philosophy

Fuck People, Fuck Their Opinions, and Fuck Their Ideals by Michael Jin

You that saying about opinions being like assholes? It’s true. Everyone has a god damned opinion about everything—myself included. Sometimes, such as in the case of your employer’s opinion of you, these opinions matter. Other times, such as in the case of the opinion of some random passerby you don’t know, they just don’t. Regardless of whether they matter or not, we work so hard to cultivate our self image so that people form positive opinions of us, don’t we? Be it our personal image or business image, managing social perception is a very real thing that we all engage in on some level.

We buy certain clothes, we cut our hair in certain styles, we listen to certain music, we drive certain cars, etc. Businesses conduct focus groups to determine which shade of purple gets the most positive reactions or which programs get aired. The fucked up thing is that it all makes a great deal of sense to manage your image because you never know what kind of situation might arise and there’s no second chance to make a first impression. That random passerby that you flipped off might be the person conducting your job interview later in the day. Some guy you pulled up to and swore at might end up being the waiter at a restaurant that you visit. It’s only natural, then, that we would hedge our bets and try to be the best version of ourselves that we can be at all times—or at very least the most socially acceptable version of ourselves.

I’d like to preface the rest of this by saying that I don’t believe that we ought to be complete assholes to one another. There’s room in this world for civil discourse when it comes to areas of disagreement and whenever practical, I believe that physical conflict is something that should be avoided. That having been said, I do believe that this practice of social image management has led to the repression of something very critical to all of us: our very humanity.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve decided that this ideal social image that we’ve created for ourselves in the process of managing our social images is the way people ought to be rather than understanding that far from our default human nature, it’s merely a facade that we construct as an act of enlightened self-interest. We then denounce those who deviate from this fabricated ideal as crude, rude, crass, unenlightened, or whatever other negative term we can come up with to codify them as lower forms of the human creature. Then we apply social penalties in the form of hiring practices, housing practices, boycotts, etc.

Of course there certainly exists a contingent of people who probably belong in these categories and certainly deserve to be demonized. I’m not going to argue that everyone is somehow good in their own fucked up way. Some people are just horrible human beings and a blight to society. This is not meant to be an apology for murderers, rapists, burglars, or drug dealers (that deserves its own post). This is about people who might swear, make an off-color joke, or hold views that are not popular. It’s about the guy on the football team that likes to sing Taylor Swift songs in the shower or the cheerleader that wants to get a face tattoo. It’s about people being who they are and accepting reality for what it is rather than the idyllic vision of it that we hold in our minds.

You see, we are not these perfectly manicured creatures that we expect ourselves to be. The fact that we so often have to suppress our urges to gain social acceptance means that we are effectively being told that we are not good enough for society as we are. Our anger is not acceptable for society. Our lust is not acceptable for society. Our greed is not acceptable for society. Hell, we have 7 Deadly Sins that are codified that pretty much cover the gamut of our base urges. Whether it’s by parenting, a religious institution, the legal institution, academic institution, or just the confluence of plain old everyday interactions, we are told that the person we desire to be is unacceptable and that we must, instead, desire to be somehow “better” than our real selves. So we create these masks for ourselves and we become chameleons, adjusting out behavior and language to different situations. In the process, we often lose sight of who we are on the inside and, in doing so, lose the ability to empathize with those that choose not to play this game.

How does any of this relate to photography? There are a number of ways, but I suspect that if you think about it, you’ll know them. Photography, like fashion, has its trends that come and go. Photographers, like country club members, have their own manners of interaction. Photography communities, like political parties, so often become echo chambers of people voicing the same ideas, patting each other on the back, and hounding anyone who dares to disagree. As for why I started to think about this issue, I’ll leave you with this.

Recently I began to handle some rudimentary social media posting for a company. A big part of the company identity and branding involves embracing the heritage and spirit of New York City. There wasn’t much going on in terms of prepared content so I decided to put up some photos that I wasn’t really doing anything with to fill any void. I was told that the black and white film photos that I was posting were “too depressing” and that I should remove the hashtag “#thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter” that I had attached to one of the 35mm film photos that I took. Obviously this is a case of paid work so I went ahead and made the requested adjustments, but it really got me thinking….

I am a photographer who captures real moments that exist in front of my eyes. The fact that the vast majority of my photography is some form of street photography means that these are moments that happen in front of not just my eyes, but the eyes of hundreds or thousands of people everyday. I am not a painter, creating imagery on canvas that only exists in my mind. While we can argue to what degree the scenes that I capture depict reality and how they are presented further affect the narrative, if there is a store with its gate down because it went out of business in my photo I think we can all agree that it’s highly likely that it’s a store that’s out of business.

Yes, New York City has many beautiful sights. It has a beautiful skyline, beautiful bridges, beautiful parks, etc. But for every fucking derivative copy-cat photo of the Manhattan Bridge from DUMBO, there are a million photos of graffiti on walls, buildings in disrepair, homeless people on the street, bustling outdoor markets, people waiting for a subway, etc. The real New York City is not the shit that you see in post cards. It’s the fucking Halal stand underneath the 7 Train. It’s the guy walking down a row of cars stopped at a red light asking for spare change. It’s some dumbass kid doing his little hat/pole dance on a moving subway car. It’s people buying fake Prada bags from some shady street vendor with a cardboard sign. It’s a crowded subway platform filled with sweaty people that look miserable after a day of work and just want to get the fuck home. The New York City that most New Yorkers experience is not the well-manicured greenery of Central or Prospect park. It’s not the pinks and purples blanketing the beautiful Manhattan skyline. New York City is people often cramming themselves into dirty century-old apartments, being dwarfed by gigantic gray buildings, being surrounded by blinking lights and tacky advertising, and endless construction sites. For others, it’s living on a residential street not unlike plenty of featureless suburbs with plenty of parking and not an ounce of character to distinguish it as anything close to what comes to mind when people think of the city.

So if my photography in this city is depressing and it’s nothing but a reflection of things that we walk by everyday, maybe the problem isn’t my photography, but the city that I’m photographing. Or maybe, it’s depressing because the reality of our city doesn’t match the glamorous image that most people have of it. To me, New York City is not glamorous and beautiful nor is it dark and depressing. It just is… No, I don’t find East New York to be a particularly pleasant place to walk around, but it’s no less a part of our city than the Upper East Side. The thing is that I’m a lazy person by nature so I just photograph the shit that I see. I can’t be bothered to fabricate something that isn’t there for me. I don’t live in Central Park. I live near Jamaica Avenue. I don’t drive down Madison Avenue. I drive down Queens Boulevard. I don’t visit Prospect Park. My travels take me to Nostrand Avenue. So I’ll take my photos in color, but fuck if I’m going to run around taking pictures of a city that, for me, doesn’t exist.

So fuck people, fuck their opinions, and fuck their ideals… because people are fucking twisted and have lost sense of reality, whether it’s the reality of themselves or the reality of their environment. Be honest with yourself and accept the honesty of others. Maybe when we stop being a species of fake Ken and Barbie dolls, we’ll start being human again.

Apparently a really depressing image. | #thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter  © 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

Apparently a really depressing image. | #thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

What If I Have Nothing To Say With My Photography? by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

I was recently listening to Episode #1096 of LensWork Podcast and the host, Brooks Jensen mentioned someone that he knew that had poured so much of his life mastering the craft of taking photos and turning them into beautiful prints. Mind you, this was back in the days of the wet darkroom where creating a print wasn't just a matter of hitting CTRL+P (or CMD+P for you Mac users out there) after doing some edits in Lightroom or Photoshop.

As someone that is still in the early stages of learning how to print in the wet darkroom, I can relate to the frustrations of trying to produce amazing prints. Not only is there a mountain of knowledge to absorb about the different films, papers, chemicals, temperatures, interactions, etc. but there's the physical component that you simply do not have in digital photography. Once you have done all of the tests and determined that you need to expose your paper for 20 seconds, the game is on the moment you hit that timer switch and you need the dexterity and coordination to perform all of your dodges within those 20 seconds. Once you've determined your burning times after that, you need to hit that light and be able to skillfully maneuver your burn cards to hit the areas you want for the duration you want without fucking up the rest of the image that you've gone out of your way to properly expose. Quite frankly, for something that suffers from anxiety such as myself (and takes medication for it), it's pretty stressful because one point of failure can mean that you've just wasted time, paper, and chemistry. There is no UNDO button or History Module that you can go back to. A fuck up effectively means nearly starting over from scratch. Then after all that, you get to developing the paper in the chemistry and I'm sure you can image that's another beast to wrestle with. I think a large part of why I am able to do it is simply because I am, by nature, not a super particular person and for my personal work that I don't intend for others' eyes, I'm OK with a print that isn't meticulously worked to perfection.

As I was listening to Brooks talk about this person—let's just call him Bob—I could empathize with the struggle and what it must feel like to finally master the entire craft to the point where one could produce a pre-visualized result on a consistent basis. Then came the big hit out of nowhere. Brooks talked about how once Bob got to this phase in life, he (Bob) just quit photography completely...

WHAT!? Are you fucking kidding me? That should be where you photography BEGINS, not where it ENDS! Up until that point, you're just dicking around doing the best that you can and trying to get the best results that you can, but isn't it precisely when the barrier of technical mastery is no longer a limitation that you ought to be free to finally bring your vision to life? I guess Brooks felt the way I did upon hearing this and asked Bob why he would choose that point to quit. Bob's response struck me in a way that simply froze me up. Paraphrasing just wouldn't do it justice so I replayed the episode to transcribe this part of the podcast exactly:

"... and I asked him why he had walked away from this craft that he had so exquisitely developed, and he explained to me quite simply that after he had established the skills and the ability to make a print pretty much at will, he realized that he had nothing to say and therefore all of that technological challenge was meaningless..."

FUCK... That's the word that immediately came to my mind. You see, I have a tendency to get so caught up in everything else about photography that I tend to pay little mind to WHY it is I do what I do and WHAT it is that I'm trying to put out into the world. Sure, I have my personal projects that I'm working on and on some level, they do feel a bit contrived if I'm to be honest. Of my projects, the one about Queens is definitely the one that's closest to my heart, but more than anything, my personal projects exist to give me focus as I'm developing my craft rather than serve as something that I feel is contributing to the world in a meaningful way. It has become so easy to walk around searching for interesting scenes, getting lost in the little details of my projects, culling photos, learning new techniques, and buying more books on photography to glean more information from. In short, the complex nature of the craft makes it extremely easy to take a myopic view, focusing on all of the little details, while completely ignoring the greater picture and the question of purpose.

What does my photography say? What do I intend for it to say? What if, after all of this, I find that I have nothing meaningful to say through my photographs? I won't go so far as to say that it has all been meaningless because I am obviously deriving some joy and therapeutic benefits from practicing it. At the same time, however, I do have this desire to create things that speak to people—not in a manipulative way, but in a way that conveys honesty and truth. I'm not sure how capable I am of saying something that hasn't been said a million times before, but I feel that there must be something about my unique human experience that can edify the global discussion in some manner.

Maybe some of this is my own frustration with myself from dealing with depression and whatever the photographer's version of "writer's block" may be. Despite living in one of the great cities of the world—a city that's ever changing and host to millions of untold stories—I have just been very confused and uninspired as of late. I'm still pushing frames, but I haven't felt that spark of excitement when I feel like I've captured something truly special or something that speaks to me. If feels really wrong to be able to live here and struggle like this to find that spark of inspiration. I guess why this story hit me pretty hard. Maybe my inability to find something to say in the midst of all of this is just evidence that I just don't have anything within me worth sharing.

For now, it's something I'm working through and there's at least the continued journey toward mastering the technical elements of the craft that can serve as a motivator while I ruminate on this greater question. I'm hoping to add more photos to the projects on the website by summer's end and I'll also be looking to replace a few of them with what I hope will be stronger images. In the meantime, thanks to the few of you that have seen the website and had encouraging words, it means a lot to me.

Photograph Mundane Things by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin

In photography, there's a constant temptation to look for the fantastic. We search for unique features, interesting compositions, juxtapositions, or notable events in hopes that it will create visual interest to draw the viewer in. While I don't discount the value of these principals in creating interesting images, I also believe that the constant search for these things can, at times, give us tunnel vision where we stop observing the otherwise mundane world.

