my brain from telling me that I am worthless and about the negatives in my life). Books that have helped me the most include:
What I will generally do is read each of the books, and then when I finish, cycle through them. I also write my ideas and notes in a Moleskine journal. I copy down quotes that speak to me, my random ideas, and how I feel.
Another strategy in life: Turn every negative into a positive in your life.
Let’s say you shoot a photo of a stranger and they call you a pervert, threaten to call the cops, or even physically shove you. What have you gained? You have gained confidence, sturdiness of heart, and the opportunity to practice patience, restraint, and courage.
Let’s say you lost your job. The positive? You hated that job anyways, now it is time for you to pursue a new job or career you really loved. In-fact, if I never got laid off my old job, I would have never started to travel the world and teach street photography full-time.
Let’s say a good friend or family member died. The positive? You appreciate your own life more, you appreciate your friends and family who are still alive more, and it reminds you of your own mortality. You realize life is short, and it is a good wake-up call for you to not waste time and pursue the work that is really meaningful in your life.
Let’s say you have only 50 followers on social media. You feel this is a negative (because you want 100, 1000, or 10,000+ followers). However this can be a positive, because you build up a closer relationship with fewer people, than having a superficial relationship with a lot of people.
Let’s say you live in a boring place for street photography. The positive? You have the opportunity to create a unique body of work (nobody has done before), and it forces you to be more creative. Those who live in popular cities (New York, Tokyo, Paris) often feel frustrated and overwhelmed because they can never create bodies of work that is better than those who came before them.
Did you miss a “decisive moment” on the streets and feel frustrated? Turn it into a positive; next time you will work harder to be more prepared, when you see a better scene.
Sometime give you a negative or nasty critique on your photos? Be appreciative that you are “popular” enough that someone took the time to give you negative feedback (I think the more negative feedback you get is a sign that you are becoming more influential).
Someone stole your camera? Maybe it is a chance for you to discover the beauty of shooting on a smartphone.
Have you become allergic to coffee? A chance for you to discover matcha green tea (happened to me, but thank God this “allergy” ended up just being acid reflux to acidic coffee).
If you see everything that happens in life as a positive, you will become indestructible. No bullshit will be able to penetrate your golden armor of courage, love, and positivity. You will be like King Midas; everything you touch (negativity) will turn into gold. Every insult will strengthen your character. Every setback in your life will force you to work harder and become a better human being. Lack of resources or money will teach you the value of “creative constraints” and give you that burning hunger to succeed.
I know this is hard, I personally struggle with it everyday. But remember, we are all brothers and sisters in this world. We are all fighting the tough battle everyday. But let us imagine ourselves like the 300 spartans; we will continue to protect one another with our shields from the flying arrows of negativity which can pierce our heart and souls.
Okay, I am overly caffeinated now (after a doppio and almond cappuccino) and need to shut up.
A quick assignment for you to try today: Smile at a stranger and say hello. This can be to your local bus driver, a barista, waiter, or someone passing you on the streets.
Another idea: do a random act of kindness. Today I was riding the tube in London, reading some Meditation by Marcus Aurelius, and his words inspired me to give up my seat to a depressed looking woman. I stood up, offered her my seat, and first she politely refused. I insisted, she thanked me, sat down, and gave me the warmest smile you could possibly imagine. Of course this made me feel good, and I saw other people in the tube smile as well.
Contribute positive acts, and pay it forward. Then your happiness will be boundless.
Monday, Aug 17, 2015 @ 12:19pm.
Written @ Exmouth coffee in London. Heading out to Leeds for a few days to visit Northern London with a friend, and excited to do another Intermediate/Advanced workshop in London, a week in Stockholm with my good friends (and another workshop) then flying home back to Cindy, the love of my life, and the chance to catch up with my friends in Berkeley, where I can enjoy my home and more good coffee!
“What you do today is important because you are exchanging a day of your life for it.” —Unknown
Today I want to share something personal with you; for a guy who is so young (I am only 27 years old) I think about death a lot– nearly on a daily basis. Why? I used to have this fear and superstition that I would die young.
I think this fear of death has given me the sense of “hustle” in my life, not to waste a precious minute of my time. After all, time is the ultimate non-renewable resource in our lives.
I have a friend who just recently passed away. We were good friends in middle school and high school, having lots of fun playing Counterstrike, hanging out at PC cafes, talking random shit with the boys during lunch, going to the movies, having good laughs, and stuff like that. He was supremely intelligent, talented, and had a bright future ahead of him. He graduated top of the class in high school, and went off to UC Berkeley. Once in college, we didn’t speak much.
About half a year ago, I heard from a friend that he had seizures– apparently he had some sort of brain tumor that was “under control.” At first when I heard this, I thought about how shitty his situation was. I felt horrible for him, but at the same time I knew that there was nothing I could do about it, but have empathy and pray for him.
Fast-forward to a few months ago; I get the news that he suddenly died. He was 27 years old, the same age as me.
We are dying daily
Friend, we never know when we are going to die. I am only 27 years old, but who knows, I can get hit by a car tomorrow, I can find out that I have lung cancer (have spent time hanging around smokers my entire life), I can find out I have some rare heart condition, I can die in a plane crash, I might accidentally trip while looking at Google Maps, slip, and crack open my head, or (hopefully not) piss off someone from street photography that they stab me or something.
“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily?” – Seneca
We are dying daily. Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource.
For example, we can lose $100 and always in the future gain another $100. But when we lose a year of our life, we can never “add” another year of our life (no matter how rich we are). Similarly, every hour we spend in the day is one less hour that we can live.
I have a mental exercise: I pretend that every night I go to sleep it is the last day on earth that I have. I know some friends in their 70s, and one of their honest-to-God fears is that they won’t wake up the next morning. And when they wake up in the morning, they are excited, happy, and grateful; God has granted them another day to live.
I try to apply the same philosophy. I try to treat everyday like it were my last. And when I wake up the next morning, it is simply a bonus– a gift from God. Now whether you believe in “God” or any other supernatural power it doesn’t really matter — being grateful for life is one of the most valuable things in life.
What is more valuable to you: time or money?
We often make the worst tradeoff in life; we trade our time for money. Whereas in reality, it should be the opposite; we should trade our money for time.
For example, will I trade 30 years of my life working in the corporate grind hoping to trade it for a retirement package, BMW, and white picket house? Fuck that. I want to live and enjoy my life to the fullest.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a greedy and self-interested bastard. I love the security of money, and nothing makes me more excited than adding more 0’s to my bank account.
But at the end of the day, I can’t take my bank account with me when I die. No matter how expensive of a car I buy, it will all look shitty and outdated in a few decades.
I want to tell you one of my vices; I love cars. I have always loved cars since I was young. Perhaps it was because I am an American, and we have such strong car culture. Or perhaps it is because I was addicted to the whole “rice rocket” fast and the furious phenomenon. Regardless, I think us Americans waste a shitload of tie, money, and effort in trying to get a nice car. And what a useless “investment” that is. After all, according to the “hedonic treadmill” — enough is never enough.
Let’s say I bought a BMW 3-series, I would get a huge rush of happiness for the first month or so. Then after a month, I get “used” to it. Then I am jealous of my neighbor who has the BMW 5-series. I then (after emptying out my bank account), “upgrade” to the 5-series. It is awesome for another month, then once again, I go to the baseline happiness (similar satisfaction when I had the 3-series). Then I see the friend with the 7-series, upgrade to that. Then you see the friend with the Maserati, the Bentley, the private jet, the private island, then the private spaceship to Mars. When is enough truly enough?
I still am suckered by cars. I currently drive a 2010 Prius that was a gift from Cindy’s (very generous) sister. It is an awesome car, great on gas, and perfect for that “eco-hippie trendy, conscious citizen” image in Berkeley. But at the same time, I crave a sports car. I had a 1991 Sentra SE-R (modded it out) and a 1990 Miata in college (sister crashed the car). Now I look at envy with those with the Fiat Abarth (sweet little car), as well as the Ford Fiesta ST (even Jeremy Clarkson loves it). Sure these are pretty modest cars, but I know if I ever got them, I would want to upgrade to a BMW M3, than a Tesla, Ferrari– whatever.
But a technique I have used to try to deter me from buying these material cars is this; I imagine how shitty the car and “outdated” it will look 20 years from now. And not only that, but at the end of the day, a car is just a metal box with 4 wheels that takes you from point “A” to point “B”. The only reason I ever crave a car is when I am bored or dissatisfied with my life, and I want more excitement. Because I am a sucker to advertising, I (wrongly) believe that buying a new car will fix my life’s problems. It never does.
And a new car is damn expensive. Start at around $30,000 in most cases. But what else can you do with $30,000?
You can go on 30 round-trip flights around the world. You can shoot 6,000 rolls of film. You can live for 30 months in a south-east Asian country (2.5 years). You can invest that money in yourself; to attend photography classes, to buy photobooks, and travel. Money can only buy you happiness, if you spend it on experiences, not gear.
Sorry I got distracted, but realize that your time is so much more valuable than any dollar amount in your life.
Think about death on a daily basis
Don’t imagine you will live forever. The only two things certain in life; death and taxes. If you’re some Russian mafia tax-dodging boss (who lives cozily in Switzerland), maybe you can avoid the taxes. But death is the only certainty in life.
Sorry to break it to you (spoiler alert), your mom will soon die, your father will soon die, your loved one will soon die, your friends and other family member will soon die, and you will soon die.
Thinking about death constantly helps us savor life, and appreciate it.
I learned this one tip from Marcus Aurelius in “The Meditations” — he says whenever you kiss your child to sleep, you silently tell him, “Good night my son, I love you, and know that you might one day die on accident. I cherish the time we have right now.”
But isn’t that bad luck, bad karma? That is just superstition and nonsense.
Another tip: every time you say goodbye to a friend or loved one, imagine it is the last time you will ever see them again. Because nothing is certain in life. So give them a genuine hug, and tell them how much you love and appreciate them. Then if they happen to pass away suddenly or get into a car accident (I had another friend who got killed by a drunk driver at the age of 16) it will not hit you by surprise.
“Carpe diem” (seize the day)
Time is the quickest fleeting thing. Imagine you were stranded in a desert island, thirsty, and famished. You have gone 2 days without water in the blazing sun (110+ degrees F or 40+ degrees C). You stumble upon a stream that is gushing with water. But you are informed that this stream will only gush out water for an hour. Would you sit around and let the water go to waste? Hell no, you will fill your stomach with as much water as humanly possible, and not let any drop go to waste.
I think this is a good analogy to time. Time is like that stream of water; it is constantly flowing out, but sooner or later, it will cut out.
I am a guy who has a humble goal in life; I just want to be happy. But what is “happiness” to me?
To me, “happiness” is less of a pleasure-based thing. I am not a hedonist. I don’t think happiness is eating 3-star Michelin meals everyday, driving a range-rover, living in a mansion, and fucking beautiful women. Rather, I prefer the Greek interpretation: “eudaimonia”, which means “human flourishing.”
What is “human flourishing?” Well to me, it is on the top of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” — seeking “self actualization.” Which means using all of your talents, passions, and energy to create something meaningful that you can ultimately give back to society.
