Don’t Be a Slave

SF, 2015
SF, 2015
SF, 2015

Read as a Google Doc (feel free to suggest edits), or download and print out the PDF.

I am a slave. I am a slave to others’ opinions of me. I am a slave to material things. I am a slave to my bank account and money. I am a slave of my wardrobe, of my cameras, my material possessions, my gadgets, my smartphone, my friends, my health, and everything external from me.

Not only that, but I have compromised a lot in the past. I have compromised my morals, my principles, what I believe in– all for fearing that others might judge me, that others would hate on me, that I would become broke and homeless, and that ultimately nobody would love me.

I’m a slave the comments I get on the blog, to the number of “likes” I get on Instagram, or the amount of followers that I have. I often feel held back creatively because at the back of my head I’m always thinking: “But what will others think about me?” Not only that, but I’m constantly asking people for feedback; because I am insecure about my path in photography, my writing style, and my behavior as a human being.

I have always been an insecure person. According to my Myers-Briggs personality type, I a an “ESFP — meaning that I draw my energy from other people, that I crave concrete and practical solutions, that I listen to my heart more than my head, and that I hate routines and crave “going with the flow.”

I am very much like my mom, in-fact.

Let me tell you a story about my mom (the most amazing person in the universe). She met my Dad in the states, and that is where I was born (San Francisco). But when I was a baby (perhaps 1-2 years old), she realized that he wouldn’t be the father that she expected him to be. Low and behold, my Dad has never held a job since I was 2 years old, and since then (until now), my mom has been working her entire life working menial part-time jobs or labor-intensive jobs. In the past to pay the bills (and put food on the table), she has worked cleaning houses, as a nanny, cashier, and as a waitress (which she is still today). But she has never once complained in her life; even with my dad being physically (even worse, mentally abusive), even when my Dad would gamble the rent money (and we thought we might be homeless the next month), or even when my Dad would blackmail her.

However what was the problem? My mom was a slave to my Dad. She was the most loving and forgiving person. No matter how much my Dad would fuck up our lives (and cause my mom extreme pain and anguish), she would always forgive him, and let him back into our lives.

But old dogs don’t learn new tricks. Well, perhaps sometimes, but rarely.

Long story short, my mom never learned how to say “no.” She would always compromise in her life, always having hope. My mom’s biggest weakness is that she can’t let people down. She always puts others before herself, which is a generally noble thing, but she did it at a huge expense– her sanity, health, stress, and emotions.

The happiest day in my life was when my mom decided to leave my Dad. Taking this “via negativa approach” to life (removing the negative people in your life) brought my mom more happiness and joy than anything in life. Not only that, but it has brought me a lot more happiness as well.

I have written about this in the past, that life is more about subtraction than addition. The truth is, removing 1 shitty or negative person from your life is more important than adding 10 positive people to your life. Similarly when it comes to your health, it is more important to stop eating McDonalds than simply adding blueberries to your diet.

Why do I bring up my mom?

Well, I am exactly like my mom. I am a total pushover, I don’t know how to say “no,” and my biggest fear is letting people down.

I can honestly say that I have never done or said anything (intentionally) to hurt or harm anybody. All the fuck ups in my life have been unintentionally. I have hurt so many loved ones and friends because I wasn’t considerate enough, because I didn’t watch my mouth, because I was forgetful, because I didn’t see their perspective, because I rushed into action, or because I was selfish (unintentionally).

But once I realize that I upset or hurt somebody, I feel extreme guilt. I mean, true extreme guilt. In the past I have said or done a few small things that upset some close friends, and I literally lost a week-worth of sleep, because I would ruminate on all of the negative thoughts in my mind. I am prone to regret, self-criticism, and self-flagellation. I have a lot of mental psychoses that I try to cure myself of (that is why I read so much philosophy; especially Stoicism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity).

But isn’t it a good thing to be considerate of the feelings of others? Isn’t it good to try not to upset anybody? Isn’t it good to be a good boy, listen to the rules, sit in your chair, listen to the teacher, government, or strangers on the internet? Isn’t it bad to step out of line, to say something you believe in (that might hurt someone’s feelings), or to “be different?”

Breaking free from slavery

I no longer want to be a slave. I don’t want to be a slave to the opinions of others. I want to truly say what is on my mind, with no filter, and no bullshit. I want to be authentic, transparent, and to continue wearing my heart on my sleeve. I am a flawed human being, with tons of problems of my own. I don’t give a shit if people judge me or not anymore, I just want to pour out my heart, soul, and unedited thoughts on the page.

I compromise too much on my ideals. No more. I want to live like Socrates, and stay true to my morals and principles, rather than being tempted by money, fame, success, and influence.

You know how I say “buy books, not gear” and how I preach about “one camera, one lens” and also how you shouldn’t fall victim to “GAS” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)? You know I contradict myself all the time. I have bought tons of gear in the past that I didn’t need, and didn’t stick to the “one camera, one lens” philosophy either. I expected others to comply to this “ideal reality” — without wanting to keep my skin in the game, and listen to my own principles.

But fuck it, I pledge to you that I  will no longer contradict myself, unless I have some huge revelation in the next few years.

First of all, I realize that I am a slave to money and influence. In the past, I  have kissed a lot of ass (especially to camera companies like Leica and Fujifilm), because I wanted to feel important, special, and to be “affiliated” with important brands. To be frankly honest, one of the main reasons I first got a Leica M9 was to be taken more “seriously” (not only that, but Leica didn’t like the fact that I  blogged for them and was shooting with a Canon 5D). Also with Fujifilm, I hoped that they could help sponsor the blog, and I could make some money advertising with them.

