I want to propose a new school of photography called “personal photography.” Consider this letter as a way for me to work out some ideas, and to share some ideas with you.
Disregard what others do
Let me outline the biggest causes of misery for photographers:
- Feeling that their gear isn’t good enough
- Not having enough followers online
- Not having others appreciate their work
- Not making a living from photography
- Not having enough time to take photos
I first got this idea of “personal photography” from Anders Petersen— who refers to the type of the photography he does as “personal documentary” — rather than documenting the lives of others, he documents his own life. He documents his friends, strangers he meets, and puts no boundaries on what he wants to photograph.
“Personal photography” is being indifferent to the photography of others; and focusing on your own photography and life.
To start off, disconnect from all social media. Yes, all social media. Stop uploading your photos to Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+, or any other social media site you use.
I am not saying for you not to share your photos. Share more personally— face-to-face with friends, family, and close colleagues.
What I am discouraging is staring photos with random strangers on the internet, adding tons of #hashtags to your photos (wishing you get more followers, viewer, comments, etc), and getting on the “social media treadmill” — trying to get more attention online.
I am an attention-whore; I love having attention. My #1 goal in my photography was to become “famous”— and to make a living from photography.
I am lucky enough now that I am “famous” — I get recognized in the streets, I have a substantial number of followers online, and the blog is #1 for “street photography blog” on the internet. I’ve gotten free cameras from companies, traveled all around the world, and I make a comfortable living teaching street photography workshops.
Yet, I am still not satisfied. I want more.
I want more cameras. I want more money. I want more followers. I want more influence. I want more fancy cars, clothes, and a nice house. I want millions, no fuck that— billions. Nothing can ever satisfy my greed.
How do I cut off this madness? By disconnecting.
I’ve intentionally not used social media (all sorts including email) for the last week, and it is the first time in a long time that I feel clean. I feel like it was a “social media detox” (kind of how an alcoholic recovers, or a drug-addict). I finally am able to be fully-present with my family, friends, and loved ones.
Furthermore, I no longer take photos where I think at the back of my mind, “How many likes will I get?”
I also end up taking photos now that I don’t care whether I ever look at them again. I take them for the sake of taking them, rather than hoping to share them online.
What is the point of taking a photo if you will never share it, or even look at it yourself?
Photography = Life
I think photography is life. Life is photography. They are inter-connected. You cannot separate them.
The #1 goal in life is to live a good life. Photography is just a part of living well.
For me, I like to take photos because it enhances my experiences— I feel more fully-present, I appreciate small mundane parts of my day (Cindy drinking a coffee, me drinking a nice espresso, or Cindy getting ready to go out with me). These are all very personal things that honestly— nobody else gives a fuck about. But I give a fuck. I give a “lot” of fucks.
When I am on my deathbed, I’m not going to care about any of the photos I shot of strangers on the streets. The only photos I’m going to care is about the photos of my loved ones.
Imagine your loved ones dying
I have a personal rule— whenever I go to sleep or say goodbye to Cindy (or any of my friends/family/loved ones) — I imagine that I will never see them again. I imagine perhaps they die in a car accident, or perhaps I die in my sleep.
None of this is meant to be sadistic. I just do this because it teaches me to truly appreciate the person in the present moment; and to never expect to see them again. This way I will never have any regrets.
For example the other night I went to sleep early, and Cindy went out with her sister to study at some local cafe. I was lying down in a comfortable bed, but the thought came to my mind: “What if Cindy died in a car accident, or some other terrible thing happened to her? What would I regret not saying or doing?”
So I jumped out, gave Cindy a love and tried to show her every ounce of love I had for her. She looked at me weird and said, “What did you do that for?” I smiled coyly; said “nothing” — gave her a peck on the head, and went to sleep.
Thank God; I woke up today and Cindy was there, and I had a big smile on my face.
Don’t photograph what others expect you to photograph
You never know when you or your loved ones is going to pass away. So contact them and show them your love while you can. And not only that; but photograph them.
Photograph only what you think is going to be personal to you, rather than what others will think is a “good” photo.
Imagine you lived in a world where social media didn’t exist, and you only took photos that you would see. What would you continue to photograph, what would you start to photograph, and what would you stop photographing?
Don’t make the camera the focus of your life
If you lived in a little box, and nobody gave a shit about what brand of camera or how many megapixels it had, would you really care what camera you used?
I’ve used every single fancy and expensive camera out there. Ironically enough I’ve settled on a Ricoh GR II digital camera ($550). Why? It is just easy to carry around with me, easy to point-and-click (P mode and ISO 800), inexpensive, and I have don’t have to “think” before taking a photo.
The camera doesn’t get in my way. This means that I am better to enjoy living my life, and the camera is just a side-kick, rather than the main focus on my life.
I’ve used heavy-ass DSLR’s (Canon 5D), and smaller (yet still heavy) cameras like a Leica M9+Leica MP. Honestly the bigger your camera, the heavier your camera, the less likely you are to use it.
If you think about it; the smartphone is probably the best camera. You always have it with you, so “not having a camera on you” never becomes an excuse. My good friend Josh White has recently returned to taking photos (mostly) on his smartphone, and when he reflects on all his past photos, some of his most memorable moments were shot on a smartphone. Why? It was the only camera on him, and he didn’t have to think.
He mentions something that stuck with me— a lot of people say they don’t like taking photos on a smartphone because they might print it one day. But Josh says, “Honestly— will you ever print it? Sure you will. Sure.” And to be frank; 99% of us will never print our digital photos. If you do, that is awesome. But just be honest; if you never print your photos, you won’t start printing (even if you buy a medium-format digital camera with a billion megapixels).