“He who lives for himself is truly dead to others.” So my goal in life is to live for others; to help others find satisfaction and happiness in their life. To create information that empowers people and brings them joy. I want to build communities, and bring passionate (and lonely) people together. I don’t give a fuck about how many 0’s I have in my bank account, whether I have the fanciest new camera, whether I drive a fancy car, whether I have a bigass house. Just give me my espresso, free wi-fi, and some eggs (so I don’t starve to death) and I have all of my basic needs met.
But going back to the point, I need to stick this piece of advice from Seneca to my desk:
“Hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing is ours, except time.”
So what is “today’s task” for me? It is to produce information, and to write these articles and letters for you. Tomorrow is uncertain; I don’t know whether I will still be alive or not. But I want to live everyday like it were my last.
The only thing that pisses me off is if I can’t get any writing done. My only goal in life: to write a little bit everyday, and to contribute a little to the happiness and peace of mind of others. I want to help relieve the suffering of my friends and loved ones; whether that is through my writing, or the time I spend with them. One lesson from Tim Ferriss in his article, “‘Productivity’ Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me)” is just to block out the first 3 hours of your day to doing the task which brings you the most satisfaction. Once again, that for me is writing. I try not to ever make any appointments before noon. The morning is my sacred time to get writing done.
“But what if I have a day job or office job, where I am forced to answer emails, and do shit for my boss? Not everybody can live a life of luxury like you Eric, where you have so much free time. You insensitive asshole.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely blessed to have the life that I do. But realize that me and you are in the same boat. I get tempted by doing bullshit admin work in the morning that doesn’t contribute to my happiness or feeling of “eudaimonia”.
My advice is this: everyone can make 3 hours of “alone time” for them. It just comes down to the question; “How bad do you want it?” For me when I had an office job (and blogging was my passion), I intentionally got up about an hour or two early everyday to get a little bit of writing done before going into work. Sometimes I would be so in the “flow” of writing that I would actually get into work late and get yelled at my boss. But it was totally worth it.
Honestly making time for yourself is easier than it may seem. Rather than downloading new “productivity” apps on your phone, rather than reading more “productivity” business books, or listening to podcasts, the secret to creating time is to cut out bullshit and “time-wasting” activities from your day. As Nassim Taleb calls it in his book “Antifragile”, the “via negativa” approach. That you add to your life by subtracting from your life.
So if you want to find more time for your passion in life and photography, here are some things that I have personally subtracted from my life. Now I have a shitload of time to do what I am passionate about; which include writing, photography, reading, teaching, and spending time with loved ones.
They never go anywhere. And honestly, the only reason that I ever network is for the hope of some future gain. I think a networking meeting will help me gain more future power, influence, fame, or money. But I don’t need any more money, fame, power, social media following, whatever. So why should I waste my time networking? I’d rather spend time with loves one that I truly care about; without some hope of future gain.
It is great, Seneca (God I think I might change my middle name to his) gave some practical advice on how networking is a waste of time (incredible that not much has changed over the past 2,000 years):
“How much time they waste ingratiating themselves with higher-ups or networking or legal matters. Of how many that very powerful friend (who you think is your friend but is just using you for the friends that you have, people he would like to know and perhaps keep in his retinue)?”
I have to admit, I know some “influential” people and spend time with them (not because I truly enjoy their company), but I hope some sort of “future gain” — and the hope that one day that I need a favor from them, they will be in my back pocket. This is shallow, and I need to stop doing this bullshit.
I also think that it is better to piss off and disappoint people for the greater good. After all this is the advice I often give myself (and ask myself): “Is this hour or two you spend with this person truly worthwhile, or would I be better off using this time to write an article that can potentially help thousands?”
Of course I don’t have that same mentality when spending time with loved ones and friends. To me, any time spent with someone you truly love and care about is time well-spent.
2.Media (blogs, television, video games, magazines, frivolous books)
I haven’t watched television for the last 10 years. I used to be addicted to it; watching it as a teenager until 1-2am (Adult Swim). But once I got into college, I traded that time for playing video games. But my third year in college, I stopped video games cold turkey as well, because I literally didn’t have time (and had better things to do).
I honestly think that TV is the biggest waste of time. Sure there are some TV shows on Netflix which are great and inspire. But 99% of it is trash to be honest. It is just like junk food.
I feel bad for people who have this daily grind; wake up, go to work, come back home from work, watch 2 hours of netflix, and go to sleep, and then rinse and repeat their schedules.
So many people complain they don’t have enough time to do what they want to do. Television watching is horrible because it is so damn passive. True happiness and having “leisure” time isn’t sitting on your ass on some beach and watching Netflix from your iPad. True “leisure” is being active, and doing something that you are passionate about– something that feels meaningful.
If you subtracted 2 hours of Netflix or TV watching from your life, how could you better use that time? Perhaps that can help you sleep 2 hours earlier, so you can wake up at 5am instead of 7am to go to work. And from 5-7am you can use that time to shoot street photography (beautiful sunrise early morning shooting), you can use that time to meditate, to read, write for your blog or that novel you’ve always wanted to write, play an instrument (quietly), or any other passion you have in life. Perhaps you can go into the office 2 hours early (before anyone is there, and get some meaningful work done in the office, if that is what you feel is your passion and calling).
I also think that 99.9% of blogs on the internet are just noise. I know I spew a lot of random noise on this blog too, so feel free to unfollow whenever.
Honestly, all the greatest ideas and inspirations I have ever gotten were from books, never from blogs. Blogs are just distillations of ideas and information, most of that information is rooted in books. So go straight for the source.
What do I have against blogs? My biggest problem; they are distracting, and breed dissatisfaction in our lives as well.
For example, I (still) suffer from G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome). I love material possessions, and I always want the newest and greatest equipment or gadgets. Not only that, 99.9% of photo blogs on the internet are just trying to sell you cameras. I have a personal rule, never trust the opinion of a camera review or rumor blog if they have affiliate links (this includes this blog). After all, it is always in the blogger’s best interest to write great things about a camera (or at least downplay the negatives) because if you buy a camera through a blogger’s affiliate link, they will get a small percentage. The solution? First of all, realize you don’t need a new camera. If you really want a new camera, just test and try it out for yourself (rent it and try it out or simply buy it and return it before 30 days).
Not only that, but I don’t trust any blogs that have display or banner ads. Why not? I do realize they need to make a living; but banner ads always tempt me to buy shit I don’t need. Everyone on the internet is trying to sell you something (even I have the hidden hope that you might attend one of my workshops one day). But I always try to remind myself: the purpose that I blog isn’t to have you attend my workshop. The workshops are a way for me to bring people together and build confidence; but the true purpose of my life is to produce these articles and information that will help the greatest amount of people.
So as a challenge try this; don’t read any blogs for a month. Trust me, you will have so much more happiness and clarity of thought. And nobody is going to die. Sure you might miss out of the news of that new rumored camera coming out, or Justin Bieber getting into another drinking and driving episode. Rather than falling victim to “FOMO” (fear of missing out), embrace “JOMO” (joy of missing out).
I used to play a shitload of video games as well growing up. I regret every minute spent on video games. Sure I made some “online” friends and joined “online communities”– but honestly at the end of the day, what good does having virtual gold on World of Warcraft contribute to society as a whole? Do you really need to spend another 100 hours “grinding away” killing monsters to get that treasured mystical sword that you can simply buy in a virtual store for $25? How much do you value your time? Okay if you are paraplegic and your only way of communication is living in second life; that is fine– but I also believe 99.9% of video game playing is a massive waste of time, I wish I told myself that earlier.
3.Not giving a fuck of what others think of you
I want to give fewer “fucks” in my life. The problem? I do give a big fuck about what others think about me.
Because I give such a huge flying fuck about what others think of me, I work hard (and waste time) trying to craft a certain image of myself. I spend a lot of time trying to meet up people that I “should” meet (rather than people I “must” meet). I waste a lot of time worrying whether people are judging me in a positive or a negative way. I waste a lot of time lying on the bed, regretting some stupid shit I said earlier that was insensitive, that hurt someone’s feelings (on accident). I waste a lot of time on social media, trying to argue with trolls and haters that I am a good person and not just some narcissistic asshole.
But if I want more time in my life, what do I need to do? Give no fucks, yes, NO fucks about what others think of me– whether positive or negative.
Another lesson of wisdom from Seneca; do not be overjoyed from the compliments of others, nor overly depressed fro the criticisms of others. The secret is to have a steady stream of consciousness, where you are always feeling “pleasant”, mild, constant, unperturbed, and steady.
This is the source of ultimate freedom.
It took me a long time to realize this– that praise (and hate) are equally useless.
Why is praise useless? Well, advice from Marcus Aurelius from “The Meditations” (paraphrased from my memory):
“Does the vine need ‘praise’ when it produces grapes? Does the sun need ‘praise’ when it wakes up everyday (without fail) and shine its rays upon the earth? Does the horse need ‘praise’ for transporting our things for us? Does the emerald need ‘praise’ to be told that it is beautiful?”
So why do I need “praise” for what I do? The reward is the act itself. If I clean the dishes and Cindy doesn’t mention it nor pat me on the back, why should this disturb me? I am cleaning the dishes because they need cleaning, not to get some sort of approval from Cindy.
If I give a friend a hug and tell him/her how much I appreciate them, do I need them to say it back to me? Absolutely not, I am not telling them how much I love and appreciate them in order for them to mutually tell me the same.
If I donate a dollar to a homeless person, do I need him to thank me? No, I am giving him a dollar to help him, not to feel like a “good” person. In-fact, the only way to be truly “generous” is to give to an ungrateful person (credit Nassim Taleb).
Similarly, why do we care if others dislike us, hate on us, say negative things about us, gossip about us behind our backs, or judge us?
For example, let’s say you took a photo of a stranger, and they told you: “Fuck you, you fucking pervert. Who gave you the fucking right to take a photo of me? I’m going to call the fucking police on you, you fucking asshole.”
Of course this would bother you (it would bother me as well).
But what are words? Words are just vibrations of sound in the air. It isn’t the words that hurt us, but our interpretation of the words which hurt us.
A personal way I have been able to not take the hate and criticism of others? Take the piss out of myself.
For example, once some negative troll left a comment on my blog and said: “Eric, your photos suck, you’re a scammer, you’re only ‘click baiting’ people to have them attend your shitty workshops, and you are only famous because you know how to game social media and add tags to improve your ‘SEO’”. Rather than saying, “fuck you” to this commenter, I said: “I also don’t fold my bed sheets in the morning, and I’m a horrible cook.” Another tip from Nassim Taleb: never take negative hate from anybody if they criticize you for more than one thing (it is superfluous to say that an author is a horrible writer and a bad cook).
I will tell you another personal story of the real best way to deal with negative people; simply ignore them. Would people shout at a mirror? No way, it would just make them look (and feel like) an idiot. So embrace this “Taoist” philosophy and act like a mirror; don’t retain any negative feelings or emotions, just be still, and don’t respond.
I remember when I was a kid, a lot of kids would bully me, make fun of me, call me a fag, gay, whatever. It would make me feel like shit, and then I would go home, feel sorry for myself, and then for the next day or so, think of clever ways that I could revenge them. In the shower I would think of witty comebacks, or ways for my friends to go and beat him up.