I rationalized this all to myself saying that “I was doing this for the greater good. I am only going to (partly) ‘sell out’ so I can make more money, to have more security, to blog more, to continue to give out more free content and ebooks, without having to worry if I could pay the bills or not.”

But in reality, I have always been able to pay the bills, even after I got laid off my job over 5 years ago. I honestly don’t give a shit about money, but I  know subconsciously, I wanted more money because I was afraid. I was afraid that one day I would become like my mom, constantly strapped for cash, stressed out, worried that I couldn’t pay the rent, and the possibility that my kids might be homeless.

But fuck it, all my basic needs are taken care of. If there is anything I learned from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is that in life we only need 3 things to survive: freedom from hunger, freedom from thirst, and freedom from the cold. Everything else is optional.

I don’t suffer from hunger (although I do practice intermittent fasting to take away my sense of entitlement, and also for health benefits), I don’t suffer from thirst (I drink a shit-load of coffee, tea, and water), and I don’t suffer from the cold (I live in California). My basic needs are met, what else do I need?

Sometimes I joke with my friends: I only need 3 things: eggs, coffee, and wifi. But it is true, everything else is superfluous.

Of course that is just me being “greedy.” What about taking care of my family? Cindy? My future children?

Of course I want to take care of them as best as I can. But I need to remind myself, I can’t compromise on my morales, even for them.

When Socrates was ordered to drink poison, he had (at the time) a wife and children. Rather than deciding to go into exile, he decided to stick to his sense of morals and justice, and drank the poison. Some of his friends pleaded for him to go into exile instead, for the sake of his family. But at the end of the day, had Socrates not drank the poison, nobody would have respected the beliefs of Socrates. Socrates practiced what he preached, didn’t compromise, and now his life (and actions) live on forever, inspiring countless generations (even a young kid like me).

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not just going to be a hobo for the rest of my life, and let my future family starve to death. Hell no, I am going to dedicate my life to being the most kick-ass Dad ever. If anything, I truly appreciate my Dad, and think he was the best father ever. This is partly because he was the best “anti-role model” — in order to be a good father, I just need to do exactly opposite of what he did to me.

As an aside; I hold no ill will towards my Dad. Honestly, he was pretty fucked up psychologically from my grandfather (who died when I was 2). My grandfather (to my understanding) never really showed love or gave credit to my Dad, who was extremely hard-working, intelligent, and the first of the entire family to master English and come to America. But some reason or another my Dad started to suffer from mental diseases, which fucked up his judgement, caused hate to enter his heart (my grandma, who I love, told me that my Dad used to be the most gentle and shy kid), and harbored resentment to the external world. I think my Dad did the best he could to try to raise me up well; by instilling the morales of hard work, education, and working hard to be “successful” (and rich). At the end of the day, he is a flawed human being (like all of us, especially myself). I haven’t talked to my Dad in a long time, as my heart is still healing from all the mental blackmail he has given to me in the past. But I think I’ll soon be ready to open up to him again.

Anyways, yeah fuck photography. My future kids are going to be more important to me. In-fact, when I have my first kid, I vow not to work the first year, to spend every minute with my future newborn child. I will dedicate my photography to documenting the life of my child (will also shoot on film), and also of my life with Cindy. Even at the moment, my “Cindy project” is the most meaningful project to me in my life. And I know when I’m on my deathbed (even if I die of cancer at age 50), I will have no regrets, and be grateful for all the love and friendship we shared in our (very short) life together.

Going back to the original point of not being a slave, I want to try to disconnect more and more from the internet, social media, and what others think.

Funny enough, the person I find the most inspiration from (in terms of not compromising) is Kanye West. Love him or hate him; he is true to who he is. Like he says in his song, “New Slaves”: “I would rather be a dick than a swallower.”

Kanye West wore pink polos, skinny jeans, and backpacks when other rappers were wearing baggy clothes. Kanye West rapped about Jesus, when other rappers were rapping about money, cash, and hoes. Kanye West made an album (808’s and heartbreaks) and sang in the album (even though he admitted he isn’t a good singer) to express himself (he was heavily criticized for the album and called all these names on the internet). Kanye West publicly said on live TV: “Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He has also stayed true to his artistic vision, is constantly pushing the boundaries of rap music, and speaks his mind — regardless of what others think of him.

Another modern figure who I have great admiration for is Steve Jobs. Sure people paint him as an asshole; but I see it differently. I see a man who never compromised on his values or beliefs. He spoke with no filter and hurt a lot of feelings. But he did it for the greater good. He had a 0% filter for bullshit, and he wanted to use his short time on earth to create something meaningful. He believed so much in the beauty and aesthetics of his products, that he would even make the insides of the Mac computers beautiful (a good carpenter doesn’t use cheap wood on the back of a drawer, even if nobody can see it). Obsessed with perfection, he never took “no” as an answer. People would fall entranced by his “reality distortion field” and make things possible that nobody else thought was possible. I remember hearing a story in the Walter Isaacson biography in which one of the first Mac computers booted up too slow. He told one of the programmers to make the startup time faster. The programmer told him it wasn’t possible. Steve Jobs then made a point: “If you could shave off 30 seconds of boot time from this computer, across thousands (potentially millions of people), you will save hundreds and thousands of hours for humanity).” The next day the programmer was able to figure out how to shave off 30 seconds off the boot time (possibly even more).

When I write, when I photograph, or whenever I create, or speak, I am still scared shitless. I am still scared of offending people and upsetting them. At the end of the day, other people’s opinion of me matters more than my own opinion of myself. But I want to switch that around.

Josef Koudelka is King

Josef Koudelka is probably my favorite photographer of all time. Both in terms of his photography and how he lives his life. He values freedom above everything else; freedom of his time, his opinion, and does exactly what he wants to do. He is a human being who also hasn’t compromised in his life or photography. I want to emulate him.

