Street Zen Blog
Today is my birthday so I thought I’d write down some thoughts about my life and photography. There’s been a lot of change in my life since my last birthday but it’s surely been for the better. I went from working full time in a toxic environment to doing what I’m passionate about and I can truly say that I’m quite happy. There’s things I still need to work on and sure I can worry about money and what comes next but I think that right now if I just follow the path that’s been put before me I’ll be okay.
Since I was laid off last November I’ve been presented time to detox my energy and time to think (and not think at times) about my life, what’s important and what the next chapter is. I guess it’s still in brainstorming phase but things are moving along nonetheless. Spending time with family and friends is always uplifting and warming. I’ve excitedly traveled to Tokyo, which is such a wonderful city, and met new friends and fellow photographers. Shooting there for the first time was a bit of a shock just based on the fact that it was so new to me so I do plan on getting back out there again. I’ve learned so much from so many people that were so kind and generous with their knowledge and encouragement. I’ve been able to shoot in more professional settings and from that I’ve learned and gained more experience towards my goals. I’ve been able to shoot the streets so much more often and really work on my craft. I’ve also just taught a workshop and that experience was so rewarding. Life is so different right now that I’m just soaking it all in.
There are things that I’ve learned and relearned about life and in photography. I’ve taken things a bit seriously so I’m learning to do the opposite. I’m learning how to be happy too. Weird that I have to learn that but I don’t think most people really know how to be happy. A 99 year old Chinese man told me, after I asked him what his secret was in his longevity, he said “Be happy” with a big smile on his face and throwing his hands up in the air. At the time I thought I sort of new what he was really talking about but it wasn’t until recently that I got more of a glimpse of what he was talking about. Anyway, I’m learning more about myself these days and doing street photography really helps me with this process.
It’s deciding to get up and go somewhere that starts it off. The entire thing is a meditation for me. I wake up and try to have something positive in mind. I’ll go through some photos to get some inspiration or ideas of something to work on or something I haven’t tried before. Some days I have something in mind to focus on and others I don’t and just walk and shoot what I like and get in the zone. Once I’m out I’m staying positive and keeping my eyes open for potential shots. Once I’m in the zone my eyes are wandering in front, sides, and behind. I’ve just recently been listening to music a lot more while I’m out by myself and I think I like it. Some jazz or blues in my ear putting some rhythm to my step and a soundtrack to what I’m seeing. When I get home I’ll go through them briefly while I’m downloading and then not see them again for a while. As much as I love shooting I also enjoy editing and processing my photos. It’s a totally different skill to work on and a slightly different frame of mind I have to be in. It’s all part of the whole experience all the way up to being able to share my photos. It’s my zen.
Well, on this birthday I can say that I’m grateful for so many things. I’m most grateful for the love from my family and friends, grateful for being alive, grateful for the new experiences, and I’m grateful for photography because it helped to make those things really important to me again.
Fear, anxiety, and self-consciousness help not the street photographer.
Looking back at the last year of my photos I can really see the difference in how I was shooting. I was very self-conscious of purposefully photographing complete strangers in public. I was also fearful of what negative reaction I would get if the person realized what I was doing. What is common with both of those experiences is that each was only happening in my mind. The reality is that 98% of the time no one reacted and most didn’t even know. If I did catch their attention the most I would get is an odd look or a hand in front of their face. Actually, the few and only times I’ve been verbally assaulted I hadn’t even taken a photo and it was from homeless people in downtown who likely have had their share of lenses in their faces which is one reason why I don’t usually photograph them. Some people cordially ask me why I’m taking their picture and I tell them why depending on the situation. It’s okay that they’re curious and for me it opens up dialogue with the person and potential client. I’ve learned to carry business cards so if you haven’t made one yet I would suggest getting some. Many things had to evolve in my mind to be able to realize that the fear and anxiety was only in my mind. The mind is a very powerful thing and can be made to believe anything. Emotion is a bodily sensation that is caused by what we think. So knowing that, if we change our thoughts we can change how we feel. This isn’t a new concept but takes awhile to believe and put into practice. I work on walking around positive and curious. Positive that only good can happen, curious about what will be put before me to photograph and interested about what is going on in the world around me.
An anonymous person asked me here on tumblr, “What methods could a new street photographer like me use to overcome the fear of shooting random people? I tend to see a great picture and rush the shot or just let it pass.” Thanks for the question. I can very much relate to this and have learned that first the belief in the mind must change. The how is by going out and doing it as much as possible so that little by little the comfort in what you’re doing sets in. To answer the question for your self as to what negative could happen and finding that little does happen. Focusing outward rather than inward as you walk around. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, like to the light, the shadows, the interactions between people, their gestures, emotion, and life. Think about how you would frame it and present it. Try changing the thoughts of being sneaky and intrusive to you just being curious and interested. So what if someone thinks you’re a little weird for looking at them and taking a photograph. You could be that happy tourist walking around town for all people know. Believe you are an artist creating your next masterpiece. Believe that at that moment you were meant to be there and take that photograph.
