I wanted to write you this letter on photography and life.
I just finished an epic week-long street photography workshop here in New Orleans, and it was an absolutely incredible experience. I had such a great time with the students, in terms of teaching, bringing people together, and sharing new experiences together.
Small enjoyments: chatting with students in the morning over some good coffee, sharing life stories with strangers on the streets, eating beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe Du Monde, having single-origin espressos at Spitfire coffee in New Orleans (and chatting with the owner), having good laughs at dinner while talking about our life’s passions, staying up until 1am at our AirBnb apartment with the students cooking eggs and bacon and sausage, debating which fried chicken place is the best, and just talking nonsense.
For a long time I wanted to be a “good” photographer. More so, I wanted to become a famous photographer. I wanted to be “respected”, I wanted to get lots of likes and comments on my photos, and to be appreciated in my photography.
But I realized, the point isn’t to be a good photographer; the point is to enjoy your life.
After all, why do we take photos in the first place anyways? We take photos because we enjoy it. We take photos because we enjoy the creative process, we take photos because it helps us connect to other people, photography helps us build a sense of community.
If you’re not enjoying the photography process, you’re doing something wrong.
The best piece of advice I got from my friend Jack Simon is that when it comes to photography, he rarely gets a good shot (maybe 6 photos he likes a year). However now whenever he goes out and shoots, it isn’t to make good photos. Rather, he enjoys going out to San Francisco to enjoy a nice cup of coffee (Philz), to enjoy the colorful street art, to walk around, and just get some exercise and get out of Palo Alto (where he lives).
I think one of the secrets to happiness is to have little to no expectations. Why? Because if we have low expectations (and work hard), we are less likely to be disappointed. When we have unrealistically high expectations for ourselves, we set ourselves up for failure.
For example, if you go out wanting to make a good photograph, the less likely you are to make a good photograph. Rather, I recommend going out with an open mind (with no expectation of making good photos). Therefore if you walk around an entire day and don’t take a single photo, you don’t feel disappointed. Rather, you tell yourself: “I enjoyed this day in the city, walking around, enjoying a nice cup of coffee, and chatting with some strangers I would have never chatted with.” And if you happen to make a half-decent shot; that is an added bonus.
So friend, remember the point of photography is to enjoy your life. Don’t restrict your happiness. If there is a trip that you want to go on, invest your money on that experience. It is psychologically proven that money doesn’t buy you happiness (if you spend it on material things like cameras, gear, lenses, bags, etc.). But money can buy you happiness if you spend it on experiences (travel, workshops, classes, buying a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, and arguably the experience of looking through a photography book).
You never know when you’re going to die. You might be young, but who knows if you will get hit by a car tomorrow while walking across the street (while texting and checking Instagram). Who knows if you’re riding your bicycle, and a drunk driver swerves (also texting) and hits you, and you die? Who knows if you discover you have a golf-sized tumor in your brain and you have a year left to live? (unfortunately happened to a good middle-school friend recently, he passed at age 27). Who knows if you have one or two many drinks too much late at night, fall asleep at the wheel, and drive off a cliff and die? (happened to a friend of a friend).
Don’t delay your happiness; live now. Live creatively in your photography. If there is a photography project you have always wanted to pursue, what is holding you back? Is it a fear of perfection? Fuck perfection. Just go out and shoot what you want, and ignore the criticism others might say like, “Oh, that has already been done before.” You have never done it before. And no matter how much you want to copy the work of those who have come before you, you will never be able to copy it 100% (because you are different). Picasso once said:
“Bad artists copy, great artists steal.”
Don’t copy others — steal the good ideas you see, remix it and apply it to your own photographic vision. And even if you try to copy others, you will inevitably add your own personal flair. So in a sense, don’t fear copying or stealing from others— your work will always inevitably be unique.
Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to others. Don’t worry if your friend has a bigger camera than you. Don’t worry if your neighbor has more money than you. Don’t care if your brother has a bigger house than you. Don’t care if another photographer might have more Instagram followers than you.