It is quite incredible; he hasn’t paid rent nor has he taken on any commercial assignments that he didn’t believe in:

“I have never accepted any magazine or commercial assignments. I do not have any deadlines. I do not need any outside pressure to work. It is very important for me to feel that I am free. I make photographs for myself.”

He has also arranged his entire life to give him the ultimate freedom of time to do what he is most passionate about, which is shooting:

“At the moment my life is organized to give me the greatest possible time and freedom to actually shoot photographs.”

Koudelka has also inspired me in the sense that he sets no rules or barriers for himself. Rather, his only rule in photography is below:

“You should take photographs how you feel you should be taking photographs” – Josef Koudelka

There are so many people out there who tell you how you “should” be taking photographs. But there are no rights or wrongs in photography. The only rule is following your own heart; and not caring about what others think about you and your work.

For Koudelka, he doesn’t want any sort of restrictions in his work (or life):

“What I have written about here is my approach to photography now and in the past. It may not hold true tomorrow. I do not want to lay down rules for other people and I do not intend to be restricted by any myself. I feel that my life and perhaps my work are changing at the moment, but my basic interests have not altered. Above all, the most important for me is to keep working.”

I have always found it fascinating how Koudelka was able to stay so true to his own personal vision; of doing what exactly in life he wanted to do. Interestingly enough, growing up in communist Czechoslovakia helped him pursue what he was interested in (rather than just what made money):

“The lack of the freedom to make money forced us to do things we believed in, that interested us, and that we liked to do. We now if we became engineers, we would make less money than street-sweepers. In the West, it was different.”

I am also deeply inspired by his ascetic lifestyle. Apparently when he is on the road, all he carries with him is two shirts (one that he wears), one pair of pants, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, a small sleeping bag (and mat), film (Tri-X), 3 cameras, and a spare pair of glasses. That is pretty much it:

“I tried avoiding owning anything. I didn’t pay rent. I knew that I didn’t need much to function: just some food and a good night’s sleep.”

I have been discovering something similar during my time abroad the last 3 months or so. All I have done is traveled with my small backpack (Thinktank perception 15) and a small leather messenger bag. All of my life’s possessions fit in there.

All I have packed for my trip include 2 shirts, 2 pairs of socks, 1 pair of pants, 2 pairs of ExOfficio boxers, a Kindle paperwhite, notebook, Leica MP and 35mm lens, Tri-X film (brought 120 rolls for the trip, shot around 80 so far), a laptop (Lenovo Windows 8 PC/Tablet I bought in an airport in Lisbon after getting my 11’’ Macbook air stolen in Paris), toothbrush and retainer, and that is pretty much it.

There is so much freedom in traveling light, and realizing how little physical stuff I need to survive. I don’t need any of my photobooks, additional clothes, additional cameras, additional stuff, etc. Funny enough, the fewer material things I have, the happier I  am.

Another thing that Koudelka has inspired me with: he rarely processes and prints his photographs. Apparently he (used to shoot) around 1,000 rolls of film a year, and focused his energy only on shooting. He is worried about the processing of his film later. Apparently he hasn’t even seen some photos he has shot 10 years ago. He explains his rationale:

“I don’t want to lose time. I want to put all of my energy into taking photographs. Last year I spent 11 months traveling. Until now I’ve been in good health.I know this is not going to last forever.”

Josef Koudelka seems quite similar to Garry Winogrand in the sense that they are more interested in shooting and living life, rather than worrying about the results.

Not only that, but it seems to be a good strategy; why not spend all of your energy and effort shooting while you are still healthy, and you can do all the processing and editing once you’re not able to travel or shoot anymore? Or you can be like Winogrand, and die with 6,500 rolls of undeveloped film, and have someone else process and edit them for you.

Another reason I love shooting film: I know people will be able to access my negatives 200 years from now. No way are they going to be able to access my RAW files.

When I shoot digital, I have a problem that I look at the photos too quickly. I look at the images the day-of, which makes me depressed. I am bound to not get any good photos in only one day of shooting. If  I get one good street photograph a month, I’m lucky.

So if I shoot film, I don’t get my film processed for 6 months-1 year. According to my math; if I can get 1 good shot a month, that means 12 good shots a year. So if I wait a year before looking at my images, I am bound to get a handful of shots I’m happy with. There is less noise, and more signal.

Furthermore, I also find that when I’m traveling, I stay up too late at night receiving the digital shots that I shoot. I much prefer the peace of mind of shooting the film during the day, letting it sit and “marinate”, and being able to sleep at night.

Another Idea I have; I might experiment “crowdsourcing” the editing of my images somewhere down the line; to see which photos resonate most with others.

But didn’t I say earlier that I didn’t care about what others thought about my images, and that I would shoot to please myself?

Yes, I will still shoot to please myself first. But if I upload images on the internet, they are ultimately more about the viewers; not myself. The really personal shots that I make that make me happy will stay offline, for me and close friends and family to enjoy.

Josef Koudelka is probably also one of the most famous photographers out there, but becoming famous has never been his focus. Funny enough, he has only shot for himself his entire life, and because he stayed true to his values, he became famous for his dedication in his work and craft.

He doesn’t care about becoming famous, he is only interested in working and not being bothered by others:

“Fame doesn’t interest me. I dont like being the center of attention. I like to concentrate on working and not be disturbed.”

This is a good reminder for me; I get too distracted by social media and worrying too much about what others think about me. Everytime I check Twitter, comments on the blog, Instagram, Facebook, whatever– positive and negative feedback hurt me. Positive feedback inflates my ego and makes me feel important. Negative feedback makes me feel shitty, and frustrated. I think the secret is to just ignore everybody, except my own opinion of myself, and the opinion of a few close friends. I’d have to say after uninstalling all social media apps from my phone, I finally have some peace and serenity of mind– and am able to focus on more important things, like writing this article.

