One surprising thing that makes you a better photographer


I believe I’ve got a new photographic hero.

I travel very light. I don’t pack half of the house and the kitchen sink when I go somewhere – even if it’s to live in Buenos Aires for awhille.

Most people that I’ve met don’t understand my desire to travel so light and live so simply. My lifestyle is so far removed from the experiences of many people that they think I’m crazy. That’s OK, that’s their problem, not mine.

In today’s email someone sent me a link to a photographer that I had slightly heard of, but had never taken the time to check out his work or his life.

The article was about 10 things that the work of Josef Koudelka had taught him about street photography. All of the points were good, but point #9 stood out.

I’m copying most of the article here so you can see that it’s not just me making it up.

Josef Koudelka was born in 1938 in Boskovice , Moravia . I

He began in photography by taking shots of his family and the neighborhood surroundings with an old 6×6 Bakelite Camera. Earning a degree in Engineering in 1961, he staged his first exhibition later the same year.

He always stayed humble about his work regardless of the reviews that he got from publishers across the globe.

One sign of his humility was his willingness to live simply.

For much of his life, Koudelka lived his life like a nomad. He spent many nights sleeping outside or even on the cold, hard floors of the Magnum offices.

Asked one time in an interview why he decided to live simply, he explained the freedom one experiences when making a choice to live simply. He said:

I’ve never aspired to have the perfect home, to be tied to something like that. When I bought my home, my main requirement was that I could work here. I live in Paris – this is just another part of my traveling life. I don’t need to fill houses with clothes. I have two shirts that last for three years. I sleep in them. I keep my passport in the top pocket and some money in the other. I wash them in one go and they dry quickly, it’s very simple. *I only carry things that are needed – my cameras, film and a spare pair of glasses.”

Even when he was photographing his projects, he chose to live in poverty to focus on his own work:

For 17 years I never paid any rent [laughs]. Even the Gypsies were sorry for me because they thought I was poorer than them. At night they were in their caravans and I was the guy who was sleeping outside beneath the sky.”

What can you learn from this?

I know a lot of photographers who don’t have enough time to photograph. This is often because they consume too much of their time working.

Of course we all need to make a living, but there is a certain point in which we spend more time working than we need to.

For example, if you are leaving the office, don’t check your work emails or bring work home (if you have the option). Rather, spend that time out shooting, going home and reading some photo books, or meeting up with fellow street photographers.

I know that at my old job, I would end up spending more time in the office and working so I could be more productive. I thought with that extra productivity, I would get a promotion and a raise, and end up making more money to be “happier” in life (by buying more material things like a nice car, nice clothes, a big house, etc).

But at the end of the day, I think we should just work the minimum to meet our basic needs (simple clothes, a simple place to live, and a simple way of living). Then we can spend the rest of the time pursuing what our true passion is: photography.

Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist.  Living and working in South America, he is available for photo shoots and assignments anywhere.  Contact him today.

Almost everyday I get emails from people telling me that they feel they are living vicariously through my photography.  If you’ve enjoyed anything you’ve seen or read, would you consider throwing a few coins into the tip jar?  Thanks!


4 thoughts on “One surprising thing that makes you a better photographer

  1. Jerry, I too chased the brass ring for far too long. I’m fortunate that I started out as a wet behind the ears kid with a job in a Ford Assembly plant. If you asked me then I would have told you how miserable I was but the reality was that having a steady income from a union job made me feel good because I could buy things and when I didn’t have enough money I could always get credit. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that all that stuff wasn’t making me happy it was making me sad.

    I made a decision to scale back my spending and quit chasing the green backs. The upshot is that was with that change my art degree really began to pay off; not in dollars but in satisfaction. I am able to practice my craft again and though it will take a couple more years to finish paying for the things I didn’t need but spent my money on after that I’ll be completely free, our home will be paid for, my partner in life will have her Social Security, we’ll be able to visit the places we both want to see and we’ll have my small pension to make it on. I’ll be on Medicare so my health care will be relatively inexpensive and I’ll be doing what I want.

  2. Thanks for the response amigo! Isn’t it amazing how we spend the first half of our life accumulating stuff and the second half just getting rid of it?

  3. Helluva a lot easier to drag it in than it is to get rid of it! Unless you’re willing to simply trash it that is. I figure it’s better to get some of the value back so I’ve been slowly and steadily selling it at it’s current value. The hard thing to deal with is seeing how many hours of my life something cost me yet gave me no true satisfaction. On the other hand my Road Glide (and all the other bikes I’ve owned too) has given me back far more than it ever cost me. I suppose that is the balance of life that I seek.

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: 6 Life Hacks to Take Better Photos |

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