But once again, that is a massive waste of time and energy. Granted I didn’t know any better when I was a kid, but there are adults out there seeking revenge all the time. But according to Marcus Aurelius, his advice is this: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
Think about all the time you’ve one wasted, feeling negative thoughts about someone, or plotting ways to get back at him or her. Think about the time you wasted how you could get “even.” But why not invest your time in more noble pursuits; like complimenting a friend, calling up a friend and telling them how much you appreciate their friendship? Or going out and making some beautiful photos that will make both you and your viewers happy?
Another last point on not giving a fuck of what others think of me; I want to learn how to be okay with disappointing people.
One of my character flaws is this; I want everybody to like me. And what causes me the most psychological pain is letting others down, not living up to the expectations of others, not spending enough time with them, etc.
But honestly, I have a noble and grand mission in life to help society as a whole. So I need to learn that is okay to let some people down, and disappoint some people, for the greater good.
For example, I might decline a meeting with somebody because I want to use my time in the morning to write. I’m going to feel really guilty about it, but I need to stop caring about what they might judge me as. Because after all, “letting someone down” or “disappointing them” is just a mental construct that I have in my mind. Who knows, maybe the person that I disappointed will quickly forget feeling offended. This also means being less responsive with my emails, so I can be more productive as a writer.
4.Not worrying about the future
If I truly believed that I am “daily dying”, and that today might be the last day I have on earth, why do I concern myself with the future?
What Seneca taught me is that only a foolish man thinks that he has a long life ahead of him, or can plain with “certainty” about the future. After all, it makes no sense to plan for “retirement” at age 65, if I am not 100% certain that I won’t get hit by a car or get some sort of rare cancer before then. Steve Jobs died at age 56 to cancer. He didn’t worry too much about the future; but what he did was live everyday like it were his last from his Stanford Commencement speech:
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, some day you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
According to the Steve Jobs biography, when Steve Jobs realized that he had cancer, he put a huge emphasis on trying to squeeze the most out of each of his days on earth. He dedicated his entire heart, soul, and being into Apple; to create products that inspired people and contributed to humanity in some sort of way. And contribute he did, most of my best work has been done on Apple products (11’’ Macbook Air and iPad).
I also recall another quote from Nassim Taleb from “Antifragile” which says; never plan a day in advance.
I have a problem where I had too rigid schedules and todo lists for myself. I try to live in the future.
For example, I will go to bed thinking to myself, “Oh, when I wake up in the morning, I am going to do “X”, “Y”, and “Z”. I’m going to wake up super early and get all this shit done.” Of course in reality, I wake up super late, and then I am upset and frustrated at myself. Or perhaps I wake up and I feel sick, and I am no longer able to do the work that I planned the night before.
Another tip from Nassim Taleb; never plan an appointment with someone unless it is the day-of, because we always under-estimate how chaotic things will be in the future. They call this the “planning fallacy” (first proposed by proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, read more in the excellent book, “Thinking Fast, and Slow”).
Regarding the “planning fallacy”, think of the last time you had a project. You first told your boss it would take you a week; then it ended up taking two weeks, and you felt massively guilty. Remember the last time you were running late for a meeting or a dinner appointment with a friend. You text them and tell him: “Sorry, running 10 minutes late” and then you get stuck in traffic (for even longer), and show up 20 minutes late and feel massively guilty. This has happened to me so many times I can’t even count.
The solution? Always add an approximate buffer of 25% of how long you think something will need. For example, when I am traveling and I think I need $200 for the week, I will get $250. If I think I need 50 rolls of film for a trip, I will bring 75 rolls. If I think I am running 10 minutes late to an appointment, I tell them I’m running 20 minutes late. If I think a book project will take me a year, I make that a year and 3 months.
Sorry, I got slightly off-topic again. But the point; never worry about the future. You have no control over what the future brings. You only have control over the present moment. Like literally, this present moment. You have the power to think about positive things now, whether you want to go read a book, whether you want to go take some photos, whether you want to look at some photobooks, or whether you want to give a loved one a hug.
So don’t waste time “planning” for the future, or worrying about the future.
For example, I have sat down and made a “10-year plan”, trying to set goals and all these other benchmarks for myself. But that is a massive waste of time; who knows if I will still be alive 10 years from now?
Similarly, I have often lied in bed worrying about the future– and losing sleep over it.
I will share a personal story for you: Last year (2014) I was in London for about two weeks on my own. It was one of the most depressing times I’ve had in the last 5 years. Why? I rented an Airbnb room on my own, and Cindy had gone back home. I was alone, to think negative thoughts. I had a difficult time finding a dinner partner in London, so I would eat in the apartment alone. Publilius Syrus once wrote
“Solitude is the mother of anxieties.”
Even though both of my workshops in London were sold out, I realized I had no workshops planned for 2015. I started to panic. I realized I had overdrawn money from my Paypal account, and I felt anxious without having “cash-flow” to my bank account. I started to “catastrophize” and imagine all these “worst-case” scenarios. I imagined that suddenly street photography would fade into obscurity, and nobody would ever attend one of my workshops again. I imagined myself being homeless, destitute, and alone. I imagined dying alone.
Of course all of these thoughts were overly dramatic; but I wasted so much precious time worrying about my future– when in reality (looking back), everything turned out fine.
And the truth of life and reality is that everything work out okay in the end.
A method that I have discovered recently to avoid this anxious fear of the future is to think of the worst-case scenario.
For me, honestly the worst-case scenario is that I go bankrupt, nobody in the world is interested in street photography, I end up moving in back with my Mom, and becoming an Uber driver. But what is so bad about that? I will have my mother’s delicious cooking, I will spend more time with her and family, and perhaps have a fun time driving my car and meeting new strangers as an Uber driver.
I think the ultimate fear we all have of his death. But once again, we’re privileged to live in a society where all of our basic needs are met (food, water, shelter).
So what are we afraid of? That we will have to sell our car? So what? We learn to take public transport, and appreciate being able to take a nap on the bus on the way from one place to another. Are we afraid that we will be homeless? You will be able to get (some) help from the government, so you won’t literally be sleeping on the streets. And if you can always find a friend or family member to stay with (at least for a month or few weeks). Are you afraid that everyone will hate you? Does the opinions of others physically hurt you? Of course not.
5. Not doing more than one thing
One of the best books I read was “Essentialism” (another good read being “The One Thing”). The concept in a nutshell: just focus on one noble task or mission in your life, and disregard everything else.
So for you, if that is photography, focus only on photography. Disregard all your other hobbies (playing music, learning a new language, martial arts, whatever).
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have more than one hobby if that makes you happy. But if you want to truly become great at one thing, you can’t divide your attention. The rays of the sun is pleasant when it is spread over the earth. But if you focus the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass, you can burn holes through steel (think of a laser).
“No single worthwhile goal can be successfully pursued by a man who is occupied with many tasks – lawyer, teacher, however – because the mind, when its focus is split, absorbs little in depth and rejects everything that is, so to speak, jammed into it.”
So practical ways you can apply this to your photography:
For me, I would rather be remembered for one great project in my life, than 20 mediocre projects. I would rather be remembered for one great shot, instead of 20 mediocre shots.
If I could be remembered for one thing in terms of contribution to society as a whole, it is to spread the “open source” school of thought; that information should be open and free to empower people, not locked by “copyright” to be monetized and hoarded.
Similar line of thought; Nassim Taleb calls it “Bergson’s Razor” in “Antifragile”; the concept that a philosopher shouldn’t be known for more than 1 main contribution to society. Similarly; all the nobel prize winners are generally known for only 1 main contribution.
Think about the greats in history: Einstein and the Theory of Relativity, Edison and the light bulb, Obama being the first black president, Steve Jobs and the iPhone, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the concept of “The Decisive Moment”, Henri Ford and the automobile, etc.
So realize that you are dying daily, and you only have a limited time on the earth. But if you are single-minded in your life’s purpose, and give it all your energy, time, and attention, and soul– you can still live a long and meaningful life.
For example, I mentioned earlier that my friend passed away at 27. That fucking sucks, but at the same time; if his parents were told that he would die at age 5, and he lived to 27, what would you say about the length of his life? You would say that he was blessed to live to 27, would you not?
Similarly, someone who lives to 80 years old, or even 100 is a “long life” by most standards. But there is a difference between “living long” and “existing” long, as Seneca says:
“A grey-haired wrinkled man has not necessarily lived long. More accurately he has existed long.”
Once again, what is the difference between “living” and “existing”? The difference is this; living is to use everyday like it were your last, trying to do everything in your greatest power to make a meaningful contribution to society. “Existing long” is to simply dwell for a long period of time on earth before dying.
Some people tell me, “Eric, doesn’t thinking about death make you depressed, and lose motivation?”
Hell no; I appreciate life a hell of a lot more because I know that one day I would die.
For example, have you ever lost your wallet, and “miraculously” found it under your car seat or in-between the sofa? Think about the extreme joy that gives you. You don’t know how much you appreciate something until you lose it.
Similarly, you don’t know how much you appreciate your loved ones, until they die (or someone else close to you dies).
The death of close friends and family have caused me to be more appreciative of my life, and the life of other loved ones in my life.
6. Don’t delay gratification
We are often taught that we should delay gratification as long as we can. There are a lot of psychological studies which show that those who are able to delay gratification end up becoming more wealthy, healthy, and well-rounded (look at the “Stanford marshmallow experiment”). The concept was this:
“In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.”
Part of it is the “puritan work ethic” of Americans, and the Protestant/Christian notion that if we work hard in this life, we will enjoy the fruits of our labor later in our life (or after we die).
But the problem is that many of us waste our times getting ready to live. We live for tomorrow, rather than for today.
Think of all the people you know who say, I will work hard for 40 years, and one day retire at age 65, and have a comfortable retirement package, and then finally travel the world.
Problem? What if you die at age 64? Then all those years were wasted in vain.
A story I thought of; There was once a married couple that planned their entire life to travel the world. They were both super frugal, never went out, and never enjoyed themselves; thinking that once they retired, they could finally “start living.”
Sadly, one they both turned their mid 60’s and were able to retire, the wife suddenly died of a heart attack. How sad, they should have spent their days living it to their fullest, and not banking all of their happiness on the future.
Seneca gives great advice:
“The greatest obstacle to living a full life is having expectations, delaying gratification based on what might happen tomorrow which squanders today.”
Now don’t misconstrue this as living a “YOLO” (you only live once) lifestyle. Don’t just go out get drunk, do drugs and have sex with strangers, and live irresponsibly. Rather, think of how you can be happy today; rather than happy tomorrow.
I know a lot of photographers who have a dream of traveling the world, or going to Paris, Tokyo, wherever. But they spend their lives in a fantasy world, not being able to enjoy the opportunity to shoot their own backyard.
Or I know photographers who have great ideas for photographic projects, but they get so swept up in the details and the concept, that they don’t actually go out and shoot it.
So don’t delay your gratification creatively; live today. Think about the one small step forward you can make to make your photographic vision and project possible.
Not only that, but think of what you can do to be happy, at this present moment. Perhaps that is counting your blessings, calling up a dear friend, going out to take photos, taking photos of what is right next to you, or jotting down project ideas, or starting to edit some of your images.