What is the only thing Koudelka is interested? He doesn’t care about being the “best” photographer out there. Rather, he wants to satisfy himself, and become the best photographer he possibly can become. He wants to find his limits, and push himself to the maximum:

“Everybody has a right to think what he wants. I know who I am. I don’t do what i do in order to make somebody like me, or to prove something to someone, or to be the best. I do it for myself, for my own satisfaction. I want to find my limits, to see how far I can go.”

Koudelka is truly an exemplar for me.

Sure, I don’t want to ultimately be exactly like him. He has no home, probably not a lot of security financially, nor does he have a steady family life, or any sort of roots.

I know for me, I need a sense of home and community. As Seneca said, “He who constantly travels has many acquaintances but few friends.”

I also know that I don’t need to constantly be on the road to be happy. Paradise is in my own backyard. All the best photographic opportunities are in my own city, and I dont need to be in Tokyo or Paris to be inspired. My only limits are my creative potential, inside my head. Never my camera, film, or external circumstances.

Lessons from Epictetus

Another philosopher I gain immense inspiration regarding freedom is Epictetus, and many of these excerpts are from “Of Human Freedom” (the most inspirational essay I have ever read on freedom).

What is “freedom” to Epictetus?

“Free is the person who lives as he wishes and cannot be coerced, impeded or compelled, whose impulses cannot be thwarted, who always gets what he desires and never has to experience what he would rather avoid.”

According to this, I have no freedom. I still am compelled to do things against my will.

Not only that, but I am still a slave to negative emotions: like sadness, envy, and frustration:

“Who wants to live life experiencing sadness, envy and pity, being frustrated in their desires and liable to experience what they want to avoid?” – Epictetus

Haha even funnier, I can totally see myself being a slave to Cindy sometimes:

“Weren’t you ever commanded by your sweetheart to do something you didn’t want to do?”

Spot on Epictetus, your wisdom from 2,000 years still rings true.

I also recall all the times I have done shit and went to events and parties I didn’t want to go, because of some sort of “social obligation” and peer pressure. I really need to learn how to say “no”:

“Didn’t you ever risk going out at night where you didn’t want to go, spend more money than you had intended, say things in the course of the evening in accents or misery and woe, put up with being mocked, and finally locked out?”

At the end of the day, I want to be free and unencumbered. I want to almost be like a wild animal. Sure, I might not have as much “security” and might go hungry at times, but I don’t want to become caged. How sad is it when you see a lion in a cage at the zoo?

“Consider how we apply the idea of freedom to animals. There are tame lions that people cage, raise, feed and take with them wherever they go. Yet who will call such a lion free? The easier its life, the more slavish it is.”

Sad enough, I still have a lot of friends and know people who are stuck in “golden cages.” Sure they might drive BMW’s, wear Rolex watches, make 6-figure incomes, own homes and whatnot– but their jobs and salaries own them, not the other way around. They hate their jobs, but cannot escape, because they have fallen on the “hedonic treadmill” — in which their lifestyle is constantly being upgraded (“downgrading” from a BMW 5-series to a Honda Civic can be painful to these people).

They are like caged birds:

“The birds above us, when they are caught and raised in a cage, will try anything for the sake of escape. Some starve to death rather than endure their condition. Those that survive– barely, grudgingly, wasting away– fly off in an instant when they find the least little opening to squeeze through, so great is their need for their native freedom, so strong the desire to be independent and unconfined.”

But how do we find true freedom? Some advice from another philosopher, Diogenes:

“One way to guarantee freedom is to be ready to die.” – Diogenes

Sounds a bit melodramatic. We are lucky enough that in today’s society, we will never have to worry about dying. Our only concerns are social stigma (everyone calling you a failure), bankruptcy (losing all our money and our house), and perhaps becoming homeless (but if you live in a developed country, you will probably get some sort of assistance).

Back in the ancient Roman and Greek days; these guys could literally be put to death by speaking their mind, against tyrannical emperors, or lived in social situations where they could literally starve to death. Unfortunately there are also some places in the world (India, Africa, etc) where people have been put to death, tortured, extorted, etc for standing up for their beliefs.

I remember when I still had a full-time job, and my only wish was to get a promotion. I was “only” earning $40,000 a year (with benefits) as an Online Community Manager at eHow.com. I desperately wanted to earn more money (because everyone told me that money buys you happiness) — $50,000 sounded right. I tried to work hard to get a promotion by kissing ass, staying late at work, answering emails on weekends, and trying to climb the corporate ladder (I feel horrible for trying to step over some people, or play bullshit office politics). I would try to take credit whenever possible, and that ended up causing me to burn a lot of bridges. I feel terrible for that, even today.

But the funny thing is that I was a slave to this rat race. I staked my happiness on the “once” and “what if” hypothesis. Once I earn $50,000 a year, I can truly be happy. Once I buy that new iPhone, I will truly be happy. Once I get that BMW M3 (cherry red), I will be happy. Once I get 10,000 followers on Twitter I will have “made” it.

But that was all slavish thinking. Epictetus brings up a good example of what slaves think (when they wish to become “free men”):

‘Once I’m set free, everything will be roses right away. I won’t have to wait on anybody I can talk to everyone as an equal and a peer, travel wherever I like, come and go as I please.’ Then he is liberated, but now, looking for a place to eat, he looks around for someone to sweet-talk and dine with. Next he resorts to prostitution and, if he gets a sugar daddy, he suffers from the most degrading fate of all, having now fallen into a far more abject slavery than the one he escaped.”