At some point last year, I went out to take photos near my house and I took a photo of some graffiti on the wall.

© 2017 Michael Jin

It wasn't anything fancy—a throwaway shot, really. I was just pushing frames and wasting film. I didn't give any real thought to composition or anything else when I took it and frankly, I forgot that I had taken it for some time. There was nothing particularly special or notable about it since I walk by graffiti everyday and as you can see, we're not exactly talking about a Banksy here.

One day, however, I noticed that it was gone. Someone had put a fresh coat of paint over it to cover the graffiti, as happens so often in this city. I drive by this wall on my way home from work everyday and I cannot for the life of me tell you how long after the wall was painted that I finally noticed that this graffiti was gone.

It's so easy to get so focused on finding the different that we lose sight of the familiar. When we get on the bus, we put our heads down into our phone or close our eyes to sleep. When we leave the house, we just walk right by all of the perfectly ordinary scenery with nary a thought about it. On some level, however, that scenery is constantly in flux. On a smaller scale, it's a bit of graffiti being erased from a wall. On a larger scale, it's the gradual transformation of neighborhoods.

Take a moment once in a while to look around and occasionally photograph the mundane things because before you know it, they might not be there to capture anymore. The bit of graffiti that I took a photo of that day is gone, but it still exists on a film strip in my negative binder serving as a visual document of a tiny piece of my neighborhood's history.

Impostor Syndrome by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin

It's a pretty common occurrence for me. I'll come back from shooting, load my photos into Lightroom, look through them, and then a wave of depression will wash over me. As I scroll through photo after photo, I am faced with the realization that I'm just not very good at this. There are so many talented photographers out there and my work pales in comparison, so why am I bothering with any of this? Maybe I should just sell of my equipment and take up a different hobby. After all, I could probably shoot for a lifetime and I will still never approach the level of the greats. It all seems like an exercise in futility.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe some of you can relate to this constant feeling of inadequacy. I imagine that most have probably felt it at some point or another—at least once you get beyond the initial stage where you think that you're the greatest photographer since Ansel Adams and suddenly you're faced with all of the legitimate talent that's actually out there. I've heard it called many things, but the term that I think is the most descriptive is "Impostor Syndrome". It is this visceral feeling that you're just posing as a photographer, but you know that you don't have the skills and the sinking feeling that comes from knowing that at some point or another, someone is going to call you out on it and the charade will be up.

For some people, it provides the drive to improve. For others such as myself, it can be quite devastating to deal with. I imagine that it's just another extension of the self-esteem issues that I am constantly at war with and my tendency to fall into depression really doesn't help. Beyond drinking some magic potion that turns you into a savant photographer, how do you deal with this feeling?

For one, I try to remind myself that photography is a very subjective thing and there is no universal rule for what constitutes "good" or "bad" photography. Also, my photography is a reflection of myself and my own vision so it makes little sense to compare it to someone like Ansel Adams who lived a different life, had a different system of values, and noticed different things. While there is always a desire to emulate the masters (because they're the masters), it's important to be mindful that our most meaningful work is going to be borne from our own experiences. Another positive to take away is the fact that the ability to sit back, evaluate your photos, and see your weaknesses is, in itself, a skill and strength. It's only the ignorant that believe that their work cannot be improved upon simply because they don't know better. When you notice your weaknesses, it is the first step toward strengthening those aspects of your craft.

Listen, it's not easy. There's a very fine line between being properly critical of your own work and needless self flagellation. Finding that balance where you can identify which criticisms are reasonable and which aren't is perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with Impostor Syndrome. It's also important to keep in mind that as photographer and artists, we have a tendency to be our own worst critics. Because we're so close to our work, we will often notice minute details that even many educated viewers will overlook. While it's always noble to strive for better, don't let it hinder your ability to produce the work that you want, whether it's in the form of discouragement or becoming so obsessed with processing that the work is never "ready" to show others.