Seek to find inner-happiness and serenity for yourself; enjoy your own life (before trying to become a “great” photographer).
Enough is never enough
I want to share a story with you:
I recently did a Magnum workshop in Provincetown, and the thing that surprised me was this: even these great Magnum photographers weren’t 100% satisfied in their lives. They still talked shit about their fellow Magnum photography colleagues behind their back (saying their work was overrated, or that their edits were crappy). It made me realize this: no matter how accomplished or famous you are as a photographer, there will always be someone better, more talented, richer, or more famous than you.
Apparently there is a crap-load of photographer jealous of David Alan Harvey— they are jealous of his playboy lifestyle, his sold-out workshops, his loyal following, and his longevity. Why do people talk so much shit about him? Because they are jealous of him. But even David Alan Harvey has said in his workshop (that I attended) that he is constantly dissatisfied with his work— he wants to always do better.
We had a chat with Joshua, a local gallery owner here in New Orleans (“A Gallery”). He told us how Cartier-Bresson was frustrated how people were only interested in his iconic images (dude jumping over puddle) and didn’t want to buy his other work. Even Cartier-Bresson gave up photography after 30 years or so, to pursue painting (perhaps he no longer derived personal satisfaction from photography or felt stagnant).
Never stop hustling
“I’m never satisfied; you can’t stop my hustle.” – Jay Z
I think finding satisfaction with your life is the secret to happiness. If you are dissatisfied, you will never be able to enjoy what you already have.
Yet at the same time, I think the secret of being a happy and productive human being isn’t to be easily satisfied. If human beings were satisfied with their present condition, they would never innovate and we would have never advanced civilization forward.
For me, I am not easily satisfied. It can be a downside (I am never satisfied with my physical possessions, even this 13’’ MacBook Pro that I just purchased seems too heavy and cumbersome). I have extreme buyer’s remorse whenever I make any purchase. In-fact, I was considering returning this laptop for a 12’’ MacBook Retina or some other device. But I need to stop complaining and just be satisfied with what I have. I also currently own a Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone (I get them free from Samsung), yet I want an iPhone 6s. I have the perfect life, yet sometimes I complain that I travel too much and I want to spend more time at home. I have loving and supportive friends and family; yet I want to “network” more in order to gain more influence and power. I have the most loving partner in the world (Cindy) yet inside I complain to myself that she complains too much (ironic much?)
But for you friend, you should never stop hustling.
For me and my photography my only goal is this: that everyday I become a slightly less shitty photographer.
I am not the best photographer in the world by any means. I also am never satisfied with my work. I look at my work from 4 years ago and I think to myself, “What the hell was I thinking?”
Another goal I have in my photography: to be slightly less disappointed in my work everyday.
So I try to hustle hard to push myself to my limits. I predict I will have a short life; so I want to see how far I can push myself in this short period of time I have on this earth. I want to create new images that inspire people (and myself), and I will work as hard as I possibly can (and also drink as much coffee as humanly possible) in order to do so.
Furthermore, my aspiration with this blog is to provide as much helpful, empowering, and useful information and knowledge. I care a lot about money, but I know the purpose of my life isn’t to die with the most 0’s in my bank account— but to share as much “open source” information as possible.
Enjoy your life
So for you friend, what do you need to enjoy your life? Some suggestions:
1. Don’t delay happiness
If you have a photography project idea, don’t delay; start it today. Think about the smallest possible first step.
Let’s say you want to do a photo documentary series of a certain group of people in your city. Don’t map out plans. Just go out there, and take photos. Figure out the roadmap while you’re shooting.
If you want to travel, book your flights today. There is a double-bonus; you have a trip to anticipate (brings happiness), and you invest in an experience you will never forget. After all, every new camera you buy today will become crappy in 2 years, but every new experience you have will stick with you for the rest of your life.
2. Don’t expect to make good photos
The irony in my photography is this: the harder I try to make good photos, the less likely I am to make good photos. The less hard I try to make good photos, the better photos I make.
Honestly at the end of the day, most Magnum photographers I have talked to have told me that if they took 1 good photo a month and 1 great photo a year, they were satisfied. That was a good “batting average.”
I think it is realistic to make 1 good photo a month, and 1 great shot a year.
If you do the math; 12 good photos in a year is solid. You can have a nice and humble gallery showing at a local cafe with 6 photos (this means you can do two of these shows a year). With 12 images you can make a nice magazine (print it on blurb.com). If you work on a project for 3-4 years, you can make a nice photography book. Assuming your photographic lifetime is at least 30 years, you can make 30 fucking outstanding images before you die. Even if you die with 1 memorable and iconic image, you have done your job as a photographer to society. Think about Steve McCurry (Afghan girl), Nick Ut (Napalm girl), Henri Cartier-Bresson (Dude jumping over puddle), Mary Ellen Mark (portrait of a girl named “Tiny”), Diane Arbus (kid with grenade), William Klein (kid with gun), William Eggleston (tricycle shot), Lee Friedlander (one of his “selfie” shots).
Set realistic expectations for yourself; but strive to make the best photos you possibly can, and you will never be disappointed in your photography.
3. Don’t isolate yourself
As a photographer we live very solitary lives. We shoot alone, we look at our photos alone— you don’t need two people to create images (especially in street photography).
However, remember this quote from Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus (2000 years ago):
“Solitude is the mother of all anxieties.”
Shoot alone; yet share your photos with a community. Meet other photographers for a beer or coffee. Connect with like-minded individuals in real life, and on social media. Don’t compare yourself with others— rather, seek to support and help your fellow photographers.
The more you give, the more you will receive in return.
For example, don’t expect others to critique your work and give you honest and useful feedback and comments. Rather, seek to help other photographers by giving them honest feedback and critique, and they will eventually return the favor.
I also have learned an important life lesson: having 3-closely knit photographers in your life is more important than having 3,000 followers on social media.
When I want honest feedback and critique on my photos, I will send them to my friend Josh White via Kakaotalk (an internet texting app that Koreans use, similar to Facebook messenger or What’s app). I will also ask Cindy for her opinion (I will ask her a simple question: “Keep, or ditch?”). If I like the photo, Cindy likes the photo, and Josh likes the photo, I like the photo.
After all, who cares if 3,000 strangers on the internet likes your photo? Who cares what others think about your photos if you yourself don’t like the photo?
I will tell you another story about my friend Satoki Nagata, a talented street photographer from Chicago:
I had a bunch of photos on an iPad and sat with Satoki one night at 10pm at a tea shop in Chicago. We sat down, and I showed him some photos to ask for his opinion. I showed him one photo and I asked him: “What do you think about this photo?” Like a Zen monk, he paused, looked at me, looked at the photo, looked at me and asked me:
“What do you think about the photo?”
I then paused. It was profound.
I then responded and said: “Good point, I never thought about that.”
I paused some more and responded:
“I guess the shot is okay, I’m not really crazy about it.”
He then looked back at me and said:
“Then why does it matter what I think?”
It was almost like Satoki dropped the microphone and walked away at that point.
Satoki taught me an important lesson: never ask others for their opinion unless you already like the photo.
Not only that, but I have tons of shots that nobody likes but myself. I also have tons of shots that others like, but I don’t like myself.
At the end of the day, if you don’t like your own photos, why do you care what others think of your photos?
Remember that photography isn’t the most important thing in life— to live a good life is the most important thing in life.
If you’re doing anything that brings you dissatisfaction, frustration, anxiety, anger— you’re doing something wrong.
Fuck the amount of social media followers you have. Disregard money— seek to have enough to buy photo books, travel a little, and enjoy a nice espresso at the local coffee shop.
Disregard what others think about your work; seek to please yourself first.
Don’t delay your happiness— live in the now.
Shoot everyday as if it were your last. Mememento mori— remember one day you will die.
That is all I have to share with you friend. Time to go grab brunch with my friend Todd and Chris, enjoy some nice bacon and eggs, and to fly back to Berkeley to spend time with Cindy, the love of my life, and enjoy my humble life there with my family and close friends.
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.