If we think that freedom is earning more money, earning promotions, gaining power and prestige in society; we are wrong.

Nassim Taleb has a heuristic: to see if someone is successful or not, see if he or she can take a nap when he/she wants. I am sure there are billionaires out there who are still slaves to their wealth, inboxes, and business duties. These people can’t even take a nap if they wanted to.

What is it that we all want in life? Epictetus shares:

“To live in peace, to be happy, to do as we like and never be foiled or forced to act against our wishes.”

How simple life is. We just want to live in peace (without drama or stress, or shitty bosses), to be happy and do what we like, and not forced to do shit we don’t want to do.

But we all have excuses:

One might say, “Oh I have a high-paying job that I hate. I would quit my job and do something I love, but I have a mortgage to pay, and kids to feed.”

Then foreclose your house, and move into a smaller apartment so you don’t need to work as much.

“But I have children, and I need to send them to private school.”

Why send them to private school? Send them to a public school.

“But I want them to have the best education that they can.”

Realize that if you work less, and take a job that you love, perhaps you will have more free time to actually spend time with your kids, to play with them in the park, to read them books, and to educate them directly yourself.

“But I have bills to pay, lots of debt, and a spouse to take care of.”

File for bankruptcy, or figure out other ways to manage easier payments. If your spouse stays at home, perhaps your spouse can also pick up a job.

We all make excuses for not following our life’s passion and goal. Life is short and brutal. Why not spend the small time we have doing what we love?

“But what if I don’t want to quit my job?”

I think that is totally fine; you can still carve out freedom from doing a “day job.” Just make sure that you turn off your email at 6pm and leave the office. Do the minimum amount of work not to get fired, and use your weekends and holidays to the fullest– to do creative work (in your case, take pictures and travel, invest in books and photography workshops).

Sometimes having a stable and boring job can be a blessing, as long as you don’t allow yourself to mentally become a slave to it.

No more kissing ass

I have another thing I am trying to do; not kiss anymore ass. I have kissed so much ass in my lifetime, and my mouth smells like shit. I have read so many books on “networking” and have sent so many “coffee meeting” emails. and tried to associate myself with rich, powerful, or influential people with potential.

But I realized, I am being a shallow bastard. I am just spending time to hopefully open up “new opportunities” (which ultimately means, make more money).

But I already have enough money. I have enough to pay my rent, food, and coffee. I  am starting to realize that “networking” is a massive waste of time (I would prefer to spend time with friends and loved one, where there is no potential “gain” or “utility”). Networkers are slaves:

“Whenever you see someone grovel before another, or flatter them insincerely, you can safely assume that that person is not free– and not just if a meal is at stake, but even when they abase themselves for the sake of a governorship or consulship. In fact, you can call the people who behave that way for small gains petty slaves, while the latter deserve to be called slaves on a grand scale.”

So I now have a personal rule: Would I meet this person or spend time with them if I knew that they only earned $40,000 a year, or if they were just an entry-level position person? I have found myself that I enjoy more the conversations of baristas, janitors, and waiters than high-powered CEOs and managers.

You might be thinking: “Eric, I want to be free, but I don’t earn enough money. Easy for you to say all this idealistic bullshit. You travel the world, do what you love, and have money saved up. How do you expect us who live day-to-day to not be a slave, and follow our passion?”

I understand what you mean friend. However I also grew up in (slight) poverty and I know it is hard. But know that self-ownership and freedom isn’t a matter of how much money you have, or how many hours you need to work at your job. Rather, it is a state of mind.

Not only that, but I have started to realize how little I need in life. I have made a conscious choice to limit the amount of workshops I do next year, to earn less money, and spend more time with Cindy and more time writing. Furthermore, I spend less time on social media, emails, “networking”, and am completely content with where I am in life. I am surely not the richest person out there, but I am satisfied with what I have. I feel that satisfaction with one’s life is true freedom:

“What is it then that renders a person free and independent? Money is not the answer, nor is a governors, a consulship, or even a kingdom. Something else needs to be found.” – Epictetus

Epictetus goes on by sharing us this question we should always ask ourselves:

“Can anyone force you to choose something to which you’re opposed?”

Also what do we fear?

Sometimes I am afraid I will lose all of my money and material possessions, as Epictetus writes:

“Perhaps you fear for the body and material possessions– things that lie outside your scope of responsibility and have no meaning for you.”

But ultimately at the end of the day, money, my health, the health of my loves ones, are all externals. External things that I cannot control (regardless of how rich or powerful I am). So the secret? Don’t worry about any of that. The only thing we can control is our mind, how we decide to perceive events, and whether to see life in a positive (or negative) light.

It is hard. Really fucking hard. I am a sucker for advertising, and a slave to material things. I am the one who gets a hard-on everytime there is a new Apple product releasing. I get tempted by new fancy cameras being released. I desire fast sports cars and designer clothes. I am a fallible human being.

Another tip to happiness and freedom? Kill desire:

“[Don’t] feel irrational desire any more. You have a fixed and measured desire for the good of the soul, since they are within your power and accessible. You disdain external goods, so that no opening exists for that irrational, intemperate and impulsive form of desire. With such an attitude towards things, you can no longer be intimidated by anyone.”

If I don’t give a shit about desiring anything out of my control (or any new material things), I will no longer be a slave to others’ opinions.

What are some other things I should surrender? Epictetus tells us:

“Surrender the body and its embers, physical faculties, property, reputation, office, honours, children, siblings– repudiate them all.”