Another practical way to live life (also from Seneca), which is to live your life, a minute at a time:
“The present offers one day at a time, divided into minutes.“
So the next time you feel dissatisfied, lost, or curious– ask yourself, “What can I do for the next minute which will help advance my goals and happiness in life?”
7. Don’t waste time seeking more
“A man is never satisfied.” – Seneca
What true words; enough is never enough. We never have enough money, enough power, enough prestige, enough friends, influence, cars, homes, cameras, lenses, gadgets, watches, bags (I have so many camera bags its ridiculous), “time-saving” appliances, social media followers, clothes, jewelry, purses, shoes, books, souvenirs, and of course– we never have enough time.
But if we cut out all this materialistic bullshit from our lives, imagine how much extra time we would have. Why? Because the less money (and time online shopping) we spend, the more money (and time) we will have to do things we truly love; things that bring us true happiness and joy.
Even 2,000 years ago– materialism ran rampant (in ancient Rome). Seneca shares how people towards the end of their lives often regret living a life of luxury and materialism:
“They cry out that they have been fools, because they never really lived, and vow to live a true life if spared from their disease. Too late they realize what time they wasted pursuing worthless things, and how so much hard work seeking happiness from materialism was in vain.”
Seneca also really looks down upon luxury:
“Expensive vices fuel their blissful ignorance. Such a life of luxurious despair is beneath human dignity.”
I’m a materialistic, shallow, self-serving American. I love my materialistic shit. My Leica makes me feel important, special, and “artsy.” My iPad makes me feel more creative. My Prius makes me feel eco-friendly and environmentally conscious (which is absolute bullshit). My love of “third wave” hipster espresso makes me feel important, informed, and sophisticated. The Nike’s I wear make me feel more confident and fashionable when I walk around town. My Lindberg glasses make me feel sophisticated and low-key, because only “true glasses connoisseurs” know the brand. I wear my North jackets with pride; knowing I have the ultimate in water and cold repellant, while still being functional/fashionable. I have far too much useless and superfluous knowledge about designer watches, sports cars, fashion brands, and sunglasses.
I want to cleanse and purge myself of all this materialistic bullshit. I am a sucker for advertising, and I have been bombarded by it my entire life. But how do I break free from it?
What has worked well for me is to avoid shopping areas at all costs.
For example, I live close 4th street, a trendy high-end place in Berkeley, where old rich white people go to buy designer furniture and drink expensive coffee (ironically at Artis coffee, where I spend all my time in Berkeley with my homie Walter and others). Anyways, there is an Apple store on the end of the street. Without fail, I always go there, and am suckered into having a craving or a desire to buy something new. I see the new 27’’ iMac Retina, and I daydream of all the creative opportunities it will give me. I see the new (slightly lighter) iPad Air 2, and imagine myself pretending to be artsy at a cafe, with the golden back, sketching “important” ideas with my fingertip. I see the 15’’ Macbook Pro, and imagine what I would do with all that processing power, and how many more YouTube videos I can produce.
The solution I need to do is avoid entering the Apple store (at all costs). That little 5 minute journey into the store might give me a week-worth of craving for expensive electronics (I don’t really need). I also try to remind myself how quickly electronics get outdated (look at a 4-year old iPad or iPhone and it looks like it is from a prehistoric time). But then remember when the original iPhone came out, how futuristic everyone thought it was.
I am also a sucker for clothes. Whenever I enter a mall, I will somehow wander into UNIQLO or some hipster boutique (with $200 flannel shirts). I see these advertisements that sucker me into thinking that once I buy those expensive clothes, I will be more creative, artsy, and important.
For example, Cindy’s younger sister works at the mall– and whenever we would go to pick her up, I would always happen to buy something at the mall (I didn’t need, and promptly returned the next day). Do I really need new clothes? No, the purpose of clothing is to keep me warm from the cold, nothing else. Fuck fashion, nobody gives a shit of how I look (except my insecure self-ego).
Enough is never enough for any of us.
Even if we do achieve some success in life, Seneca reminds us:
”Hope begets more hope, ambition more ambition.”
Furthermore, Seneca also tells us:
“The higher up you go, the greater the fall.”
Even though I have achieved some moderate “success” in my life; having done exhibitions with Leica and Fujifilm. Also having shown my work in Melbourne, Downtown LA, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Paris, Seoul, Cambodia. I’ve been interviewed for VICE, the BBC, Leica, Petapixel, Salon, The Candid Frame, and had work featured in Black and White Magazine and Popular Photography. I’ve done commercial work with Ford, Leica, Fujifilm, Ricoh, Olympus, Samsung, and I have also traveled to most of the big cities all around the world. I make my full-time living traveling and teaching workshops, and rubbing shoulders with other famous photographers.
Yet it is never enough.
I am still so jealous of those who are more famous and influential than me. I am jealous of Zack Arias, and the amount of influence and following that he has. I am jealous of Ming Thein, who is smarter than I am, and seems to make more money than I do. I am jealous of Steve Huff, who has more influence than me and a larger and more engaged community. I am jealous of Matt Stuart who is having his work featured all around the world with Leica. There are tons more people I am jealous of, not enough room here to include.
“As soon as we have some success, we seek more.” – Seneca
What is the solution to all of this? I need to learn how to be satisfied with what I have. I need to desire the life I already live, rather than looking up at those higher up on the mountain than me, hoping that I was where they currently are.
I need to stop bitching and moaning, comparing myself to others. I need to not compare myself with anybody; because my life situation is different from them. My circumstances, and my abilities are different from them. And no matter how rich, successful, handsome, or beautiful someone is– there is always someone else they are jealous of (or comparing themselves to).
What is the problem of being jealous and coveting what others have?
Once again to tie it back, it is a waste of time. Why should I be jealous — and waste my precious energy and time desiring the life that they have? Rather than sitting and plotting on how I can gain more money, power, and prestige; I need to look inwards and see how I can be use my (very short) time on Earth to make a difference.
So how do we find more gratitude in our lives?
One thing that has helped me; imagine myself from 5 years ago, and how much I would desire the life I currently live. My good friend (and manager) Neil Ta wrote this in a recent essay, “On Feeling Inadequate as a Photographer.”
So I reflect and appreciate how far I have come. Even taking it a step further back; I reflect on how grateful I am to have the life I have now.
I came from humble backgrounds; single mom with 3-part time jobs (cleaning houses, cashier, waitress), and not knowing whether the rent would be paid (it didn’t help that my dad didn’t work ever since I was 2 years old, or how he gambled away our rent money). I think about the fear that I had that we would be homeless the next month (a lot of stress for a 12 year old kid). I remember how frightened I was when I saw my parents fight, both physically and verbally. I remember how afraid I was when I would lock myself in my room, wishing that my parents would have money, and we could all live as happy family.
Also another tip; imagine life as a race, and even though you see others ahead of you, you must turn back and look at all of those behind you. We all know the cliche; think of the starving kids in Africa. But at the same time think about all the people in America (or the West) that would envy your nice camera, smartphone, car, home, income, and lifestyle.
I also try to remind myself whenever I bitch and moan about my “problems” in life, it is just a “first world problem.”
Another embarrassing story; you don’t know how much time I wasted and anguished over whether I should buy an iPhone 6, iPhone 6 plus, Galaxy S6, or Galaxy Note 4. I seriously lost sleep over this. Eventually I got lucky; Samsung gave me a free Galaxy S6, and even after getting it; I would still envy my friends who had iPhone 6’s and 6 plus’s. Sometimes I need to slap myself in the face.
My next experiment when I go back to Berkeley is this; trying to go a week without a smartphone. While traveling I have had this experiment; trying to uninstall an app a day. The other day I uninstalled Instagram and email from my phone. And wow, how much clarity of thought and happiness this has brought me. When traveling I only need a smartphone for Whatsapp and Google Maps; everything else is extraneous. Honestly, I probably can even do without those applications (but it is a luxury I enjoy).
What I want to change back home
So I want to practice what I preach; when I get home, I want to try to go a year without accumulating any more physical possessions. The only thing I might buy is a new laptop or computer; but I might see if I can just get by using my iPad and a keyboard. I will try not to buy any new clothes. I will try not to buy any more books (rather, enjoy the books I already own, and donate the ones I no longer read, or books that others would use better than I would).
I don’t want to have any desires for any more materialistic crap, and spend more time with friends, family, loved ones, to shoot without concern about external recognition, to not desire a new camera or equipment, a new car, new electronic devices. I want to be perfectly content with what I have, count my blessings, and appreciate what I already have. Even more so; to cut down and edit down my life (giving away more of my possessions).
I also want to eradicate the desire of wanting to be in a place other than Berkeley, of wanting more money, or wanting more comfort, of wanting to try out new restaurants, or to fall victim to any vices.
Remember friend, death is approaching, one day at a time.
Life isn’t short if we savor every minute of it, and live it to the fullest.
Written @ cafe in Stockholm. Aug 27, 2015 @ 3:14pm. After drinking an espresso (Nespresso), earl grey tea (with foamed almond milk), a long espresso (Espresso, with foamed almond milk), and a soy cappuccino at Cafe.
Some life updates:
The good news is that it looks like perhaps this weird throat-swelling thing was because espresso by itself is quite acidic, and caused some sort of acid-reflux that caused my throat to block up a bit. It seems adding some sort of “base” like almond milk (I’m lactose intolerant) has caused this to go away. I prefer espresso, but whatever– caffeine is caffeine.
I’m excited to visit my friend Mattias for dinner tonight with his family, and also to start my workshop in Stockholm tomorrow evening! Also super excited to almost be back home to Cindy, I miss her dearly. Flying back to Berkeley on Tuesday.
I wanted to share with you some thoughts that are on my mind:
The first thing that came to mind: “small is beautiful.”
So I have a problem; I am inflicted with this American obsession that “bigger is better.” We want bigger houses, we want bigger cars, we want bigger bank accounts (more money), we want cameras with bigger sensors (more megapixels), we want bigger houses, bigger closets (to put in more of our shit that we don’t really need), bigger screens on devices (think of the iPhone 6 plus), and a bigger circle of influence (everyone wants to be YouTube and social media famous).
One of the things that I learned from my 3 months abroad is this; all the material possessions I really “need” can fit into a backpack. The only things I truly “need” to be productive and produce information is a camera and some sort of typing device (can either be a smartphone or a laptop/tablet). As for my clothes, you probably already know that I only travel with two shirts (Uniqlo Airism) and two pairs of boxers (Exofficio) which quickly dry, as I wash them with shampoo in the shower every night. I only have one pair of pants (Uniqlo stretchy denim), and two pairs of socks (also quick-dry), and my trusty Nike Flyknit 4.0 (seriously the most comfortable and lightweight pair of shoes I have ever owned).
I don’t know if I told you this yet either, but I am moving to Vietnam next summer, and going to live there for a year with Cindy. I have a lot of shit in my house that I can’t take with me, so what am I going to do?
I have a plan; I want to go to Vietnam with no excess baggage. I only want to bring what I can fit into a single backpack (the trusty Thinktank Perception 15 I picked up in Aix-en-provence after I got my backpack stolen in Paris).
So what am I to do? I have a shitload of photo books that are just chilling in the closet, and haven’t been read for ages. I know that some of them are sold-out and quite rare and expensive. Rather than selling them on eBay or Amazon, I have a plan; I want to start giving them away to friends and other street photographers I know would love and appreciate them. I want to breathe new life into these books, rather than hoarding them. Perhaps I can throw a big party, invite all my friends, and let my friends take all the books they would like. Not only that, but for them to pay it forward, by continuing to give them to other photographers who might want to read them. I don’t want people to treat books like it “belongs” to them (or anybody for the matter). I want books to be “common property” — and to treat them almost like a public library.
And the thing is, is there a photo book that I truly love so much that I want to lug it all the way to Vietnam, and waste space in my tiny little backpack? To be honest, I don’t think there are any books that I truly love that much. My plan is this; to just bring my iPad and enjoy one of my favorite photographer’s images (Richard Avedon) on the free Avedon iPad app. I love photography books with all of my heart; I love the texture, the three-dimensionality, the feeling of flipping pages, the matte of the paper, the smell, and the feel of a physical object in my hands.
But honestly at the end of the day, to me, the image is the most important thing. I don’t care if I see an image as a print, in a book, or on a screen. As long as the image is able to evoke some sort of emotional response out of me, that is good enough.
Furthermore, I am lucky and blessed that all of my favorite photobooks can be seen online on the magnumphotos.com website.
I also very much like this idea of purging all of my physical things and starting afresh. In-fact, I try to apply this line of thinking everyday I wake up. I think to myself, “If today I was born anew, and was able to live this day without any baggage from the past, how would I live this day differently?”
A funny idea I had when I had my backpack stolen in Paris: what if I got my Leica stolen? Would I end up buying a new one?
The thought was actually quite exciting. In-fact, I wish I did infact get my Leica stolen, to see how I could start all over from scratch.
So this is advice I would give myself if I started shooting street photography all over again; just buy a digital Ricoh GR, and take photos of anything that interests you, without any sort of self-editing, or pressure or need to share or publish the images on the internet. To truly shoot for myself, and perhaps print out a few photos of the images that are truly meaningful to me. And also not to “chimp” and look at the photos, and let them “marinate” for at least a week (or better yet, a month) before looking at them.
I don’t know if I would tell myself to buy unnecessary hard drives or any other excess baggage. I’d probably shoot all the photos as JPEG+RAW, and have Google Photos Auto Uploader to store the 2000px wide photos to the cloud for free. And for my favorite images, I would save the full resolution images to Dropbox or Google Drive, (perhaps also Flickr). And for my absolute favorite images, I would print them out and hand them to friends, family, or anybody who would enjoy them.
I have long aspired to publish a photography book of my series of images, but the funny thing is that I find my ambition dampening. And it has given me a lot of peace of mind. I would love to publish a book one day, but I’m not in any hurry or rush. I will let the opportunity present itself to me naturally.
But what if I die in some freak car accident before I ever have a book of my own published? Honestly, I will be dead (so I would have no regrets). Not only that, but most of the people who follow me have already seen my photos online. So how much of me publishing my photos in a book is a self-vanity thing (trying to show off and preserve my “legacy”), or bringing some sort of value to the lives of others?
I thought something else of last night; I actually prefer prints over photobooks. Why? Well, a print is much easier (and affordable) to give away as a present, that brings so much happiness and joy to others. I’m not sure if you know, but all my images are free to download on Flickr (full-resolution) for people to print themselves. People can also download my entire portfolio (and do whatever they want with them) on Dropbox and Google Drive. Oh yeah by the way, while you’re reading this, don’t forget to download all the free e-books on street photography on Dropbox or Google Drive. In-fact, I have compiled all of my materials for free (and convenient) downloads on the new “Downloads” section of the blog.
I have no interest in making money off my prints. What do I prefer? Making a few extra hundred bucks selling prints, or spreading happiness and joy by giving it away with “no strings attached?”
To get back to the point, a print can be hung on the wall, admired everyday– whereas a photobook can only be appreciated when taken off the shelf, and looked at (with a nice coffee or glass of wine).
I also had another random idea; I want to start sharing more of my photos as prints, to make a small little collection of 10 photos and print them on some thick paper, and to send them to people who might appreciate them. I shot around 80 rolls of Tri-X black and white film (pushed to 1600) in Europe this summer, and that approach might be suitable. I need to remind myself; less is more. I would rather have 10 strong images from 80 rolls of film, rather than a mediocre book. I remember what I learned from Mary Ellen Mark; each photo should stand on its own, and I want to strive for every photo I share to be “iconic.”
I apologize for straying off the original point; that small is beautiful.
So let me share some other ways that I feel that small is beautiful in photography (and life):
1. Small laptop:
The benefit? It is portable, you can carry it with you everywhere, and you can do more writing anywhere you would like. I had an 11 inch Macbook Air as my only machine for about 3 years, and the smallness of the screen (and how light it was) was a huge benefit for me. Because the screen was so small, I couldn’t multi-task. This allowed me to be more focused on the thing at hand. Whereas in the past when I had two 24-inch monitors on my desktop computer, I would multi-task so much and never get anything done.
Multi-tasking is the death; simplicity is to have constraints.
Focusing is easy when you can only have one thing on the screen at a time. I think my next machine is the 12’’ Retina Macbook, as it is (even) lighter than my old 11’’ Macbook air, and I don’t need that much computing power. In-fact, I would imagine the benefit of getting an “underpowered” machine is that I won’t get tempted to buy any new digital cameras (with tons of megapixels that require a strong machine). It should be good enough to look at photos shot on a digital Ricoh (which I think is the only 1 camera I want to bring to Vietnam).
2. Small home:
I have long lamented that I wish I had a bigger apartment; to have more room for my photobooks, to have a private office to do my photography work, and more space to feel open, free, and inspired.
But I am quite fascinated with the idea of the “tiny home” movement; especially with the “life edited” tiny houses.
Cindy and I used to live in a 2-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, paying around $1,800 a month (before utilities). We had a spare bedroom that we thought “would be nice” to have guests over. But in reality, we rarely had guests (only one guest every few months)– and that extra room caused us a lot of stress. We wondered whether it was a good idea to rent it out, to host an AirBnb, or else it would go to “waste.”
The best thing we ended up doing was moving into a smaller 1-bedroom apartment (only $1,300 a month, with utilities included!) There have been so many benefits; we use our space more mindfully, we don’t accumulate shit we don’t need, and other practical stuff– it is easier to clean (fewer floor space to clean), the distance from the kitchen to the living room is much smaller (it is pretty much the same space), we have an extra $500 a month (we can actually afford to eat in San Francisco on the weekends!) and less stress about finances and rent. Not only that, but if I want to experience a bigger space, I just visit Artis, the local cafe with huge floor-to-ceiling windows and 2-story high ceilings. Why aspire to buy my own bigass modern house, when I can go to a cafe and enjoy the same experience for $2? (price of an espresso).
One of our dreams is in the future to buy our own home. If we do so, I want it to be smaller than we need it to be, and to enjoy every square inch of the house the fullest.
3. Small group of friends and photographers
Another realization I had in my life recently; I don’t want to “network” anymore. I only want to spend time with people that I love and care about. I don’t need any more money, power, fame, or influence. All my basic needs are met (food, water, shelter), and the only other things I “need” include love, companionship, and friendship. Was it Aristotle (or perhaps Socrates) who said that “friendship is the ultimate good”?
I once read, “You are the average of the 5 closest people to you.” That is a quote that has stuck with me for a long time.
Another quote from Seneca: “He who travels constantly has many acquaintances, but a few true friends.”
I want to start subtracting more from my life; to spend more time with people I care about, and less time with negative people, time-wasting people, and people who are just like dark clouds, doom, and gloom.
All I want in my life is 5 good friends, and to give them all my attention, love, and energy. Quality over quantity.
Similarly, I want to reduce the amount of photographers in my life, and who I am inspired by. I’ve studied so many of the masters of street photography, but there are only 3 who I want to consider being part of my “inner-circle.” They include:
At first I tried to think of 5, but I honestly couldn’t think of another 2 off the top of my head. Perhaps “3” is a better number than 5. So to redact my previous point; perhaps all I need in life is 3 really good friends.
I was reading “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca earlier, and he taught me all these great things on the topic of his second letter: “On Discursiveness in Reading”:
One of his words of wisdom:
“You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.”
So applied to photography, I should only linger among a few master photographers, revisit their work, and thoroughly digest their work.
Going back to that point that I mentioned earlier, here is the actual quote:
“When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends up having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Food does no good if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong.”
So what I need to do is subtract the number of photographers I am inspired in life by, and just thoroughly chew, digest, and absorb the inspiration and wisdom from the few master photographers I admire.
But what if I get bored of their photography, and crave something new? The master Seneca gave me some amazing advice:
“When you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before.”
I have been applying this philosophy to books in general; whenever I crave new books to read, I simply re-read the books that most influenced my life (Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, Tao Te Ching by Laozi, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius).
Another random quote I got from Seneca (via the philosopher Epicurus): “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” That is a nice reminder for me to be contented with what I already own and have in life, and not strive for more.
I also have an endless thirst for money and “security.” I am lucky in the sense that I have some control over my income. For example, if I want more money, I just can teach more workshops.
But I have been wondering, how much money do I truly need? At what point do I stop teaching workshops? I came up wit a good rule for myself: “Would I do this activity if I didn’t get paid; and would do it for free?” If the answer is “yes”, it is an honorable activity that is worth doing. I am so lucky that I love doing workshops with all of my heart; I love bringing people together, helping build their confidence, and bringing joy into their lives. And yes, I have taught many free workshops in the past, with equal amounts of enthusiasm (as if I were being paid). So in the future, I plan on doing more free community-oriented workshops (especially for those who cannot afford them), give out more free scholarships, and continue to do “paid” workshops to pay the bills.
Seneca also gave me some good advice about money:
“Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is first, to have what is necessary, and second, to have what is enough.”
So what is really “necessary” in my life? Paying for food (cheap, I can survive off eggs), paying for water (cheap, I can drink tap water), paying for rent (not as cheap in the San Francisco Bay Area, but still do-able).
And what is “enough” in my life? The things I already own. I don’t need new clothes (two pairs of clothes is sufficient), I don’t need a new camera, I don’t need a new laptop (although it would be nice, as the keyboard on this $300 Lenovo Windows 8 laptop I bought at the airport in Lisbon has an unresponsive keyboard).
I don’t need a new smartphone, I don’t need any new photobooks, I don’t need any new philosophy books, I don’t need any new friends, I don’t need more money, I don’t need to travel to any new places, I don’t need a fancy espresso machine (tempting, but I prefer going to the cafe), I don’t need to try out any new restaurants (already had amazing food from all around the word, how much more variety does my tongue need?)
I don’t need more followers on social media (currently deleted all the social media apps from my phone, wow, what a great sense of serenity this has brought me), I don’t need more information (the less “junk-food” media I get from TV, magazines, and the internet, the better. One of the reasons I don’t own a TV, surf the internet and blogs”, or subscribe to magazines which are 80% advertisements), I don’t need appreciation or admiration from others (I should be content with myself).
I don’t need to leave a legacy (we’re all going to die and be forgotten anyways), I don’t need a gym membership (pushups, one-legged squats, and chin ups are sufficient), I don’t need bullshit, fear, and negativity.
Wow, I didn’t realize that there was so few things that I really “needed” in my life.
4. Small geographic area
Another idea I have been meditating on a lot; I don’t need to see the world. The whole world is in my own backyard.
One of my problems is this; I always crave and seek novelty. I am never happy where I am. Even when I was in Istanbul, I remember when I was on Facebook and was jealous of my friend sipping a Corona on the sandy beaches of the Caribbeans. I am an ungrateful bastard. After all, how many other people in the world would be jealous of me being in Istanbul? I always want what is out of my reach, and am never satisfied.
Once again Seneca comes to the rescue; he gave me this advice (which was initially written to his friend Lucilius):
“Judging by what you write me, and by what I hear, I am forming a good opinion regarding your future. You do not run hither and thither and distract yourself by hanging your abode, for such restlessness is a sign of a disordered spirit. The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.”
Once again, my problem is that I always seek novelty in terms of my environment. Even though my apartment in Berkeley is lovely (I have a nice light-wood birch table that I got at the clearance aisle of IKEA that is smooth to the touch, and faces the railroad from my window, where I can see lots of trees, grass) I always crave to get out of the house, and to go to hipster cafes and do work. But I need to enjoy spending more time at home.
But I always make excuses; I always tell myself that I can only get writing done at a cafe, because I prefer the company of others. But in reality, I can get writing done anywhere, and shouldn’t seek to always change my abode.
For example, the last two days I’ve been here in Stockholm, I’ve enjoyed staying at my friend Brian’s home, without the need to go outside. After all, I got peace, quiet, access to superfast wifi (without feeling guilty to ask the barista for it), a toilet (no worries about people stealing my stuff at a cafe when I need to piss), free coffee and tea, and power outlets (I seriously get anxiety when my battery runs low on my laptop and smartphone). And damn; I have been productive. I’ve been able to focus and write an epic article on Mary Ellen Mark, the freedom and space to think and meditate on my own, and also to do some yoga, stretches, and exercise.
I think I have come up with a small epiphany: The best cafe is your own kitchen. And the best place to write is wherever you are sitting. And the best place to take photos is in your own backyard.
You also know me; I am an extreme extrovert. According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, I am an “ESFP” — which means that I gain energy from being in the company of others. But at the same time, I don’t want to distill my entire personality and human soul into 4 arbitrary letters, as my friend Lara taught me at a recent workshop I had in London. I want to be able to “remain in one place, and linger in my own company” (while enjoying it).
So perhaps the solution is to learn to spend more time by myself. I still love to see my friends, and enjoy a nice dinner with people I love and care about. So perhaps the solution is this; block off all my time in the morning, and only dedicate that time for myself. Then meet friends in the afternoon or evening, and don’t work for the rest of the day.
One lesson I learned from Nassim Taleb from his excellent book: “Antifragile” is to never plan a meeting a day in advance. Otherwise, I will feel like a prisoner. What if I start writing in the morning, and I get into a deep “flow” state, and can go on writing for another 5 hours, but I have a “meeting” or lunch appointment? Then effectively, my entire day is ruined.
So I just need to make more white space in my life; fewer appointments, only with people I truly love and want to see.
But how can I best enjoy my time alone? I can use time to read more, to write more (the thing that brings me the most satisfaction in life), to daydream more (take more naps instead of just bombarding my system with more caffeine and espressos), and to just chill the fuck out without feeling that I need to “do” anything and be “productive.”
I often preach that “the best photos to take are in your own backyard.” Unfortunately, even I have a hard time sticking to this rule. Living in Berkeley, I see San Francisco as so much more interesting. Fortunately I have done a lot of urban landscapes in Berkeley, which brought me a lot of pleasure– especially with the “zen” nature of shooting 6×6 on the Hasselblad. To be honest, none of the photos that came out really pleased me (ironically enough, many of the urban landscapes I shot on my smartphone, I preferred).
Now that I have been on the road for about 3 months away from home, and looking at Berkeley from a distance– it is such a cool place, ripe with so many photo opportunities. Surprisingly, a lot of people from Europe actually know where Berkeley is. Not only that, but historically Berkeley is famous for being the epicenter of the “free speech movement” as well as other socio-political and civil issues — tackling issues like racism and same-sex marriage. It is always easy to get jaded by your own hometown; but I have a dedicated plan when I get back home: to only shoot street photography in Berkeley for the next month, without any desire to shoot in San Francisco.
The thing too is that there are very few photographers who have done substantial bodies of work in Berkeley. San Francisco, LA, and New York have already been shot to death. I want to shoot my own city with as much vigor and energy as possible; from the perspective of an insider, not an outsider.
I was talking with my buddy Brian Spark and he brought up a good point to me; there tend to be two different types of photographers. First, there is the type of photographer who travels to exotic locations, and takes ordinary photos of interesting things. Secondly, there are photographers who take photos in their own boring town, but make them extraordinary. I want to be the second type of photographer.
5. Small books/prints
Another thing I discovered is that I actually prefer small prints and small photo books. I hate huge photobooks which are huge, expensive, and difficult to hold, and read.
The smaller photobooks are more beautiful, more personal, more affordable, and more manageable.
One of my favorite photobooks is Jason Eskenazi’s “Wonderland” — which is the size of a small paperback book. The pages fold flat (workss well with the horizontal spreads), and it is easy to take with you everywhere you go.
Similarly, if you aspire to make huge prints, you have lots of problems. First of all, they are really expensive, difficult to frame (also expensive to frame), and you need a huge wall or space to hang them. Smaller prints (4×6, 8×12’’, my favorite sizes) are easy to carry around, give to friends, and to edit series or sequence projects. Because they are smaller, they force the viewer to hold the images closer to their faces, which forces them to be more engaged with the images, and for the viewer to try hard to look at the details. This is much more “interactive” than a big ass print in a famous gallery, which looks down at you (rather than you looking at it).
So moving forward, I don’t plan on publishing my work as huge, expensive, “art pieces.” Rather, I want them to be small, simple, inexpensive, humble, and easily accessible to the masses.
To conclude, I will just ramble off some other ideas where “small is beautiful” and much more preferable to big, fancy, and expensive:
Benefit of small cameras: inexpensive, light, easier to carry with you, always with you, chance to catch more “decisive moments.”
Benefit of small cars: cheaper, more fun to drive, better on fuel economy, easier to park, easier to wash, and less pretentious.
Benefit of small phones: easier to text with one hand, smaller battery is a benefit (you learn to use your phone less, and not be a slave to your phone), cheaper (iPhone 6 plus and Note 4 “phablets” are quite expensive), fits more easily in the pocket.
Benefit of small bags: you carry less shit with you, you probably will only bring one camera and one lens (and a few rolls of film or batteries), less strain on the shoulders and back, less expensive than bigger bags, easier to put under the space under your feet in planes.
Benefit of a small (yet well curated) library: you only own the photobooks you truly love, don’t need to buy more shelves, gives you the chance to re-read more of your books, helps save you money, and saves space (especially if you live in a small apartment).
Benefit of a small closet: you have less “decision anxiety” when deciding what to wear in the morning, you spend less money on clothes (you have less space to fill your closet with). Apparently Steve Jobs only had one “uniform” (black turtleneck, blue jeans) so he didn’t have to stress what to wear. Similarly, Barack Obama only owns two suits (black and navy blue) so he can reserve his “decision-energy” on more important things (like world politics).
Benefit of small kitchen: you don’t accumulate useless “labor-saving” devices from IKEA, like blenders, onion choppers, avocado peelers, and waffle irons (honestly, how often do we use these appliances?) Also you have fewer cups, pots, pans, and dishes– so there is less stress of having them fitting neatly in the cupboards.
Benefit of small bank account: it sucks to have little money in the bank account (I grew up not knowing if we’d be homeless the next month), but it is true that “hunger breeds sophistication” — that the fewer options and choices we have, we are forced to be more creative. For example, the concept behind Airbnb was that two guys had a space living room and air mattress, and thought it would be a good idea to rent their living room (and air mattress) to make a few bucks on the side. Also in the beginning, the founders of Airbnb didn’t have enough money to advertise their startup, so they came up with ingenious ways; like giving away free cereal boxes. Now they are a multi-billion dollar company. Almost all great inventions and ideas are out of necessity. Rarely do great ideas come from mega-rich individuals or companies swimming in millions of dollars for their “R&D teams.”
Don’t have enough money for a fancy camera in photography? Harness the creative potential of your smartphone. Don’t have money to travel? Shoot your own backyard. Don’t have money for photobooks? See them online for free at magnumphotos.com. Can’t afford to print your own photo book? Either make them available online for free, or print them on-demand (blurb.com) so there is no startup cost.
Benefit of small notebooks: you only write down your best ideas, are more frugal with your space, improve your handwriting, and easier to carry around.
Benefit of small ambitions: you are rarely disappointed (preferably never disappointed), and you live a life more true to yourself, rather than relying on the admiration of others for self-fulfillment.
Benefit of small storage space/hard drive: you delete excess crap, which forces you to “edit down” and focus on what is truly essential. If you have a phone with limited storage, this means following the “via negativa” approach of uninstalling one app a day, rather than trying to add a new app everyday. And the funny thing, the fewer apps I have on my phone, the more productive and focused I am.
Let me leave you off with one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes:
“That’s been one of my mantras– focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Farewell my friend, and Godspeed,
Written @ the home of Brian Sparks, with an espresso in the morning (damn Nespresso machine are convenient), an earl grey tea (with foamed almond milk), and another espresso (long) with some foamed almond milk on top. 12:15pm, 8/26/2015, before meeting up Brian and my friend Mattias for lunch :)
I believe photography (and life) is more about subtraction (instead of addition).
I’m re-reading “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb, and his chapter on “Via Negativa” is absolutely golden.
The concept is that in modern life, we think the secret to happiness, success, and health is “via positiva” (adding things to our life). But true wisdom in life is “via negativa” (by subtraction).
Taleb brings up great examples how subtraction is what creates beauty and art.
For example, the idea that statues are created by subtraction. Even when Michelangelo carved the famous “David”, he said it was quite simple– he just let David “free” by carving him out of the stone.
Similarly, happiness is best dealt as a negative concept– meaning that avoiding unhappiness bring us more happiness than “seeking happiness”.
For example, removing 1 negative person from your life will bring you more happiness than adding 10 positive people to your life. 1 rotten egg can ruin the whole basket of eggs. One red sweater thrown into the washing machine full of white clothes will turn all the other clothes pink.
To take another example, roman philosopher Seneca also shares the importance of keeping your distance from negative people. Imagine this: if you walked through a sewer, you would smell like shit and piss. Similarly, when you spend time around negative people who gossip about others, seek shallow things (fame, money), or constantly complain about life, their negative views on life will taint us.
So the solution? Subtract, don’t add to your life.
One of the books that has most influenced my life is the “Tao Te Ching” — a classic book on Taoism and how to live life happily without stress and anxiety. I recommend most the version by Stephen Mitchell.
One of the quotes in the book says something like this: The fool tries to do 1 more thing everyday, but the master tries to remove 1 thing everyday.
I have tried to apply this philosophy of removing 1 thing from my life everyday.
For example, I believe in the concept of 1 camera, 1 lens. For all the cameras I didn’t use, I gave them to friends or those in need. In the past I have given away a Ricoh GR1v (my friend Josh White), a Fujifilm x100s (my friend Vu in Vietnam), x100t (surprised a kid named Lance who is autistic), XT-1 (my friend Joe Aguirre), Canon 5D (my friend Michelle’s younger brother who went to photography school), Canon 350D (one of my best friends Justin), Ricoh GR (Cindy), Pentax K3 (my friend Mehdi), Contax T3 (my friend Marlon whose camera broke), Leica M6 (friend Bill Reeves).
Giving away cameras has brought me infinitely more joy than hoarding them myself. After all, you can only ever use one camera or one lens at a time. I read an ancient Greek saying that no matter how rich you are or how many mansions you have, you can only ever sleep in 1 bed at a time.
Not only that, but having fewer choices is less anxiety and stress. So in a sense, giving away these cameras has been a selfish thing– because it brings me joy, less stress and anxiety, and the “feel good” emotion. But I do believe that if a tool (camera) can empower people, why not give it away and help others in need, or those who can use it to create art? I am just now left with the Leica MP and 35mm lens, which is all I need (until I get my next episode of GAS, Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
How do you make better street photos? Subtract from the frame, don’t add.
If you shot everything with a fisheye lens, your photos would be boring. Why? You are too general. By photographing everything, you photograph nothing.
What you want to do instead is be like a surgeon, and slice out very specific pieces of reality. You want your lens to be like a magnifying glass and to highlight what exactly in the world you find interesting.
Albert Einstein has a quote that says something like: “Make it simple as possible, but not simpler.”
So applied in street photography, constantly try to cut and subtract from the frame. Protip: subtract from distracting elements from the background by looking at the edges of the frame.
One of my favorite photographers of all-time is Richard Avedon, who made a career of shooting powerful and emotional portraits of people against white backgrounds. Why did he do this? It helped prevent the viewer from being distracted, and to only focus on the essential of his subjects: their face, body language, and soul.
Another idea: try to travel less, and try to see less of your own city. Cut out a specific slice of a city, and get to know that area very well, rather than trying to see everything. This is also a good strategy for traveling. See less of the city, but get to know it better.
Also with photography projects: a tight edit is preferable over a loose edit. Meaning, I would rather look at 10 amazing photographs than 50 “okay” photos in a book. Borrowed from photographer Todd Hido, aim for your photography series to be “all killer, no filler.”
One strategy I try to employ on my Flickr is to constantly subtract from it, not to add to it. Every few months I go back and mark photos that I no longer think is good to “private.” My dream is that by the end of my life, I will only be remembered for one photograph (currently my photo of the laughing woman in New York City).
In-fact, I think a noble goal of a photographer is to just be remembered for 1 meaningful photograph. Even the most famous photographers in history like Henri Cartier-Bresson are known for only 1 famous shot (Bicycle shot by Cartier-Bresson), the “Kid with Gun” photo by William Klein, “Napalm girl” by Nick Ut, or “Twins” by Diane Arbus.
So the secret to becoming a memorable photographer? Make at least 1 memorable photograph in your lifetime– a difficult yet attainable goal.
In terms of finding your style in photography, it is all about figuring out what you don’t like to photograph.
For example, I discovered “street photography” because I realized I didn’t like to shoot landscapes, HDR, macro photos, baby photos, wedding photos, product photos, etc. My first love of black and white came out of the reason that I despised the way that digital color photos looked. So by process of elimination and subtraction, I discovered I loved street photography.
When I first started street photography, I hated “posed” looking photographs. So I discovered my “style” of candid street photographs. However as time has gone on, I discovered that I am starting to dislike taking random candid photos of people. I prefer interacting with my subjects, so I am now focusing more on shooting “street portraits”, in which I ask for permission and engage with my subjects.
Also if you want to build a stronger vision as a photographer, it is quite easy– don’t look at “shitty” photos. I avoid photos of cats, food, and HDR photos like the plague. While there is also great photos on social media and Instagram, I am trying to “fast” from social media. The only photos I trust are from the “masters” of street photography, in which their work has stood the test of time. If a photographer’s work has been around for 20 years, it will probably still be relevant 20 years from now. But a photographer whose work has only been around for 2 years only has a good likelihood of being around 2 years from now. So avoid fads in photography, stick with the classics and what has been around for a long time.
Even in books, I trust 2000+ old philosophy texts from Stoicism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, rather than read self-help books published just a year or two ago.
You know that I always preach: “Buy books, not gear.” But at the end of the day, I don’t want you to own 1000+ photography books. At the end of the day, I want you to have a well-curated library of books that you really love and are inspired by. It is better to have 5 photography books in your library that you read over and over again, than having 500 books that you only read once or twice.
Seneca gives sound advice in his book: “Letters From a Stoic” in which he says something like, “Whenever you are bored with your books and seeking to read something new, don’t try to read new books. Rather, return to the books you have already read, and re-read and re-discover them. It is better to know a few authors very well, than to know many authors superficially.”
Also with social media, try to focus on the bare essentials. Subtract from your social media diet, don’t add. In many ways, I think social media is like fast food or McDonalds. Sure you have a burger and fries one and a while and you will be fine. Eat chicken nuggets every day, and your health will be shitty.
I have a personal rule: I try to uninstall one application from my smartphone everyday. If I haven’t used an application for a week, I uninstall it. Same with social media, I try to be less active on social media. At the moment I am down to just Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Google+. If I could just choose one it would be Instagram (the most popular one at the moment). But if I could really choose just one, it would be none of them, and the only “social media” I would use is the blog.
So in terms of your influences in photography, just choose 3 photographers or so who inspire you the most, and stick with them. It is better to have 3 best friends than 100 acquaintances. So rather than trying to constantly learn more about different photographers and seeking novelty, seek depth over breadth. Practical suggestion: browse the “Learn From the Masters” series, and once you stumble upon a photographer you like, buy all of their books, watch all their interviews on YouTube, see all their exhibitions, learn about their life and biography, and try to imitate their style for a year.
If you want to become great, you need a mentor or tutor. And we are so blessed with the internet, we have access to any of these great masters of photography in history. When you go out and shoot or edit your images, think to yourself: What would “Photographer X” do, say, or encourage me to do? And one again, less is more– try not to choose more than 1 tutor at a time. As humans we can only do 1 thing very well at a time.
Subtraction in photography is also perfectly mirrored in the idea of “creative constraints.” Having limits in our photography gives us true freedom.
So subtract your options in photography: subtract the cameras and lenses you own, subtract the areas in which you shoot, subtract the number of photographers you look at, subtract the number of photographers you meet with, subtract the subject-matter in your projects (focus on just one type of subject matter), subtract distractions from the backgrounds of your photos, subtract the amount of electronic gadgets from your life, subtract negative people, subtract unhealthy food, and subtract negative self-thoughts (I am not good enough in photography, my photos suck, I will never be good enough).
Less is more.
Show fewer photos online, upload fewer photos, and remember, you’re only as good as your weakest photo.
One of the main reasons I’m (currently) switching back to black and white is because sometimes color can be a distraction. Ultimately I am more interested to show emotions and the soul of people, not the color of their clothes. So by removing color from my images, I can add more to the emotion and soul of my subjects.
So fellow streettog, I encourage you to subtract more in your life and photography. Ultimately, I want you to be happy. Subtract negative thoughts, shitty people, and stress from your life. Edit down your images, remember less is more, and simplify as much as possible (but not simpler).
I want to leave you with these quote from Steve Jobs (one of my heroes in my life):
Focus is all about saying “no” and subtraction:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying “no” to 1,000 things.”
Subtract the opinions of others from your life:
“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
Subtract doing extraneous bullshit from your life, and focus on what’s important for you in your life:
“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Farewell, and Godspeed my friend!
Written @ Exmouth Coffee, London, 9:06am, after 1 doppio espresso and 1 almond milk cappuccino (good coffee is proof that God exists)
I just finished reading a book by Roman philosopher Epictetus, titled “Of Human Freedom.” It got me thinking a lot about my own freedom in life, how to be happy in all situations, and how to treat some of the “diseases of my mind.”
One of the things that I found the most interesting was how one can be happy despite his/her circumstances.
For example, let’s say that we wish that we had more time to shoot, we wish we had more money (to travel, buy gear, books), that we wished we lived in a different city, that we were younger or picked up photography earlier, that we were more famous, had more Instagram followers, got more “likes” and meaningful comments on our photos, if we were more inspired, or if we knew more interesting photographers in our own home city.
What is the problem with all of these things I just mentioned? They are all thing that are out of our control. Sure we do have some control of these things, but complete control? Not at all.
How do we be happy, undisturbed, and grateful in all circumstances in life regardless of our situation in life?
One of the secrets is to find the hidden benefit of every “negative” in our life.
For example, let’s say that you don’t have that much free time to shoot. Rather than complaining or feeling frustrated that your day job doesn’t allow you more time and flexibility for your photography, you can see this as a benefit. By having limited time, you don’t waste your time when you actually do have time to shoot. You are more grateful for your time, and you end up shooting with more focus, intensity, and drive.
In-fact, the common mistake I see photographers make is hoping that they had unlimited time to shoot. In reality, too much free time makes us lethargic, lazy, unmotivated, and uninspired. Sometimes the constraints of a day job in terms of time helps us to be more inspired.
Let’s say you wish you picked up photography at a younger age. You might have traveled a lot in your life, and regretted not having taken photos at that time.
But picking up photography at a later time in your life can be a benefit. Why? When you’re older, you have more wisdom, life experiences, time, and money to pursue your passion.
“But what if I am really old and don’t have many years of my life to live, I will probably pass away in 10 years, if I’m lucky!”
Well, remember; it doesn’t matter how long you photograph, but how well you photograph. Life is like a play, if we are an actor, it doesn’t matter how long we perform on stage. What matters is the quality of our acting. I would rather be a photographer who shot for only 5-10 years and created 1 great body of work, rather than a photographer who shot mediocre landscape and HDR photos for 50 years.
Let’s say that you own a “shitty” camera, and that you wish that you had the newest and flashiest camera. You might be frustrated by the poor image quality, the low-ISO performance, or how soft your lens is.
But remember, this can be a benefit.
Well, if your camera doesn’t have good image quality, then you really have to find good light to shoot in. Any camera, regardless of how poor, will perform well if you have good light. So now you will begin to pursue to shoot only in conditions and situations where the light is actually good. This ends up being a benefit.
Let’s say that your lens isn’t sharp. Well, isn’t it Henri Cartier-Bresson who said: “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”? In-fact, I dislike photos that are too sharp. Sometimes I prefer softer lenses, which evoke more of a dreamy look and feel.
For example, Junku Nishimura, a talented Japanese street photographer, shoots with a Leica M5 (commonly called the “ugliest” Leica camera ever made) and an old 50mm Summaron lens (known to be very soft and unsharp). But this helps him create a unique look in his work, that evokes the past. If he shot with a high-end digital camera with super sharp lenses, his images wouldn’t have the same emotion and feel.