There's a saying that "Perfection is the enemy of the good.". Your photography does no good staying on your hard drive or in a negative sleeve with nobody seeing it. The most perfect photograph that reaches nobody might as well not exist while a flawed photograph that reaches an audience is bound to have at least some influence in the world. Don't be afraid to put your work out there because there is likely someone out there that needed to see it. So long as that work is an honest reflection of yourself and your vision, you will never be an "impostor". You will always be an authentic you... and that's all anyone can reasonably ask for.

The masters have come, gone, and left wonderful work for us to enjoy. We don't need people to ape them. We need new voices and new perspectives. Let others be others and you concentrate on being yourself. Don't waste your life away trying to be someone that you're not.

Capture Beautiful Moments by Michael Jin

© 2017 Michael Jin

Last summer, I decided to meet up with a former co-worker to photograph her on Coney Island. I'm always looking for people to photograph and unfortunately, my social anxiety tends to prevent me from reaching out to strangers and most of the people around me have no interest in having me point a camera toward them so it makes finding human subjects a relatively difficult task.

Even though there wasn't really any awkwardness between us, we weren't really close friends or anything so I wasn't really sure how to approach this shoot. We discussed some vague ideas and she sent me a few photos on the web that she liked so I figured I'd use that as direction. For some reason, I just had this idea in my mind that we would meet up, head to the beach, and I was direct her through some poses or something. What actually transpired, however, was very different from what I had envisioned and it transformed my outlook on photographing people

Perhaps it was because we hadn't seen each other in a while, but when I picked her up, we started chatting and catching up while we drove to the beach. While it started with just some normal small talk, one question led to another and before I knew it, the discussion had suddenly become very heavy and we were just sitting on a bench on the boardwalk for an hour as she opened up about a lot of the things that she was struggling with. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn't so interested in directing her through some standard poses by the waves as I was with trying to somehow encapsulate the emotion that was coming through in that moment. I'm not sure why this felt so important to me, but as we continued to talk, I picked up my camera and started taking photos as I was just sitting next to her on this bench and listening to her.

Eventually, after a good long chat, she was ready to get some sand between her toes and model for me, but as we went through the motions, I couldn't help but feel this emptiness in it. After everything we had just gone through, it all seemed so superficial. I won't say that the photos came out poorly and having an attractive subject goes a long way in that regard, but as I was scrolling through the photos in my Lightroom catalog, I became fixated on this one particular photo that I had taken while she was talking. I'm not going to say that it's a really great photo by most standards. It's certainly not the type of picture you would expect from a beach photo shoot, but to me, it's the most meaningful picture of the shoot—not because of the technical elements of the photo itself, but because it captures genuine emotion. To be honest, when I sent her all of the photos and brought up this photos in particular, she didn't really like it because she thought she looked too sad in it. I'm not sure if she'll ever look back and change her mind about it—I'm sure that the photo represents something very different to her than it does to me—but taking this photo cause something of a paradigm shift in me.

I think that many of us get into photography to take beautiful photos. We look through magazines or social media feeds and see paragons of the industry treating us to aesthetic bliss. We watch videos of photographers conducting fashion shoots with beautiful models or photographers travelling to all manner of exotic locales to capture amazingly beautiful scenery. Beauty is very much at the heart of much of our interest in photography and why wouldn't it be? However, I have come to realize that though I appreciate beautiful aesthetics, I appreciate far more the beautiful moments in our lives. The beautiful moments to me are those slices of life when we briefly shed our curated self image to let others see us as we truly are. They are the moments when we interact with our environment in the most natural way, unconcerned with how we might be perceived. They might not be the most aesthetically pleasing moments, but I think they are the moments that really matter.

For many seasoned photographers (particularly those interested in street or candid photography), this will all probably sound incredibly obvious, but for those who, like myself, are just beginning their photographic journey, in earnest I think it's an important thing to seek out because our artistic voice is not defined by our aesthetic choices, but by our system of values and how they pertain to our photography. Anyone can imitate aesthetics, but only you are privy to what moments you find beautiful. Only you can decide what is worth capturing. Only you are uniquely able, in your own manner, to extract or distill these moments in the photos that you capture. So focus on finding and capturing beautiful moments. The rest will slowly fall into place.