“Letters from a Street Photographer” #6: How to Live a Purposeful Life

Provincetown, 2014
Provincetown, 2014

Tied into the previous chapter on how to live a happy life– I also encourage trying to live a purposeful life.

What is the difference between a happy life and a purposeful life?

I think simply a “happy” life is to be free of pain, to be overall joyful, and to be free of stress and concern of how others think of you.

However when it comes to a “purposeful” life– I think it is to live a life not for just yourself– but for others.

As a social creature, we often gain the most happiness by helping others. And I think one of the biggest secrets to a “happy” life – is to live a purposeful life. By living a purposeful life– we not only help build value, love, and help others – but we also benefit ourselves (we are “happy’ as a by-product.

Marcus Aurelius also shares the same ideology– know that you have a purpose in this world. And it isn’t to live for yourself– but to live and serve others:

“Letters from a Street Photographer” #5: How to Be Happy

Provincetown, 2014

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”:

“Letters from a Street Photographer” #4: Fuck Fame

Provincetown, 2014
Provincetown, 2014

I’ll admit it. I’m incredibly jealous. Whenever I see my close friends, other photographers, family, or anyone else doing “successful” things– I feel a tinge of jealousy. In the back of my head– I might think negative thoughts like, “That person didn’t deserve that recognition or success” – self-doubt myself “Why am I not as successful as that person?” and I start to sink into a hole of despair.

“Letters from a Street Photographer” #2: How to Deal with Negative Criticism (Part 1/2)

Provincetown, 2014

For this chapter in my on-going “Letters from a Street Photographer” book, I wanted to write a topic that I am very familiar with– how to deal with negative criticism (and thrive and benefit from it).

For those of you who have followed me and my blog for a while– you will know that I have a fair amount of negative critics and negative criticism. Here are a list of things I have been critiqued (or criticized, hated for) – and a list of (sort of similar to real-life) comments I’ve gotten:

“Letters from a Street Photographer” #1: How to Live and Shoot without Regrets

Provincetown, 2014
Provincetown, 2014

This is Chapter 1 on a series of blog posts I will do on the philosophy of Stoicism, and how I relate it to street photography. I draw upon the book: “On the Shortness of Life” from Seneca. The title of this series is inspired by “Letters from a Stoic” (also by Seneca).

I have recently been reading a lot of literature on “time management” and have discovered a new angle– “attention management.”

The basic premise is this: time management is overrated. We have all the time in the world. However what we don’t have is attention.

15 (More) Lessons Taoism Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Toronto, 2014
Toronto, 2014

I have been a long-time admirer of the philosophies of Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism. In-fact, I have gained more insights about photography from these philosophies (than I have from any book on photographic theory).

I recently re-read a new english version of the “Tao Te Ching“– the classic manual on the art of living. It was a version written by Stephen Mitchell, and I like the flow and how it reads in English.

In my life and photography– I often feel a lot of anxiety, frustration, stress, and the need for external validation. However reading these Taoist philosophies have helped bring peace to my day-to-day life, and I hope these lessons I’ve learned can help you as well.

I am no expert in Taoism, Zen, or any of these philosophies– and I have a lot to learn. But I will share what helps me fall asleep at night– I try my best to follow these principles that I learned from the “Tao Te Ching“:

On Opportunity Costs in Street Photography

Hong Kong, 2014
Hong Kong, 2014

Life is short and limited. We only have so many days to live. We only have so many zeroes in our bank accounts.

We all want to live happy, productive lives. We want happiness in our photography. We want to creatively thrive, and live a life which we don’t have any regrets.

I have lots of temptations in my life. To earn more money, to buy more physical possessions, which creates a lot of distractions in my life.  But what really matters in life?

On Purpose and Street Photography

Berkeley, 2014
Berkeley, 2014

I’m currently reading a book titled: “Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think”. In the book, the author defines happiness as being primarly composed of two things: pleasure and purpose. To find “optimal” happiness in life, the author encourages us to find a balance between pleasure and purpose in our life.

I have read dozens of books on the topic of happiness. When I studied sociology as an undergraduate I would ask myself questions such as: Why is it that the richest people in the world are often the most miserable people? How much money do you need to be really happy? Does more money bring you happiness? What things could I do (or change) in my everyday life to make me be more happy?

On Excuses and Street Photography

Sydney, 2014
Sydney, 2014

We often have tons of excuses in life. We don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have the opportunities to do what we love.

I always make tons of excuses in my street photography. When I am traveling on the road, I have tons of opportunities to shoot and always feel inspired. However, when I’m back home— I don’t feel the same inspiration. I fall into the same boring routines of my everyday life.

Please Tell Me My Photos Suck (And How I Can Improve)

NYC, 2012
NYC, 2012

We are insecure. We don’t want people to be brutally honest with us. We like feeling liked. We don’t want to hear the truth, or at least what people really think about us and our work. We like it when things are sugar coated (I know I do), and facing reality can be tough.

I remember when I started photography, I thought I was awesome. I thought my work was incredible, and I deserved fame, glory, and attention.

Then one day, I remember stumbling on the work of the masters and the greats of photography. I then realized my work sucked in comparison to theirs.

At first I was discouraged. I though to myself: I could never be as good as them, why bother even trying?

Nobody Gives a Shit About Your Photos

Oakland, 2014
Oakland, 2014

Nobody gives a shit about your photos (except yourself).

Sometimes I get frustrated and confused why I take photos.

I think ultimately I take photos because I want my photos to influence, affect, and perhaps inspire my viewers (and other photographers). This sometimes gives me anxiety because it puts a lot of pressure on me to “perform” by making really strong images for my audience.

But it has recently dawned on me that the only person who really cares about my work is myself. Nobody else really cares or gives a shit.

Savoring the Moment

I just checked out of my hotel in Seoul, and was on my way to the subway. I had a bunch of bags I had to carry, and ended up missing two potential street photos I would have liked to capture:

One of the shots was a guy in a suit, with his suit jacket propped over his right shoulder with a finger. My camera was still in my bag.

The second shot was a muscular black man carrying an umbrella (similar to what old Korean ladies wore) also wearing spandex.

My camera was in my bag for both of these potential shots, so I missed the moment. However rather than being frustrated at myself for not taking the shots, I tried to savor the moment.

For example, I smiled at the muscular guy who walked by me and said “love your outfit.” He gave me a huge grin and smiled back and said, “Thank you.” His smile felt so warm and genuine.

This reminds me : I don’t need to capture a photo of everything I experience. Sometimes by not taking a photo of something, I better appreciate the moment and commit it to memory more.

So nowadays if I’m seeing fireworks with Cindy on new years, I try to purposefully put the camera away and just enjoy the moment.

Whenever I miss potential street photos, two thoughts come into my mind :

  1. Always have my camera around my neck (I never know when a good photo opportunity might arise).
  2. That was a nice moment I missed, but I’m glad I’m alive and experienced it.

Furthermore, missing the potential street photos from today further invigorated my love of street photography. I thought to myself, “Wow, life is pretty incredible and amazing. There are so many different colorful people on the streets, and all these wonderful moments happening all the time.”

So I guess in conclusion my thoughts contradict each other a bit: always have your camera with you (preferably around your neck or in your hand), but sometimes it is good to just savor and appreciate a moment (especially if you didn’t take a photo of it).

At the end of the day, I think experiencing a moment is much more valuable than capturing it.

A Letter to My 18 Year Old Self: If I Started Street Photography All Over Again


Dear Eric,

You are 18 years old. You just got a point and shoot digital camera from Mom as a high school graduation present. You are super excited, as you never had a camera before. A lot of exciting things will happen in your life surrounding photography. I wanted to write this letter to you and give you some advice I wish I knew. This is coming from your 26-year-old-self.

How to Embrace “Stream-of-Consciousness” in Street Photography

Berkeley, 2015
Berkeley, 2015

One of the best pieces of advice I got on writing is the importance of writing without editing. Which means, turn off the inner-censor in your mind and write freely.

What or who is the “inner censor”? Well, the inner-censor is the little voice in your head which tells you “Oh don’t do that, that’s stupid. That sounds stupid. That looks stupid.” It is that inner-voice that prevents you from writing in a stream-of-consciousness flow.

Street Photography is a Journey, Not a Destination

Indianapolis, 2013. Part of my on-going "Only in America" series.
Indianapolis, 2013. Part of my on-going “Only in America” series.