I do encourage you to print your photos though— it can just be cheap 4×6 prints from Costco or some local pharmacy or drugstore. And it will bring you joy by putting it on your wall, and giving them out as gifts. But if you don’t plan on doing that, just enjoy them on your smartphone, camera, and share them with your personal friends.
Why do I prefer not using a smartphone?
I honestly think (for me) at the end of the day— the image quality just isn’t pleasing to my eye. I prefer better-image quality from a pocket camera (Ricoh GR II has a DSLR-sized APS-C sensor) and the camera is always on me anyways.
Furthermore, I fall victim to what Nassim Taleb calls “neomania” — I am never satisfied with my digital devices, and always want to upgrade. Even now, I use a Samsung Galaxy S6 (got for free from Samsung), and I am always jealous of those with an iPhone 6S (apparently the camera is slightly better). And whenever I shoot on my smartphone, I feel like I’m missing out. And I feel miserable, and suddenly start getting cravings to upgrade. The same happens with me with any tablet I use, any laptop I use, any car I drive, or even e-reader. Nassim Taleb says that most things with an “on/off switch” makes us prone to quickly getting dissatisfied with our digital devices, and we suddenly want to “upgrade” when we become jaded and bored with what we have.
The nice thing with the Ricoh GR II is that even though it is an imperfect camera (slow autofocus, slow buffer); the benefits outweigh the negatives (small size, macro capabilities, fantastic image quality, easy to carry with you everywhere you go). And the camera is rarely outdated (the previous Ricoh GR and the new Ricoh GR II are pretty much the same camera, except the GR II has wifi, which is pretty useless at least to me).
Don’t compare yourself to others
We are always comparing ourselves to others. We compare ourselves to other photographers— we feel like our camera isn’t fancy or expensive like theirs, we wish we had more followers (or at least as much as them), and we wish that we were as talented as them.
But everyone is different. Are you jealous of an NBA player because they were born 7 foot tall; while you are only 5 foot 10 inches? That is something you don’t have control over.
Similarly; some of us are born into situations where we might not be able to be the world’s “best” photographer. We might have a shitty job that requires a 90-hour work-week, we might have babies to take care of, or we might be color-blind, or we might be missing one eye which doesn’t give us as much good depth-perception. Or perhaps you were raised in an engineering-oriented family that hated art; so you missed out getting some sort of arts education when you were young.
Regardless— it makes no sense to be jealous of other photographers whose life circumstances are different than yours.
Be satisfied and content with the life you already have. And also try to achieve your “persona maximum” in your own life and photographic abilities.
You were given some sort of “maximum capability” in terms of your photography and artistic ability. Rather than trying to achieve what others have achieved, see if you can reach 100% of your potential.
For example, in powerlifting (weight lifting with heavy-ass weights), there is a biological limit to how much a man can lift. No matter how much you train, no matter how much steaks you eat, or how much whey protein powder you eat, you will never be able to deadlift more than 2,000 pounds. A bull will always be stronger than you, no matter how hard you train (the human limit is finite).
But let’s say you are 5’10 inches, 170 pounds— one day you might be able to achieve a 500-600 pound deadlift. But after that, you probably won’t be able to.
And once you are able to achieve your “personal maximum” — this can lead to depression. There is no more room to progress. Powerlifters and bodybuilders call this a “plateau” — and there is nothing more shitty than a plateau. Similarly in the corporate world, they call it a “glass ceiling” — a point in which you cannot earn more money or advance any more (often happens to people of color, women, and young people).
So the goal is to achieve your personal maximum— but know that no matter how hard you try, you will never reach 100%. And you never really want to reach 100%. But the journey of trying to reach your personal maximum is what you desire.
Don’t define yourself
So strip away all labels in your photography. “Street photography”, “documentary photography”, “portrait photography”, “wedding photography”, “landscape photography” — all photography is photography. Even “personal photography” is another label that you probably shouldn’t apply to yourself. Just call it “photography.” Or better yet— don’t call it “photography.” Call it “living well” — and taking photos of yourself living well.
So please no more dick-measuring contests with the camera or lens you use. No more bragging about how many followers you have on social media. No more adding ridiculous numbers of hashtags to your images to hope to get more followers. No more refreshing your phone every 5 minutes, seeing if there is someone who recently commented or “liked” your photo, or commented on it.
Take a social media “detox” or “fast” — and see how much clearer your mind and self-satisfied you become.
I’m not telling you to give up social media forever— I’m just trying to share how to use it more mindfully.
Like with food, eating 24/7 without break will give us indigestion, cause us to become soft and flabby, and give us a lot of diseases. However fasting from eating will make us leaner, stronger, meaner, less prone to sickness and disease, and happier. But there is a certain point where you need to break your fast and to start eating again.
So treat social media the same. Don’t check your social media everyday. Take a few days off. Take a week off, take a month off, take a year off— whatever works for you.
And when you return to social media, ask yourself “why” you are on social media? Are you sharing photos because you want to share your joy and happiness with the world? Are you doing it because you want more followers? Are you doing it because you are insecure or lonely? Or do you have something genuinely good to contribute to society?
Ask yourself these questions.
And in the meanwhile, hug your loved ones, photograph them, and photograph if today were your last day on earth. Remember living well is our #1 concern in life, photography (and everything else) comes secondary.
Farewell, I believe in you.
About The Author
Eric Kim is a street photographer currently based in Berkeley, California. He blogs extensively, and is one of the The Photography Club at UCLA co-founders. You can see more of Eric’s work here, and communicate with him via his Facebook page, Twitter account and Flickr stream. This article was also published here.