Street Portraits 1/100 — TJ
I love writing the newsletter to share what I’m thinking about and the media I’m enjoying, but I struggle to stay consistent when I’m busy shooting or editing. The point of greatest friction is trying to write and edit an essay for every issue. It’s hard to produce something inbox-worthy when my brain is elsewhere and my time is mostly spoken for.
I’d like to get an issue out the door every one to two weeks, so I’m going to remove the constraint of writing an essay for every issue. Instead, I’ll continue to send links to the best things I’ve read, listened to or watched recently, as well as pictures and perhaps a few lines on an idea or concept related to creative practice or attention that I’ve been mulling over.
I’ve had a lot of success recently taking big abstract goals and breaking them down into laughably unambitious steps. These action steps are so small and so dumb by design that it’s easier (and certainly less embarrassing) to do them than not. The smaller and dumber the step, the better the results.
Do 10x push-ups and/or 3x pull-ups while I wait for the kettle to boil or some images to export. A minimum of one set of each is enough to consider the day a success.
Meditate every day for at least 30mins
Meditate for a minimum of 5mins every day. Any more is a bonus.
Release a newsletter every 1-2 weeks
Only write an essay when I have something to say. Reduce the minimum requirements for a complete issue: three images and six links, released every 1–2 weeks.
Conquer my fear of stopping strangers for street portraits and create a life-changing body of work (of breathtaking genius)
Shoot 100 street portraits. Colour in a square on a grid every time I do. Post the picture to an ongoing Twitter thread.
For each goal, I’ve been asking myself four questions:
1. how can I make this so easy that excuses are almost impossible?
2. how can I reframe what success looks like?
3. how can I change my defaults?
4. how I gamify the result to build momentum?
This is how I’ve been using this approach to shoot more street portraits:
Getting started is the hardest part of almost any task for me. It’s frustrating that this applies equally to the things I want to do and the things that I have to do…
Finding the smallest possible thing that I can do to make minuscule progress towards my goal has really helped. As soon as I’m underway, I’m fine, but I need to disqualify potential excuses and make it easier for me to start than not.
For the 100 portraits project, my job is just to ask a few interesting looking people for a portrait every week. Whether they say yes or no isn’t important, I just want to normalise asking.
I’m also looking for ways to reduce friction. For example, keeping my camera outside my bag and set for the light means I can’t use the (minor) hassle of retrieving and readying my camera as an excuse. When an opportunity presents itself, I don’t need to rummage in my bag or faff with my gear — I’m ready to shoot.
By making the technical stuff easy, I can focus on the hard part: approaching the potential subject.
When I feel good about what I’m doing, I want to do more of it. Reframing what constitutes success for each step has helped me build momentum to do more of what I want. Two things helped me break through my barriers to shooting more street portraits:
The first was to view the project as a learning exercise. I’m not trying to create an acclaimed body of work, I just want to get comfortable asking interesting looking people for portraits. If I shoot 100 portraits without much artistic merit, but I feel excited to shoot another 100, then I’m winning. When I concentrate on quantity, the quality takes care of itself.
Secondly, as I mentioned above, I decided in advance that the critical part of the process is asking for the portrait, not making it. Even if I ask and get rejected, it’s a success. It’s a gentle form of exposure therapy — the more often that I do it and nothing terrible happens, the less of a big deal it becomes.
So far I’ve shot three portraits, been rejected once, and organised a more ‘formal’ portrait with another person. I’ve barely started and yet I already feel much more comfortable with the whole process.
I haven’t changed much since I was a child — I still like colouring things in and amassing gold stars.
I’m using this to my advantage.
Every time I shoot a new street portrait I’m colouring in a square on my grid on Do 100 Things. Even though I’m still so far away from my goal, the tiny row of pink squares that is growing week on week, gives me a real sense of achievement. This tiny dose of gamification makes me actively look for people to approach when I am out and about, rather than leaving it to chance.
One tweak I would make for a similar future project is that I’d make asking for the portrait the condition for colouring in a square, not whether I take a portrait or not. That way the tracker would be aligned with my smallest unit of success.
The idea of shooting 100 portraits specifically, rather than maintaining a fuzzy commitment to ‘try to shoot more street portraits’ was inspired by Visakan Veerasamy’s idea of Make Many Thing. Following his example, I’m also posting all the pictures, good or bad, to a Twitter thread.
Working in public keeps me accountable. And posting every picture stops perfectionism from getting in the way of production.
My defaults are the things that I do reflexively. These are actions that I might have performed unthinkingly for years, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not amenable to change.
If I’m going to do them anyway, it makes sense to shape them so that they move me in the direction I want to go. The goal of this experiment is to make me default to taking the picture, not thinking, ‘wow, that would make a great picture’ and moving on.
I’ve found it easier to finesse existing habits than to build new ones from the ground up. So a lot of my experiments with learning or creative practice are built on top of default behaviours. Rather than scrolling on Instagram/Twitter when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil or images to process, I’m training myself to read my book or do some push-ups/pull-ups.
Two minutes of reading here or a set of push-ups there don’t do much. But cumulatively, I find that they go a long way.
The meta realisation has been discovering that all my habits, good and bad, are plastic. With some trial and error, I can modify them to serve my priorities. Taking five minutes to list the smallest steps I can take to fix a problem or make progress has proved more useful than ruminating in the abstract for days and weeks at a time.
Minimal viable solutions for everything!
Street Portraits 2/100 — Barry reading
“It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action” —James Clear, Atomic Habits
Greg Williams on A Small Voice
A great interview — Greg is open and pragmatic about his successes, and failures and is full of sound advice for up-and-coming photographers. I really enjoyed hearing more about his backstory and the transition he made from being a photojournalist to shooting BTS on Bond films and making it as a celebrity portrait photographer.
Two music picks — one to lift you up and one to calm you down:
Fred Again.. | Boiler Room: London
An absolutely incredible live set from Fred Again.. at Boiler Room. The excitement and joy in the room is palpable and the music is off the hook. I was listening to this while editing recently, and struggled not to keep switching back to the video to soak up the energy from the crowd.
Folding Space - Generative Modular Ambient by State Azure
Four hours and 45 minutes of warm synths and cosmic soundscapes channelling Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack and the bleeps and bloops of a starship bridge. I’ve been immersing myself in this and other beautiful modular synth ambient pieces for the last week. Listening to this puts me in a relaxed, yet alert state of mind that is perfect for editing, grading, and writing.
Lots of reading links this time as my inconsistency has let them pile up… I’ve culled the crap but wanted to keep a good few for your reading pleasure.
In Praise of Shadows by Robin Rendle
So good — probably the best camera review I’ve read, hidden inside a brilliant essay about the link between photography and seeing, and the importance of separating the capture stage from audience outreach. I love the presentation. