5 (Street Photography) Lessons from Eric Kim

Last month, I was participating in Eric Kim's advanced street photography workshop in Sydney, and I happen to become his guide for a few days during his stay in Sydney. I will not review his workshop here, but rather, important lessons I have learned from Eric outside the classroom. 

1) Community of street photographers ("streettogs")

Eric emphasised that street photography is mostly about the community. This is what I have done wrong in my "landscape days": I thought that photography is a very individual hobby and I basically just need to educate myself the way I like it. I have been wrong because I need feedbacks from other people too, both from fellow photographers and non-photographers (such as your girlfriend or your mum). 

What we mean by “community” is a community in real life, not virtually over the net. Facebook can help organise events, but there is no replacement for having a real group of like-minded folks. I first met my friend River on April (last month), then start meeting other members of Sydney Streettogs (which was formed shortly after) and so far I am having some of the best times in my life. Want to know how like-minded am I with River? And most other streettogs for this matter, really. We shot with similar camera setups, we have the same "photography rights" document printed and folded in our bag, we even watched the same anime series! We found out these stuff when we first met.

One of the best things out of a community is the amount of support you get from others. Four months ago, I would never imagined myself sitting in a cafe with other streettogs who shoots film and develop on their own. Most other friends who didn’t understand the art of using film simply making us feeling down by saying we’re wasting money, we’re hipsters, film is more expensive than digital, and all those moot arguments. On the other hand, it feels great when you know the other photographers in the community would support each other through constructive criticism, willing to help when there’s something wrong with our film development method, willing to go and check out an exhibition together, instead of simply judging what we do is good/bad based on our gears. 

One thing to note though: we are not really bothered by the number of members we have, as long as they are passionate about street photography. Let’s face it: “photography clubs” are everywhere, for example the one I have back in the University. It’s a properly-registered group with huge amount of members, but because it’s so big, there are too many people with different expertise (some landscape photographers, some architecture, some journalism, etc). While there is nothing wrong with that, it is easy to lose focus. It is very easy to find someone who just casually pops up when they need helps (usually someone who had no clue what aperture means, and refuses to read instruction manuals), but it is difficult to find a person who’s genuinely interested in the things you are passionate about (especially street photography - you won’t believe how relatively small our circle is). More often than not, the next landscape photographer who is sitting next to me is shooting digital, and he would start asking me, “Why are you shooting a Velvia for landscape?” See, how could you support each other if the photographer is only concerned about my camera and lens and film?

2) Know the literature well, then be a good critique

During our dinner one night, one of us asked Eric which street photographer should we research on, whom would inspire us and potentially have particular photographic style we would adopt. Whilst Eric listing the names for us, he also encouraged us to read more photobooks, because to be a good critique to others’ work and our own work, knowing the literature of photography is one of the prerequisites. This brings me to my next point…

3) Buy books, not gear

This seems pretty clear, as Eric has mentioned this numerous times in his blog, however it just occurred to me: you don’t really have to buy the books. In one of our photo walks, Eric brought us to Kinokuniya book store. There were about five of us, and Eric handed each of us a thick photobook - he handed me Henri Cartier-Bresson’s "The man, the image & the world". I came up with a lot of questions to him, and I returned from Kinokuniya with a lot of inspirations. Eric once mentioned to us that he measures how good someone is as a photographer based on how many photobooks s/he had read/owned, not how much cameras and lenses s/he had.

It is not that I don’t want to buy the photobooks for myself, but for someone who’s always on the move and likes to keep possessions to minimal, this is a good method. I would buy some of my favourite photobooks in the near future - I’m sure having it and being able to read it in my own time would be a lot better than making a trip to the book store all the time. Buying a photobook is more like buying an experience, and when you have it, it’s almost like revisiting those experiences. Think about buying a DVD and being able to rewatch your favourite movie, instead of paying for cinema.

4) When you are 80% happy with your toys, stick with it

One of the most important lessons. The first thing to realise before we make an impulse spending on photographic gears is that we will never be 100% happy with it. Never. This is why, when you are at least 80% happy with your current lens or camera, you should stick with it. Another implication of this is never to borrow your friend’s lens or other gear. Yes, they are probably nicer than the ones you have, and you will probably want it in the end, but it probably won’t make you any happier or any better photographer.

If you’re not 80% happy yet with your current gear, try to put something on it, like my friend Norman's Contax T2.

At the moment, I have a Doraemon sticker on my flash. I think of this as a social experiment - I already had people smiling at me on the street just because I have this sticker stands out when I have the camera on my neck.

Read Eric’s recent article on buying happiness here. This brought me to another point:

5) Buy another street photographer a beer (principle #7) / spend your money on others

Eric literally bought us a pitcher of beer to share, but this is not the example to illustrate my point. One time when we were out shooting, I was reaching my bag realising I didn’t bring enough film for the day. Eric noticed me, and he took out two rolls of film from his bag, and made remarks, “use them and let me know if they are not enough.” Clearly, Eric wasn’t hesitated at all to help other street photographers, and that is something I admire from him. While I’m usually trying to share with other streettogs, Eric reminded me again how important it is to share (more) with others - for our own happiness!

River and I lifting Eric after dinner. See how happy we are.