You can even try making assignments for yourself as if it was a job and the assignment could be that you, the photographer, must go out and take a photo of a street scene for the next Sunday paper. If it was your job to do it could it change how you think about it? Projects are always a good thing to start.
It helped me early on to ask people to take their portraits. Now, there’s debate out there about this not being considered as street photography but for the purposes of my answer this does not matter. Approaching people takes courage. Asking for something from a complete stranger takes courage. As a man I know of this from trying to approach an attractive woman. Some will reject and some will not. That’s just how it goes. So, I walked around and asked people who in my opinion had character if I could take their photos. Increasingly I found that most were positive about it and didn’t mind at all. After the first few that I approached I realized that it wasn’t that hard anymore and slowly the anxiety and fear began to diminish. It’ll always be there deep inside but if it wasn’t my body and mind wouldn’t be doing its job of self-protection. Some said no and I had to get used to it. Some people just really do not like their pictures being taken. Walk on and stay positive that the next one will say yes. This could become your ‘pick a number’ strangers portrait project or something like that. Mine was people in hats and it made sense to me because I sport a fedora. It’s helped me with portrait photography in general also. I’d suggest trying it out and seeing if it works for you.
One of my blog posts (Feb 15, 2012) was about having a positive attitude. Part of it is thinking that nothing negative will happen to me and that only positive things will happen. I’ve noticed myself smiling more when I’m curiously walking around wondering what my eyes will feast on next. Of course I get down sometimes but then get up again. (Just reminded me of that song.) It’s so important in my opinion to be positive. I’m just stating what I’ve worked on and got results from and what I think has worked for a lot of other people.
When we get nervous, anxious or fearful we tend to forget to breathe so take a moment, take a deep breath and then exhale. Do it a few times until you begin to relax. Breathe deeply while you’re walking around or standing around waiting for the shot. For me it’s a meditation so breathing is a huge part of it. I find myself more conscious to my surroundings and in tune with myself. The more oxygen in my brain the more relaxed I am. I’m big on vibes and energy so if you’re nervous or feeling creepy that’s the energy you put out and will likely get in return and so goes the opposite, if you’re positive and happy that’s the energy you put out and get in return. A photo walk should be pleasant, relaxing and fun, so breathe, relax and stay calm then repeat.
It’s been said before but I’ll say it again. “Smile!” I think it helps to be less threatening. People have told me that I’m non-threatening and it’s possible it’s because I smile. A smile goes a long way. There’s just something about it that puts people’s guard down especially if it’s genuine. A “Thank you” is always good to hear but again it’s your choice. You can say or not say anything at all. The person may have not even realized that you took his or her picture and you voicing your appreciation would be a little out of place. You might be more social and like to talk to people so you may already know the benefits of this. Maybe you’re not so social but the right smile can be a good non-verbal communication to use that expresses positivity anyway.
So, begin to change your mind and beliefs on being nervous, anxious, self-conscious and fearful to being positive, curious, interested, adventurous and courageous. Go out and shoot as often as your schedule allows because the more you do it the less fear you have eventually. Begin small projects and goals for yourself. Breathe, stay positive and don’t forget to smile. I’m no expert and only expressing my own experiences as I continue to learn and develop but think about what I’m saying and try some of these things out. Give it some time and keep what works for you.
Light is essential to photography. During this walk about, I noticed how the light fell onto this scene at Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. I stopped and watched as this man paced back and forth in front of his market booth. I knew if he fell into the right place it would make an interesting photo. About 10 minutes went by and he mostly had his back to me or wasn’t quite in the right place. There were also tourists walking through the path in front of his shop so I waited a bit longer and kept putting my camera to my eye to make sure I would frame it correctly once the right moment came. Finally he turned and I pressed the shutter.
For me it wasn’t until around the time I took this picture last year did I purposefully and consciously see the light and chase it. In my art classes we would draw from still and life models and learn about how light and shadows work. It only made sense to focus on it in my photography. Because I had focused on learning my camera and lenses, learning about exposure, learning about how to edit and processes my photos, and focusing on getting over the fear of shooting people in public I just hadn’t put the two together yet until then. So, a lot of what I learned started to come together in my mind around this time and light made the difference. It really helped me to develop my style. A fellow street photographer, Ibarionex Perello, wrote a book called Chasing the Light and he stated that once he realized the significance of light it changed everything about his photography. I’d say the same for mine. It brought depth and mood to my images. It brought out the vivid colors (to some), and added shapes and geometry to my images. I search for light and also look for the shapes the shadows make. The shadows are just as important to me as the light so sometimes I focus more on the shadows than the light. I love how light reveals and how shadow hides elements in the photograph. Paying extra attention to light and shadows is what I continue to train my eyes to see every time I go out walking and in every photography venture I encounter.