I have often read that life is a journey, not a destination. Meaning that we all have goals in life. But the happiest moments aren’t when we reach our goals. Rather, life is a “beautiful struggle” in which we are happiest when we are pursuing our goals. When we are pursuing our happiness.

I have often found the same is true with street photography. I am always motivated by my photography through the projects I am working on. I used to think that once I had my project completed and published– it would bring me great joy.

12 Scientifically Proven Ways to Have More Happiness in Street Photography

San Diego, 2013
San Diego, 2013

Photos in this article are from my on-going “Only in America” series.

I’m currently reading a lovely book titled: “A Philosopher’s Notes: On optimal living, creating an authentically awesome life and other such goodness.” It is a easy and insightful read– and I have been savoring the book so far.

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:

  1. Expressing Gratitude
  2. Cultivating Optimism
  3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
  4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
  5. Nurturing Social Relationships
  6. Developing Strategies for Coping
  7. Learning to Forgive
  8. Increasing Flow Experiences
  9. Savoring Life’s Joys
  10. Committing to Your Goals
  11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
  12. 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:

Disregard Critics: Make More Art

Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013
Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” ― Andy Warhol

As street photographers, I think we are all artists. We craft our version of reality from fragments from everyday life. We don’t just take photos– we make them.

In my art– I am quite insecure at times. I want to make great photographs– images that awe and inspire my audience. Whenever I upload an image that doesn’t get as many “favorites” or “likes” as other images I wonder to myself, “Perhaps that photograph wasn’t any good?”

On Free Street Photography

Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

One question I am asked a lot is how I make a living in street photography, and questions about selling prints, and making money.

To start off, I am blessed enough to make a living from my street photography in teaching workshops. I make about 95% of my living from workshops (and around 5% from Amazon affiliates from links to books and other products on the blog).

But I have always been an advocate of “open source” in life and photography– and the greatness of having things open and free.

On Bridging the Gap in Street Photography

Tokyo, 2012
Tokyo, 2012

I feel one of the most important traits to become a better street photographer is first identifying what makes great street photography. This means having good taste.

A quote from Ira Glass from NPR comes to mind– in terms of having good taste:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”

On Polarization and Street Photography

Hong Kong, 2012
Hong Kong, 2012

I am a big fan of Nassim Taleb and his concept of the “barbell theory” which he derives from his book: “Antifragile” (one of my top 3 favorite books).

The concept of the “barbell theory” is that you embrace two extremes in life– rather than going for the boring “middle” strategy. For example Nassim Taleb says it is better to save 90% of your money in boring cash– and invest 10% in hyper-risky investments (rather than just putting it all into “medium risk” ventures). Nassim Taleb also mentions that regarding drinking, it is better to drink liberally 3 days a week (and completely abstaining the other days) rather than drinking “moderately” everyday.

I recently read a book titled: “A Perfect Mess in which the author promotes the benefits of randomness and messiness.

On Shooting For Your “Inner Scorecard”

Detroit, 2013
Detroit, 2013

I recently finished reading “The Snowball“, a biography on the life of Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors of all time. One inspirational thing I got from the book was how Buffett always played by his “inner scorecard” — staying true to himself and his own standards. Seeking to please himself, and not others.

I think sometimes photographers think photography is a sport with clear winners and losers. But photography isn’t a zero sum game. There are no point system. Rather we sometimes use social media follower numbers, the amount of exhibitions we’ve had, the books we’ve published, the gear we own, to validate our self worth (compared to other photographers).

But screw all of that. Shoot based on your own “inner scorecard”. Challenge yourself in photography, and know you aren’t competing with anyone. There are no clear winners or losers. We should focus on collaborating with one another, rather than worrying about who is a better photographer or who has more “favorites” or “likes”.

Don’t aim to be the best photographer out there. Rather, aim to the best photographer you can become.

For further reading, you can read my past article: How Many “Favorites” Or “Likes” Are Enough?

On Fun and Street Photography

Click to read more
Istanbul, 2012

Life is too short to do shit you don’t like doing. I know a lot of people who work in jobs they absolutely hate, stay in relationships they don’t enjoy, and force themselves to do hobbies that they aren’t that interested in.

