One question I’ve been wondering to myself is this: is it better to have plans and goals in our photography, or to have none?
Should we just harness our spontaneity in the streets when making images, or have some concrete plan? Should we plan for the future? Should we expect things to go to plan? Should we have goals in our photography and life?
I think in a very basic sense, it is good to have some sort of direction. Having a sense of direction gives us focus, encouragement, and serenity. Rather than feeling like a ship lost at sea, we feel like we have a compass directing us in life.
But the problem is, being overly-commuted to a goal, destination, or direction causes us to become blind to other options.
For example, let’s say you have a project idea to document this one local community. You have all these intricate plans on how you will take photos, interview your subjects, and publish a book. But once you get there, you realize it won’t work out — because it wasn’t quite as you imagined it.
In that situation, should you stick to your original plan, or be flexible, and change it up? Or decide to ditch it all together?
Flexibility and optionality
I feel as a photographer, we need to have creative freedom. WE shouldn’t become the slave of a plan. Most of us have no idea what direction we are going in our photography and life.
My practical tip: be flexible and keep your options open.
In the past, I have tried to make these grand 1, 2, and 5-year plans and projections.
But nothing ever goes according to plan.
In the past a child, I planned on becoming a scientist. Didn’t go according to plan.
In college, I planned on becoming a Sociology professor. Didn’t go according to plan.
At my old 9-5 job, I tried to plan my future “career.” Didn’t go according to plan — little did I know, a few months later, I would be made redundant and lose my job.
What I tried to do was to keep other options and doors open. Because I know the future is uncertain, and will always change.
What could we not predict?
Think about it — how quickly the world changes.
In the past, we hired web designers. Now they are mostly redundant, we can do that all easily through WordPress.
In the past, we hired taxis. Now taxi-drivers are becoming redundant, they’re becoming replaced by Uber drivers.
Currently, coders and computer scientists are being valued. By perhaps in the future of “machine learning” and artificial intelligence — they might also be made redundant.
So as a general life philosophy, don’t make any hard or rigid goals in your life or photography. Because the world changes. You need to be flexible and learn how to adapt.
Have a general idea what direction you want to head— have a vision or focus in your mind. But be willing to change the details. Because nothing will ever go according to plan.
In practical terms, don’t become married to any of your photographic projects. Be willing to ditch a certain photo project, or adapt it.
Also don’t get tied to one genre of photography. Don’t just stick to ‘street photography’, ‘documentary photography’, or ‘wedding photography’. By making yourself open to other options, you will be more creatively flexible, and adaptable in the future marketplace.
Be like bamboo. Strong, yet flexible.
Learn more: Personal Photography >
A nomad mindset means that you are mentally and physically light. You don’t hold onto past possessions. You live in the moment, and you are flexible.
You cherish experiences, relationships, and your life’s passions. You disregard material possessions, concepts of “stability”, and you aren’t held down by others.
You live with freedom, joy, and lightness. Nothing holds you back.
I think to many, the concept of being a nomad is exciting and exhilarating. Most of us are stuck in cubicles and boxes on a daily basis, and we feel trapped.
Most people I know– many of their dreams are to travel and see the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “lifestyle” and having a certain mindset as of late. Meaning– what kind of lifestyle or mindset makes us the happiest, and most fulfilled?
Hunter gatherer society vs agricultural societies
Traditionally we have been a hunter-gatherer/nomad society. We were highly mobile, operated in very small communities, and were always on the move. We would eat whatever we could find– whether they be fruit, leafy greens, nuts, or (once in a while) animals.
As time went on, we eventually became part of an agricultural society. No longer were we constantly starving in search of food (like nomads), but we had more stable homes. We started to build homes, and more permanent cities. We started to live longer; but did we live as happy a life as before?
Comfort or feeling alive?
Without modern society, technology, and agriculture– we would never have the “cognitive surplus” to meditate on life, philosophize, create art, or any of that. In a nomad life, we were only preoccupied with living (particularly not dying).
However we can’t fool our biology. Although human technology has rapidly advanced in just a few lifetimes, our pre programmed nomadic lifestyle mindset hasn’t changed much.