I can’t control my health (whether I get cancer or not), whether I get into a car accident and lose control of my legs, whether someone (accidentally) pokes me in the eyes and I lose my vision, whether a family member gets sick and my bank account gets cleaned out, whether people on the internet will like me or not, whether I will win any awards for being the “most influential photography blogger” or whatever, if my kids die at a young age from a rare disease, whether my sister or Cindy dies in a freak accident.

By preparing for the worst, we can truly live life freely– without stress or anxiety.

I don’t want to be held back by doing what I want to do. I want to (as Kanye West says) “Wild the fuck out” and write what I want to write, shoot what I want to shoot, say what I want to say, and not give a flying fuck about what others think:

“The tyrants’ bodyguards, too, can stay, for how can they affect me? Their sticks, their spears and their knives are meant for other people. I, personally, was never kept from something I wanted, nor had forced upon me something I was opposed to.” – Epictetus

Funny enough, even though I believe in Stoicism, Zen Buddhism, and Taoist beliefs– I am still a Catholic at heart. I don’t believe “God” as some bearded dude in heaven. In-fact, I am a bit dubious about there being an afterlife. Regardless, I do believe in some sort of cosmic force in the universe, and that everything happens for a reason. That mantra has helped me endure through all the difficult and painful times I had growing up, and has helped me become a stronger person.

Epictetus also mentions the importance of submitting his will to “God” (which was a different concept from the Judeo-Christian God):

“How did I manage it? I submitted my will to God. He wants me to be sick– well, then, so do I. He wants me to choose something. Then I choose it. He wants me to desire something, I desire it. He wants me to get something, I want the same; or he doesn’t want me to get it, and I concur. Thus I assent to death and torture. Now no one can make me, or keep me, from acting in line with my inclination, any more than they can similarly manipulate God.”

Whatever you believe in, know that ultimately everything will work out fine. Worst case scenario; you will die. And what is so bad about death? Once you’re dead, you won’t feel any pain. We’re always afraid of the pain we feel before death, not death itself.

Another thing that I use whenever something difficult or shitty happens in my life: “How can I turn this negative experience into a positive one?

I still have a hard time letting go of my physical possessions. I am attached to them, and have some “hoarding” tendencies. Some advice Epictetus gives us to start giving less shits about our material possessions:

“These are the reflections you should recur to morning and night. Start with things that are least valuable and most liable to be lost– things such as a jug or a glass– and proceed to apply the same ideas to clothes, pets, livestock, property; then to yourself, your body, the body’s parts, your children, your siblings, and your wife. Look on every side and mentally discard them. Purify your thoughts, in case of an attachment or devotion to something that doesn’t belong to you and will hurt to have wrenched away.”

When I get back home, I want to purge all of my “stuff.” I want to donate the clothes I don’t wear, I want to give away photography books to my friends who would appreciate them, I want to start donating other random trinkets to Goodwill, and edit down my physical possessions so that they can fit into just one small backpack. And that small backpack is the only thing I want to take to Vietnam.

I don’t say any of this to sound high and mighty, or some sort of “enlightened” philosopher. Rather, I am a slave. A slave that is trying to be happy, and to emancipate myself from the bullshit of society’s expectations of me. Epictetus told me the importance of trying to emancipate myself from slavery on a daily basis:

“As you exercise daily, as you do at the gym, do not say that you are philosophizing (admittedly a pretentious claim), but that you are a slave presenting our emancipator; because this is genuine freedom that you cultivate.”

I don’t want to be a pretentious asshole; sometimes I can be. But another negative trait I need to cut out of my system.

At the end of the day, I don’t own anything. I don’t own my money, I don’t own my body (it is on loan, and I will give it back when I die), I don’t own my camera (mother fortune has simply lent it to me), I don’t own my electronics– I only own my opinion:

I don’t consider this body to be my own, because I lack for nothing, and because the law is the only thing I esteem, nothing else.” – Diogenes

I also want to learn how to speak up my mind (in real life) with no filter. I always censor myself from saying what I really think, fearing that I  will offend people. But fuck it, if they are my true friends they won’t get offended. And if they get offended and no longer are my friends, so be it. And they were probably not my “real” friends in the first place. Not only that, but at the end of the day, I only need 5 “real” friends in my life to be happy, perhaps even less– Cindy is more than sufficient.

If you have read this far, I congratulate you, and really appreciate you. You have probably dealt with a lot of the mental pains and struggles I have, and I hope this essay has touched you in one way or another.

Once again, this shit is fucking hard. I know I ramble and repeat myself a lot; but ultimately I write this (first) as a meditation for me to get rid of the demons in my head. Secondly, I write this to help you. Pick and choose which ideas help you, and discard the rest.

Epictetus reminds us, my dear friend, that if we truly value freedom (and don’t want to be a slave to the expectations of others), we need to make huge sacrifices:

“Study this– these principles, these arguments– and contemplate these models of behaviour, if you want to be free, and our desire corresponds to the goal’s importance. Don’t be surprised if so great a goal costs you many a sacrifice.For love of what they considered freedom men have hanged themselves, have thrown themselves over cliff– and whole cities have occasionally been destroyed. For true, inviolable, unassailable freedom, yield to God when he ass for something back that he earlier gave you. Prepare yourself, as Plato says, not just for death, but for torture, exile, flogging– and the loss of everything not belonging to you. You will be a slave among slaves otherwise; even if you are a consul ten thousand times over, even if you make your residence on the Palatine, you will be a slave none the less.”

Last thought to leave you with: freedom isn’t about fulfilling all of the desires, buying all the shit that we want, and having the life that we desire. Rather, it is by eliminating all desires, and being content with the life that we currently live, right now, in the moment:

Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.” – Epictetus

Some random thoughts on my head:

1. Don’t accept free shit

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

I get free cameras from camera companies, free smartphones from Samsung, and don’t get me wrong– it is awesome.