Another common complaint a lot of photographers have: that they wish they lived somewhere else; that their own hometown is “boring.”
But know that “boring” is just an opinion. You can live in New York City or Tokyo and still call it “boring.” It is all a state of mind, and how you see things.
If you were an alien that just landed on earth, imagine how interested you would be in your own neighborhood. Consider all the interesting people, buildings, and sights.
Another benefit of living in a “boring” city; it hasn’t been photographed as much, which means you have a greater opportunity to make a unique body of work. Mark Cohen photographed in a very “boring” town for his entire life, and still was able to make a strong body of work.
Also the benefit of photographing your own city is this: you know your own town better than any tourist. You know what shots are “cliche” and not, and you also know the paths off the beaten path.
Let’s say that you don’t have any followers on social media, and that you are a “nobody.” That can’t possibly be a benefit, can it?
Well, sometimes it is a blessing to be unknown. Saul Leiter shot his entire life in obscurity, and only enjoyed fame later in his life in his 70’s and onwards. But he found this to be a true blessing, because he wasn’t bothered by anybody. He could simply shoot how he wanted, without feeling constrained by the expectations of anybody else. I’m sure even if Saul Leiter wasn’t “discovered” before he died, he would still be supremely happy.
Let me bring in a personal example; I recently got my 11 Macbook Air laptop stolen in Paris. Instead, I bought a cheap Lenovo Windows 8 tablet/laptop device for 300 euros, which isn’t the fastest or most capable machine. I missed all of my Apple software (Pages, iBooks author) which I was using to produce my new free e-books on street photography.
But the benefit of getting my laptop stolen and using a weaker machine is this: I discovered the joy of working on the Google cloud, and have enjoyed using Google Slides (see my free presentation: “7 Lessons From the Masters of Street Photography”), and Google Docs (which I am currently using this to write). Not only that, but I know that even if I fell into poverty and could only afford a cheap laptop, I wouldn’t be encumbered or held back by lack of technology. Whenever I think that my computer, smartphone, or camera isn’t capable enough, that is just me making excuses. My mind is always the ultimate limit.
When I am traveling, I am limited by the stuff I am able to carry. I don’t have access to my photography books, to my scanner, or other digital equipment. All I literally have with me at the moment is my laptop, smartphone, film Leica camera, film, ThinkTank Perception 15 backpack (brilliant, bought it after my backpack got stolen), Kindle, Moleskine notebook, extra Uniqlo Airism shirt and Exofficio boxers, and that’s it.
But having limited space while traveling ends up being a benefit, I learn how to cut the extraneous things from my life, and only focus on the essentials.
Let’s say that you wish you had more photography books in your library. I had a phase in which I bought 1-2 photo books a week, but the problem was that I only looked at them once or twice, never to be seen again.
The benefit of only owning a few photobooks is that you get to know them really well. In-fact, I think it is better to just own 3 photography books you really really like than have a library of hundreds of books that you barely look at. For those of you who are curious what 3 books I would keep it would be “Exiles” and “Gypsies” by Josef Koudelka, and “Chromes” by William Eggleston.
Ultimately I think the goal in our photography shouldn’t be to become rich, famous, influential, to publish a lot of books, have a lot of exhibitions, own a lot of Leica’s, or to be written in the history books. Our goal should be to seek happiness, self-contentment, and peace of mind in our photography.
Taken a step further, photography isn’t the most important thing in our lives. It is to live a happy life. Photography is just a hobby which supplements our life.
As my friend Josh White says, the goal isn’t to be a photographer and make interesting photos. The goal is to live an interesting and meaningful life, and happen to take photos along the way– of your loved ones, family, friends, and moments which give you purpose and make you feel alive.
As a parting thought remember: You can be happy in all circumstances in your life, regardless of the external situations. Also remember, you can turn all negatives into a positive. It is all a matter of how you perceive and interpret reality.
Think to yourself: “What are some frustrations or restrictions that I have in my photography or life that I can turn into benefits?” How can limited time, limited money, and limited camera equipment help me be more creative, happy, and grateful in my life?
Fellow streettog, I wish you good luck, happiness, prosperity, and inner-freedom and tranquility. Now go seize the day!
Written at Exmouth coffee roasters, London, 12:39pm, with a lovely drip coffee (low acidity blend over some ice cubes)
Share some of your thoughts of how a negative an be a positive by leaving a comment below!
I ultimately want to be happy. But unfortunately there are a lot of sources of dissatisfaction in my life. There are a lot of things I want to change about my life, and my outlook in the world.
In this article I want to share some of the 10 deepest sources of dissatisfaction I’ve had in my life, and strategies I’ve been able to cope with these issues. I hope this can help give you some sort of help (if you’re dealing with similar issues as me).
I have a problem. I have really high expectations for myself. I want to become the best photographer I possibly can, the best teacher I possibly can, and also the best blogger that I possibly can.
I put a lot of pressure on myself.
I put pressure on myself to constantly be shooting, to constantly be improving my teaching, and to also constantly be writing.
But I often feel that having too high expectations for myself is counter-productive. I feel that putting so much pressure on myself has lead to fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Not only that, but the more pressure I put on myself— the worse I actually perform.
What is the antidote that worked for me? Having no expectations.
For this chapter I want to focus on a section which I think is important for everyone in life: learning how to be happy, fulfilled, and content with your street photography (and your personal life).
Happiness is one of the most elusive things in the world– which we have always chased for millennia. However the problem is that we often go down the rabbit hole and follow the wrong things. We try to chase money, fame, power, wealth, prestige– all external forms of recognition to confer “happiness” unto ourselves.
However happiness is more than that– happiness is an inner-state, which can be controlled by you (not affected by external conditions).
How do we seek to gain more happiness, purpose, and contentment in our photography and lives? Let us seek the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius in “The Meditations”:
In one of the chapters, I stumbled upon “12 Scientifically Proven Ways to Have More Happiness in Life” via the book “The How of Happiness“. The list is as follows:
Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
Practicing Acts of Kindness
Nurturing Social Relationships
Developing Strategies for Coping
Learning to Forgive
Increasing Flow Experiences
Savoring Life’s Joys
Committing to Your Goals
Practicing Religion and Spirituality
Taking Care of Your Body
I found the list to echo everything in the self-help and philosophic literature I have read so far. And of course in the spirit of this blog– I wanted to link the concepts of happiness and street photography.
So how can you “scientifically” gain more happiness in street photography? Here are some ideas I glued together:
I think I can speak on behalf of all of us that we all want to be happy. In some shape, way, or form.
Over the years I have thought a lot about happiness. How to “optimize” my life to become “happier.” How to avoid unhappiness in my work, relationships, and my sense of purpose in the world.
There are countless books written on the topic of happiness, and trust me– I have read almost all of them. I am quite addicted to “self-help” books, and always looking to better improve myself. And of course one thing I wanted to increase was my own personal “happiness.”
Street photography is one of the biggest passions in my life. I spend a large amount of time either shooting on the streets, blogging about street photography, tweeting about street photography, and talking/thinking about street photography. But why do I love it so much and why does it bring me a lot of happiness?
The answer is “Flow“–as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it. I’m sure all of you guys have experienced this when shooting on the streets. You go out and take photos, and become totally immersed in the experience and forget a sense of time or space. You can be out for hours shooting, and don’t even realize that time is passing by.
Whenever I am on the streets and shooting, I feel pure euphoria. I am out there in almost a zen-like state–simply wandering wherever I want to go, while capturing the beauty in the mundane. I meet interesting people, and I experience fascinating and new places. There is no feeling quite like it.
However the problem that many street photographers (myself included) face is that we lose sight of what really makes us happy (shooting photos) and we chase other things such as fame, wealth, or prestige. Would making a few bucks out of our photographs really make us happier? Will the $6900 Leica M9 make us happier? If we become as famous as Henri Cartier-Bresson–will that make us happier? I beg to disagree.
After watching the TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow and his theory on the matter– I am convinced that the true happiness I will gain out of street photography is quite simple and in front of me. Shooting in the streets.
For those of you who are interested in watching the TED video that inspired me, take 20 minutes out of your day to truly change your perception about photography, happiness, and life. And if you are really interested in the subject, purchase his book on Amazon titled Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness.
So my question to you guys is that do you experience this zen-like feeling of “flow” when you are shooting on the streets as well? Leave a comment below and let us know what your experiences are like!
“What do I want out of photography” has been a question I have been grappling with for the last few weeks. When I was still in school, I had barely any time to even practice my photography, let alone contemplate what I wanted out of it.
However now, after graduating college and having more free time than ever, I have found myself in a quite stagnant position—sort of a limbo. Having always been so busy, I didn’t know what to do with myself with all of this free time. I then started to fill up all of my free time preoccupying myself by going out and taking more photos, working more on my website and blog, as well as participating more on Flickr and my friends’ blogs. However it seems that by the end of every day, I feel unsatisfied and wanting for more.
What do I want out of photography? Money, fame, prestige? Well I’m definitely not in it for the money. I have noticed that the more my photography gets involved with money, the less that I enjoy it and it becomes more of a job than a passion for me. Is it for the fame?I doubt that I will ever be as famous as Henri-Cartier Bresson or any of the other great street photographers without being a full-blown photojournalist or anything of the sort. The prestige?Sure I love attention (as does everyone else in the world) and enjoy having my work appreciated. However, I don’t want to ever become an “elitist” of any sort, congregating with snobby photographers and self-proclaimed “artists.”
I know I want to spread my love of photography to others. I love being a teacher—especially when it comes to photography. Nothing gets me more excited than teaching the basics of photography to an eager beginner. Being one of the co-founders and the president of The Photography Club at UCLA was one of my greatest joys. I want to give the gift of photography especially to those who do not have access to it, be it social or economic reasons. Something along the lines of “Kids with Cameras,” a non-profit situated in Calcutta, India which teaches children in the red-light district photography, while providing aid and support as well.
Although being a photographer is a very individualistic practice, it is beautiful to participate in a community as well. It is impossible to say that a photographer is completely original in his or her photography. He or she will always draw inspiration from other photographers merely by looking at the photographs of others. Like what Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy, bad artists steal.”
They say that money doesn’t buy happiness. To bridge this into photography, neither does the number of views, comments, favorites, or subscribers that your website or Flickr has. In real life, it is not the number of friends that one that dictates their happiness and satisfaction with life, but rather the few and powerful connections that one has with his close circle of friends. Therefore it must not be the popularity that one has with their photography which brings them satisfaction, but the support circle that they have with their friends, family, and other fellow photographers.
A photographer that only seeks fame is doomed to be miserable. It is a never-ending quest, as there will always be a photographer more talented, popular, or skilled than oneself. This is definitely a path that all photographers should avoid at all costs.
Focusing on having a relationship with a close circle of photographers is crucial. The support that a photographer gets from others is the energy that continues to drive one another in going out and continuing their photography. A photographer that walls him or herself in without any support from others is a photographer who will have difficulty pursuing his or her art.
In writing this, it seemed that my vision has been clarified. I guess to find the true meaning of my photography, I need to do what I (as a sociologist) have always known, but lost sight of. That is to create community, teach, and share.