What makes it so pleasant an experience for me when I go out to shoot is the attitude I go out with. I do seriously enjoy getting out in the city and going for a walk. Well, in Los Angeles it’s a mix of a drive then a walk. Getting lost and finding new areas and places I hadn’t seen before is an adventure. It’s like being a tourist in my own city. Different areas of LA have somewhat different people and buildings. Each have details that only those that live in that area really know about but for me to discover. I love shooting in downtown LA but I also shoot in other areas. It’s a solitary thing for me partly because it gets me in the zone and partly because usually it’s pretty spontaneous where I head out to on a certain day.
Street photography to me, at least partly, is that it’s somewhat of a frame of mind and a way of seeing the world I live in. It is a personal thing for sure. I’ve come to understand why I do it and it’s because it is a mediation for me. Zen is about enlightenment and I believe I found enlightenment in the process of going out and doing what I do. I also like to make pictures, pictures that I like and that pleases me. I’ve liked making pictures whether drawing them or photographing them ever since I was a kid so the moment I know I made a good one is a huge joy. Seeing how different people live and how people interact with each other shows me so much about humanity and it touches me. There were some moments when I became a bit emotional after seeing a moment, thinking about it and bringing it to heart.
I went from being somewhat fearful of photographing complete strangers to not even thinking about the fear at all. Capturing the moment, the emotion, the interaction between a person and their environment became more important. Improving my skills and improving how I see the shot became more important. The fear caused some stress earlier on and I didn’t want that. It shouldn’t be like that. It had to be fun otherwise why do it? I’m also big on energy or vibes. If I was worried about getting caught or what one might say to me, or if I thought what I was doing was wrong or creepy then that would have been the energy I got in return. So I walk out with a positive energy and walk with positive energy and so far I’ve only had a few negative experiences but they were with homeless folks who I didn’t even take a picture of! There are folks out there who just don’t want their picture taken. That’s just how it is but the thing about the getting over the fear of taking people’s pictures is that it’s just what happens in the mind. The mind is so powerful and you can make it believe whatever you want it to believe. Most of what I thought I feared ended up being unreal but I had made it real by sticking the emotion of fear to the thought. So it’s just a change of mind or a change of beliefs. It’s what worked for me in the last year and my life in general. A smile also goes a long way and at times I’ll say ‘Thank you’ if it warrants one although the shot most often happens so quickly and I’m a bit more low key in the way I shoot so most times they don’t even know or at least don’t realize I’ve just taken a picture of them. As many have said before me, a positive attitude and positive energy goes a long way and for me is key while I’m out on the streets.
Photography is my passion and street photography saved me. It gave me purpose in life again. I started out like many photographers who owned a point and shoot camera and then at some point figured out that it’s fun to shoot and that the pictures I was taking were actually pretty good. My little camera would go everywhere I’d go and I’d take pictures of pretty much anything. Then after some time of going through photography websites, blogs about gear, reading photography books, and playing with friends’ cameras that I’d outgrown my point and shoot cameras. At the time I felt that I wasn’t getting the type of images I saw on some of the websites I had visited. So, I saved up and became a very happy and proud new owner of a DSLR, a Nikon D90 with kit lens. Oh, yeah. Soon after I bought it my friend, Kit, and I drove down to Hollywood and started walking and shooting that evening. (Photo posted taken that night) The smile on my face was cheek to cheek and I never looked back. The first few photographers that I admired, respected, and that I found inspiration from for street photography were Chris Weeks (35lux) with his e-book Street Photography for the Purist, Roberto (Bear) Guerra, Trent Park, Felix Lupa, Stephen Wright, Markus Hartel, Nils Jorgensen, Severin Koller, Frank Jackson and of course HCB. I’ve found more photographers that I’ve admired and learned from the last two years. Photography started out as an interest and something I thought was fun to do and turned into something I wanted to do everyday. Being that my background is in art and graphic design I also enjoyed the processing side to photography and was used to sitting in front of the computer and staying up all night. It just made sense.
So how did it save me? My life up until then was swallowed up by work. I was stressed out and honestly I was not very happy. The work environment was toxic and I was becoming a hermit too. The constant urge to go out and take pictures made me go places and do things again. Whenever I had a chance I went out and practiced. I then thought there had to be folks out in LA that were like-minded and decided to attend an Eric Kim Street Photography workshop after finding his blog when I was looking for X100 reviews. I read through his blogs and liked his enthusiasm and common passion for street photography. Through Eric’s workshop, I did not only learn more about street photography but I also made great friends and fellow street photographers. I received more encouragement within the group and from folks who began to see my work. I continued to meet great street photographers, some whom I had admired earlier on, and new friends that shared my passion for street photography. I’m happy and grateful to have found my passion in life. Last November I was laid off from the company I had worked at for 10 years. A blessing in disguise, I am now able to focus on photography and continue to hone and develop my skills in photography and have more time to shoot the streets.