But at the end of the day, I realized that this is making me a slave. Making me a slave because I feel indebted to them.

I have a new rule: I will no longer accept free things (unless I plan on giving it away to a friend, family member, or somebody in need).

2. Don’t compromise my principles

If I believe in something, I cannot compromise. I must think of the collective, before myself. What is good for others is good for me. I already have everything I need in my life. I need to constantly remind myself the shortness of my life, how I will die at any moment, and squeeze every minute of the day to help others– by producing information, spreading goodwill, giving lots of hugs and showing appreciation, and by endowing love onto others.

3. Don’t edit

As an experiment, I will no longer edit my thoughts, my words, writing, photography, whatever. I want to live life more fully with more rawness, genuineness, and transparency. I want to show no bullshit. If I piss people off, so be it. I will still feel bad about it, but I know it will be for the greater good.

Farewell and godspeed friend,

Eric
Written at ilcafe, Monday, Aug 31, 2015 / Stockholm. Started writing at 4am, ended at 11:11am. Damn I’m tired, but feel great. Excited to fly back home to Cindy after being away from her for two weeks, and on the road for 3 months in total. Excited to see my friends, family, loved ones, and to start editing down my life :)

On Searching for the Maximum

Tokyo, 2011
Tokyo, 2011
Tokyo, 2011

Read as a Google Doc.

“Over the last 10 years, what has interested me in taking photographs is the maximum — the maximum that exists in a situation and the maximum I can produce from it.” – Josef Koudelka

I just finished the second day of my workshop here in Stockholm, and after an epic Chinese dinner with the students with good laughs and recollections from the day, I dragged my exhausted body back to the home of my buddy Brian Sparks.

Brian Sparks is an enabler; he has one of the most comprehensive photography book collections out of all my friends, and he always inspires me with his wide breadth of knowledge, photography, and innovation.

In the evening, we were hanging out, and watching “Chef’s Table” — a series on Netflix about chefs and their “success stories.” Most of them started from humble backgrounds, worked their way to the top, and I saw that a lot of their success came from the fact that at a certain point, they didn’t give a flying fuck about what others thought about their food. They started to only make food that made them happy, rather than trying to make food that pleased a large audience.

While we were chilling on his couch, Brian brought over a retrospective of Josef Koudelka’s work– which was shown in Turkey in 2008. There were some excellent essays on Koudelka, his life, and his work– and this is one excerpt from a quote that Koudelka said, which hugely inspired me:

“Over the last 10 years, what has interested me in taking photographs is the maximum — the maximum that exists in a situation and the maximum I can produce from it. Sometimes I may achieve this goal immediately, but usually, for one reason or another, I am just not able to make the most out of a situation and so I have to photograph it time after time until I succeed. This repeated effort also helps to reassure me that I have in fact achieved the maximum.” – Josef Koudelka, 1981

Koudelka is the photographer whose life philosophy and imagery has inspired me the most. He is truly the photographer who doesn’t care about what others think about him and his work, he is only interested in achieving his own personal maximum. He wants to push his limits. He wants to see the maximum he can achieve from the places that he sees, the scenes he encounters, and the maximum of his photographic opportunity.

Koudelka admits that he isn’t always able to achieve this maximum, but that he always pushes forward. He therefore has to “photograph it time after time” until he succeeds. He isn’t afraid to fail. In-fact, everytime he fails, he gets up and continue to push for the maximum. He can only rest at peace if he knew that he gave it his entire soul, body, and mind.

I once read something like, “Never half-ass anything; only full-ass it.”

Another quote from some ancient Roman philosophy went something along the lines of: “Either do something well, or don’t do it at all.”

My problem i that I often half-ass things. I am a pretty lazy guy, and I have troubles pushing my boundaries and limits. I think in my photography one of my insecurities is that I am just repeating myself. But after reading this quote from Koudelka, it has given me so much inspiration to continue to push forward– and search for my own personal maximum. The maximum that I can achieve in my lifetime; whether that be photography, writing, or my personal relationships.

When Koudelka was a kid, he was obsessed with airplanes. He played with toy airplanes, then started to build his own models, and then to the point that he made small functioning planes with motors. His goal in life was then to become an aeronautical engineer. But then at a certain point, he hit a limit– and he knew that he had to change course in his life, to further push and see what his maximum in life truly was:

“I have always been interested to find what I am able to do the best. After 7 years of being an engineer, I realized I had reached my limit, that I couldn’t go further. To continue would have only meant waiting for death, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to die at the age of 30. That was one of the reasons I quit that profession.”

The part where Koudelka says that he wanted to avoid death really struck a chord with me. I think the unfortunate thing is that a lot of people follow their passions in life and then simply find that they hit a dead end, and then emotionally and creatively they die inside. Koudelka said “fuck that” and decided to pursue another interest which was growing for him at the moment, which was photography:

“In the meantime, my interest in photography was growing. I decided to find out what I could do with photography. I tried, and I liked I haven’t yet gone to the end, there is still something more that I can do.”

It is incredible that Koudelka is now 77 years old, and he still hasn’t found “the end” yet. He still says that “here is something more that I can do.”

It is sad, even some of the most famous photographers in history like Henri Cartier-Bresson gave up photography after several decades. But Koudelka kept going.

Koudelka also had a theory; the reason why Cartier-Bresson quit photography was that Cartier-Bresson put too many limits on himself. Cartier-Bresson only shot with a Leica and 50mm and black and white film his entire life, and never really changed how he shot or his subject matter. Koudelka surmised that Cartier-Bresson hit his “maximum”, and simply decided to retire and give up.

But Koudelka kept growing, kept evolving.

Koudelka started off his main work shooting his “Gypsies” project on an SLR and 25mm lens. After a decade of shooting with that lens, he found that he was “repeating himself” — and he wasn’t interested in that. He then decided to pick up a Leica and a (not as wide) lens and traveled and just shot photos of anything he encountered during his travels. Even later on his career, he picked up a panoramic camera and started to shoot landscapes.

“I want to find my limits, to see how far I can go.” – Josef Koudelka

So as a concluding thought, think about yourself and your personal limits. Have you ever hit a brick wall in your photography, where you have achieved your personal maximum? Or is it simply an excuse? What is holding you back? Is it time, money, family, kids, your job, or something else?

Is it your external conditions in life which hold you back, or your own creativity and inner-will?

How bad do you want it? How bad do you want to make photographs that push your personal boundaries? Is it really your gear which is holding you back, or the fact that you waste too much time watching Netflix, and not enough time to go out and shoot?

Personally, I make shitloads of excuses when I don’t feel inspired. But at the end of the day, that is an excuse. I say to myself, “Oh, my street portraits would be so much more interesting if I shot with a medium format camera, or if I lived in San Francisco.”

But that is all bullshit. I need to take this advice from Koudelka; to keep pushing myself until I have found my personal limit. To find the maximum. To subtract all the bullshit from my life, and then make some time and whitespace to focus on what is truly important to me; reading, writing, and photography.

I have no idea what my maximum is, I haven’t achieved it yet. Have you?

Don’t settle. Keep hustling until you find your maximum.

Love,
Eric

Sunday, August 30, 9:13am. Stockholm.

 

Book Review: “Exiles” by Josef Koudelka

title-cover-exiles-koudelka

I recommend reading this article by saving it to Pocket, Instapaper. All images in this article are copyrighted by Josef Koudelka and Magnum Photos.

Exiles” by Josef Koudelka is one of the must-buy books of this year. Previously (before this re-print by aperture) the book would sell second-hand for around $300. I personally couldn’t afford a copy — and when I heard this edition (the last and final) was coming out, I jumped on it like a fat kid on cupcakes.

Before writing this book review, I re-read the book several times, read a lot of interviews by Josef Koudelka– and reflected on the book (and the life and photography of Koudelka).

7 Lessons Josef Koudelka Has Taught Me About Photography and Life

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Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos: PORTUGAL. 1976.

Josef Koudelka is one of my favorite photographers of all-time. I love how he has been able to craft his life around photographing only what he wanted to photograph, how he is able to capture emotional and empathetic images (especially in his “Gypsies” project), his ability to continue to re-invent his photography (switching from 35mm to panoramic), and his absolute dedication to his craft.

I recently came across a superb interview with Koudelka titled: “We Are All the Same”: A Conversation with Josef Koudelka” via my friend Karl Edwards from StreetShootr.com.

I will share some personal lessons that Koudelka has taught me about photography and life below. If you want to learn more about Koudelka, I recommend you to read my article on him: 10 Lessons Josef Koudelka Has Taught Me About Street Photography.

Must-Buy Books: “The Decisive Moment” by Henri Cartier-Bresson and “Exiles” by Josef Koudelka

exiles-henri cartier-bresson-decisive moment

I am really excited to share that Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” in addition to “Exiles” by Josef Koudelka is going to be reprinted. These are two of the greatest street photography books published in history, and once sold for hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars.

Don’t miss out, pre-order a copy today!

Learn more about the masters:

Remember if you’re feeling uninspired in your photography, “buy books, not gear“– and check out this list of inspirational street photography books.

What other photography books are on your list? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

Book Review: “Gypsies” by Josef Koudelka

Click to read more

All photographs in this article are copyrighted by Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

To continue my street photography book reviews, I wanted to write about “Gypsies” — one of my favorite street photography books of all-time, shot by Josef Koudelka, Magnum photographer.

To give you a bit of background, Josef Koudelka is one of the greatest living black and white photographers of the century– both revered for his phenomenal photography and his obsessive passion for photography.

Street Photography Composition Lesson #4: Leading Lines

Josef Koudelka : CZECHOSLOVAKIA. 1963. Slovakia. Jarabina. Reconstruction of a homicide.
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© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. 1932. Marseille. The Allée du Prado.

All photos in this article are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

For today’s street photography composition lesson– I would like to discuss leading lines.

Leading lines are one of the most basic photography compositional techniques– I am sure you have all heard of it before. But it is a technique that we often don’t listen to or follow. For example, it is easy to have a leading line in the background (for example, a background) that leads your eyes away from the main subject, rather to the main subject.

Whenever I look at a photograph, the first question I ask myself is: who is the subject?

Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Josef Koudelka / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967. Gypsies.
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© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967. Gypsies.

All photos in this article copyrighted by their respective photographers.

One of the things I don’t talk much about is composition on my blog when it comes to street photography. To be quite honest, I am not as interested in composition of photographers when it comes to their philosophies when it comes to photography. However it is still something important to consider. Therefore I want to start a series inspired by Adam Marelli on how you can improve your compositions in street photography. Some of these lessons may be new, others familiar– and I will use the best examples in the history of street photography to illustrate the compositional techniques (while throwing in a few of my own).

Triangles are one of the best compositional techniques you can use in your street photography to fill your frame, add balance, and add movement in your images. (Thanks also to Patrick Bryan for the inspiration for doing this article).

8 Rare Insights From an Interview with Josef Koudelka at Look3

1x1.trans 10 Lessons Josef Koudelka Has Taught Me About Street Photography
© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos. Click to read more

Josef Koudelka, one of the greatest living photographers in history, gave a rare interview at Look 3 in Charlottesville recently. You can see a full transcript of the interview here, but I wanted to share some specific insights which I got from the interview below.