Why I Photograph (Version II)
I want to share why I personally photograph.
1. I photograph to make a social critique
To start, I photograph because I want to make a (positive) social impact. I have worked on projects like my SUITS book, to make a social critique on the sucker mistake many of us (myself included) make, which is:
Having more money will make us happier.
To tell you a bit about my personal history — I grew up pretty poor (my mom filed for bankruptcy, and my dad was addicted to gambling, and my dad also didn’t work). Every month, I knew that it was a real possibility that we might go homeless. Why? My mom was barely making ends meet while working full-time as a waitress, and my dad demanded that we live in an expensive house. And it didn’t help that my dad would force my mom to give him the rent money (so apparently, “he could pay it”), whereas he would go to Reno for the weekend and would gamble it away (his rationale was he was trying to “earn money” for the family).
Regardless, growing up– I always had a complicated relationship with money. I wanted money, because I wanted money to buy cool clothes, money to fix up my car (Fast and the Furious style), and I thought that having more money would make me “happier”. Ever since I was 16 I knew that money wasn’t the key to being happy– but I always thought to myself:
“Would my life be a lot better if I had more money?”
Fast-forward; when I became around 28 years old, I broke the $200,000 a year income bracket (combined income with Cindy), and this is the lesson I learned:
Having more money didn’t make me “happier”, but NOT having to always stress about paying the bills and monthly expenses is a pre-requisite to happiness.
Which meant, as long as I kept my expenses low, and wouldn’t stress about money, I would have the ability to be happy. And I would be “happy” through creation. I’m only happy when I’m making stuff; whether I’m writing, making photos, films, videos, beats, etc.
2. I photograph to make art
I also photograph to create art.
- Photo: Light
- Graph: Draw
Thus, to photograph means to draw (or sketch) with light.
A painter is an artist. A dancer is an artist. A poet is an artist. A rapper is an artist, a cook is an artist, and anyone who makes something or does something intentionally is an artist.
To me, once we human beings have enough to survive (clean water to drink, enough money to pay our rent, and enough food to eat) we don’t really “need” anything else in life. And to me, considering that our lives are short, the best use of our human metabolism is to make art!
Making art is what makes humans, human.
Animals cannot make art. Only human beings can.
3. Why make art?
I think it is simple:
Making art makes us happy.
And then the next step:
When you make art, and share you artwork– you have the ability to empower other humans!
When you look at great artwork (from others), you feel lighter, gayer, and more powerful-optimistic in life! For example, I love the work of Claude Monet— because his colors make me smile, and it also gives me inspiration for my own color photography!
4. I photograph to be more engaged in life!
To live a real life means to leave your house, take risks, talk to other humans, and act and do stuff! You cannot live a real life just plugged into a computer at home, and not do anything in “real life”.
Photography gives me the opportunity to engage more with “real life”.
For example, I don’t like being at home. I like to go out and do stuff. And when I go out and do stuff, I always bring my camera with me! Then as I am doing stuff and experiencing reality– I have my camera and I make photos. When I am making photos, I am essentially proclaiming my joy of being alive! Whenever I see something and I photograph it, I tell it:
“I think you are beautiful; I am grateful I experienced your beauty. Thank you for sharing your beauty with others.” [Click]
I like to photograph my loved ones, strangers, and myself! I photograph nature, and try to embed my emotions and soul into my pictures. I know that eventually one day I die, but perhaps– my photos can live on.
5. Why do we want to be immortal?
I think secretly we all want to be immortal (or at least not die). But rather than seeking our own personal immortality, we should seek for our pictures to become immortal, or at least live on for a long time.
Horace once said,
“I shall make [poems] that are more lasting than bronze [statues]!”
Thus we can do the same– try to make photos that will live on after we die!
6. How to make photos that last a long time
To make your photos live on– some simple ideas:
- Don’t upload your photos to Instagram or Facebook: they won’t be as “archive-able”. Instead, start your own website or blog, and upload your photos there, and get your website indexed by Google with SEO (search engine optimization) techniques.
- Make PDF e-books of your work, and share them freely with friends, family, and anyone on the internet.
- Upload your full-resolution photos and media to archive.org (and one day, people in the future will be able to access your stuff).
- Print hard-cover books; they will last longer than digital media. For example this is why I printed SUITS as a hardcover book, so the photos will live on.
- Share your work: Don’t let your photos die on your phone or hard drive.
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Why I Photograph (Version 1)
I wanted to write you a letter on why I photograph.
I’m starting a new series on why I do a lot of things. I think the question ‘why’ is the most important question we can ask ourselves.
This is what helps us understand the purpose, direction, and meaning in our lives.
1. Why photography?
Why not draw, make music, dance, or sculpt? Why do I photograph as a means of self-expression?
For myself, first of all — photography is just way easier than other forms of art. To click is easy. I am a generally very impatient person. I love how instantaneous I can make an image.
When I was a kid, I liked to draw. But as I got older, I realized I wasn’t very good. So for me, to make a photograph is to make an instant drawing.
2. When do I make a photo?
When I’m walking on the streets, I often see visual things that interest me. That strike me. I can’t describe it; I just feel compelled to make a photograph of it.