With modern society– you see all the ills of too much comfort and technology. We no longer go out and see movies with friends; we would prefer to Netflix it at home by ourselves. We no longer go to Church and socialize on Sundays; we would prefer to watch the game at home. We no longer walk; we are constantly trapped in our cars, stuck in traffic, in our suburban sprawls. While smartphones have enabled instant and free communication with anyone around the world, we have never felt more alone than we do now.
How to be more nomadic
After spending a few weeks in Orange County (car suburbia central), I’m starting to realize how much of a modern “luxury” it is to walk. I’m always trapped in the car and the only walking I can get done is at the mall (which inevitably tempts me to buy stuff I don’t need), or at another mall just across the street.
As human beings, we thirst for adventure. We hate routines (although productivity blogs tell you otherwise). We hate answering emails day in and day out. Our smartphones have become chains and shackles (instead of digital tools that empower us). We want to travel, explore, see the world.
I think this is why street photography appeals to me so many others out there. Street photography helps us tap in the “inner nomad” in us. By aimlessly wandering the streets, we are able to serendipitously have novel experiences. We meet interesting new people. We see places we have never seen before. We exercise our creative pathways, and make images that connect us with the environment and other people.
Another thing I’m starting to realize is how to live like a nomad is to be both physically and mentally light. If you’re always living “on the go” and you don’t have a permanent home, you cannot accrue a lot of stuff.
I’ve personally traveled with a lot of stuff in the past, and it is just a pain in the ass. There is nothing worse than carrying a heavy backpack with multiple cameras, multiple lenses, and multiple electronic gadgets that weigh you down. You don’t enjoy your traveling or exploring. You’re just thinking about how tired your shoulders and legs are.
So the thought occurred to me: how can we apply a “nomadic mindset” to our daily lives?
First of all, we have historically operated in very small communities and clans. That means, with photography and social media– we shouldn’t follow hundreds upon thousands of people. We should only follow a few people who we are close to; people that uplift and inspire us.
Secondly, we love what is light and portable. When it comes to a camera for street photography, just use whatever is lightest, most compact, and most convenient for you. Disregard image quality as your number one factor.
Thirdly, we need to aimlessly wander, explore, travel, see the world, and walk more. If you’re stuck in a suburb (like I currently am) this can be very difficult. Small suggestions: make the best out of your situation, like do “street photography” at the mall, go to the park with your family and take snapshots of your loved ones, or every once in a while go to the downtown area of your city, and just walk around with camera in hand.
Fourthly, own only what you can carry in your backpack. When I moved out of Berkeley, I was astonished how much crap I own. I’m still paring down my possessions, but I know that I am going to only limit myself to one backpack when I move to Vietnam for the next 2 years. I like the idea of owning only the possessions which I can hold on my back. We still need possessions and tools to operate, but how much do we really need?
Fifth, live everyday as if it were your last. Carpe diem. 99.9% chance you will live another day tomorrow, but what if you get hit by a drunk driver, slip and crack open your skull, or fall into a coma when you sleep and not wake up the next morning? Live each day as if it were a complete life, and don’t procrastinate on anything that is truly meaningful to you. Disregard money, wealth, and status– only do what personally brings you joy, meaning, and happiness.
Everyday is a learning experience
Everything I write here is what I have learned on my personal experiences. None of this is truth, and is only applicable to me.
But what I have discovered is that everyday is a learning experience. I try to keep my mind open to new ideas, and flexible like bamboo. Whenever I think I “have the answers”– my growing stops. I become less curious, excited, and joyful.
For me, the only way to true “happiness” is to do meaningful work that helps other people. I hope some of these ideas and words are helpful to you. Take what resonates with you, and throw away the rest.
Tomorrow is uncertain; make the best of today.
Friday, June 3, 2016 @ 9:08am, after two espressos, a 630am workout, five minutes in the sauna, a cold shower, another espresso (and pour over) and 7 eggs and some avocados for breakfast. Yeah, I know, I’m probably going to die of caffeine (or egg) overdose one day.
- “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb
- “The Bed of Procurates” by Nassim Taleb