We all have relatively short lives while we are here on earth. Not only that, but we have no idea when we are going to die. Sure if we are relatively healthy we can expect to live to around 80. But who knows if we get a rare form of cancer and die early? Or if we get into a car accident and die? Or perhaps die in some sort of other freak accident?

On Happiness and Street Photography

Click to read more
Detroit, 2013

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.”

26 Lessons Life Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Click to read more

Today I turn 26 years old. Life has been one hell of a ride so far. When I was a kid, I had no idea I would be where I am today– with the love of my life, phenomenal friends I have met all around the world, a supportive family, as well as the freedom and opportunity to pursue my passion (street photography).

Ever since I got laid off my job around 3 years ago, life has been a blur. I remember the anxiety I had no longer having a stable income, health care, and a sense of security. I had no idea where my life would take me from that point– but I am so grateful that Cindy, my family, as well as you (my dear friend) was able to support me to run this blog and teach workshops for a living.

I always use birthdays as an opportunity to reflect on life– and think about the lessons that I have learned. Of course in the spirit of my blog, I will present 26 lessons that life has taught me and how it has even given me insight into street photography.

On Status and Street Photography

Click to read more
Stockholm, 2012

Photos in this article are outtakes/shots I am considering from my on-going “Suits” project.

One of the things I love most about street photography is how open and democratic it is. Anybody with any camera can shoot street photography. You don’t need anything fancy. Not only that, but street photography is accessible to everybody. You don’t need to be in Paris– you can simply shoot in your backyard.

However one problem that plagues street photography and life in general is this need for status.

In this article I will touch upon two aspects of status when it comes to street photography: 1) Status via cameras/equipment, and 2) Status via social media:

On Criticism and Street Photography

Click to read more
Photos in this article are from my Gallo Boxing Series in Michigan. You can see all the GoPro POV videos on YouTube here.

“To try to please everybody is to please nobody” – Publilius Syrus

For those of you who follow my blog (or even worse, my YouTube channel) know that I have a lot of critics. Many people often ask how I deal with the criticism. I’ve had some people tell me that I must have a thick skin, and commend me for it.

However in reality, I actually have very thin skin, and when people do criticize me, it hurts me a lot.

In Praise of Slowness in Street Photography

Click to read more
Tucson, Arizona. 2013

Photos in this article are from my road trip from Michigan to California.

One thing I hate about the modern world is our addiction to speed. We want everything to be done faster, more efficiently, and better optimized. We are frustrated when we are loading up a website on our smartphones and it takes longer than a few seconds. We hardly have the patience to cook anymore, so we just pop something in the microwave. We then inhale our food in a few seconds so we can get back to work and be more “productive.”

Why I Killed Street Photography

Click to read more
Photo by A.G. DeMesa

Eric’s Note: This guest article is written by A.G DeMesa— a street photographer based in Manila.

A.G.: What is street photography for me?

Surely it isn’t the mundane. Nothing gets more mundane than a 16 year old’s meal taken over Instagram. It’s not about capturing history or the little human acts because you will just be beaten by the lens of an experienced journalist. How about the perfection of form and the elements like rhythm, texture, layers, lines and others? Well, can’t photography stand on its own two feet and not rely on the concepts of painting?

So I killed my street photography. I murdered it because I became obsessed with making sure everything aligned together. I was mulling over the small details that should be present. I was looking out for the lines that should converge. I had to find the layers that will highlight the human or non human elements. I lost sight of what is important in photography: Seeing. I was doing photography and being a slave to what it means to photograph. There was no flow and joy in it for me anymore.

On Jealousy and Street Photography

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

The other night before I went to sleep, I was reading a book on my iPad and then wanted to post an inspirational quote onto Facebook. So I logged into Facebook, shared the quote– and suddenly got sucked into the news feed. I started scrolling through the activity of all my friends– and started to feel pretty down. It seemed that all the other photographers I follow online are doing things much more exciting than me: they are traveling to places I have always wanted to, are doing big exhibitions, publishing photography books of their own, and doing interviews for big-shot media companies.

As I kept scrolling through my news feed and clicking around– I started to feel sick in my stomach. What am I doing here sitting on my ass here in Berkeley– and not achieving as much as these other people? After all, I work hard in my photography, in my blog, making connections, and all that jazz.

I then caught myself: I was being jealous. Jealous of the success of other photographers– and not being satisfied with what I had.