Often, the photos are boring. But Im glad that I made the photograph. Because it is like scratching an itch. If I don’t make the photograph, I feel frustrated. When I make the photograph, I feel like I can breathe a sigh of relief.
3. I love faces and people
I am also drawn to faces, and characters. When I meet interesting people, or see interesting people — something in my soul compels me to make a portrait of them.
Whenever I see someone I want to make a portrait of, I also get a huge wave of confidence. When I approach a stranger to make a portrait of them, I don’t easily take no as an answer. I’m pretty pushy, but try to do it in a pleasant way.
But essentially I approach someone to make a portrait of them, with this thought in mind:
I’m going to make a portrait of that person.
Because I have confidence in myself, I think people can see that. And they feel more comfortable. In my mind, I don’t think I will be rejected. And because of this, I rarely do.
Of course, I do get rejected. But I don’t let the thought of rejection even enter my mind. Therefore, I think I am less likely to be rejected.
4. I love composition
Composition has always been important to me. When I was a kid, I had an early aptitude for art. If I didn’t move away from New York as a kid, I would have gone to an art school. When I was around 12 years old, my teacher in Queens, New York saw that I was skilled in art, and recommended my mom to send me to a special middle school for budding artists. My mom was going to send me there, but we ended up moving back to California mostly for financial reasons.
Anyways, composition is important to me, because there is some inner-beauty to the harmony of a pleasant composition. For me, I love clean compositions, with nice forms, diagonals, curves, balance between light and shadow, and the emotion, mood, and soul of an image.
I like to look at photos. I like to look at art. I think because I’ve looked at a lot of photography from the masters and art, I have internalized some sort of hidden understanding of good composition. And this is what motivates me to write more on composition — both as a means for me to better understand composition for myself, and hoping that it will help others.
5. Photography forces me to think about death
I think I also know that photography immortalizes a moment, and an image of a person. I think in that way, photography is ‘cheating’ death. Photographs will live on forever, but we will die.
So whenever I photograph my loved ones, I do it like they are going to die soon. I also photograph myself, knowing that I will die soon.
For me, my best ‘life hack’ is to think about death a lot. In a positive way. As a means for me not to waste any of my life, time, or potential. For me to live life to the fullest. Because, death is closely creeping behind me. Who knows if I will get hit by a car while crossing the street in Hanoi, or whether I will get some mysterious illness. Or die from an allergic reaction to some shellfish or cashew nuts.
I want to make beautiful photographs, that inspire, motivate, uplift, and encourage people to think about their own mortality. One of my favorite photos recently is a photo of my mom, sleeping. To me, she looks like she is in a casket. And it is a reminder of my mom’s mortality, which inspired me to write her a letter (while she’s still alive), in terms of how much I appreciate and love her.
The same goes for photographing Cindy. I photograph her with all my heart and soul, knowing that she will die (either before me, or after me). I want to immortalized our love, and hope to inspire others to also immortalize their love in photographs.
6. Photography makes me more courageous
I also make photos to build my courage. This is why street photograph appeals to me — it helps me overcome my fears in a practical way.
I actually feel the biggest benefit of street photography isn’t making photos. Rather, to have the courage to get closer to people, to talk to them, engage with them, have less fear, and to overcome any personal hesitations I have. Street photography has helped me become a more courageous, less fearful, and more sociable person. I used to be a lot more shy before shooting street photography. Now I can talk and interact with anybody.
Probably the biggest thing is overcoming fear. We are all slaves to fear; certainly myself. Fear is what has prevented me from achieving my ‘fullest maximum’ in life. Fear is what prevents me from trying new art projects, trying new business ventures, or prevents me from saying what is really on my mind.
Courage, courage, courage is what raises our blood to crimson splendor, as Horace once said.
So for me, photography is less about being an ‘artist’ — it is more about being a better human being. A human being that achieves his own maximum potential, without any fear of ruin or death.
7. To contribute to society
Lastly, the biggest reason I make photos is to make a contribution to society. Nowadays I care less about becoming a famous photographer. I just want to try to make good photos, in order to be a better teacher. Because if I want to teach photography to others; shouldn’t I be a pretty adept photographer?
I also need a reason to wake up in the morning. The biggest reason I wake up now is to blog. To blog about photography, life, and anything in-between. I feel photography is my motivator for living. The motivator behind my blogging, writing, thinking, meditating, and doing.
I want to continue to think of ways I can do ‘social good’ through photography and blogging. For example, I love the idea of free/open source-information. That is something I have tried to pursue with this blog.
Conclusion: Why do you make photos?
This is just me. You have different reasons why you make photos.
So why do you make photos? Do you do it for fun? To socialize with others? To find more meaning in your life? To create art? To connect with others or strangers on the street?
Is your photography an excuse for you to walking around the block? Is photography self-therapy for you? Is photography about making history, and documenting history?
Share your opinion, by sharing on social media:
I make photos because ________________
And use the hashtag #personalphotography
Always ask yourself ‘why?’ for all the big questions in life, and you will always maintain focus, meaning, and drive.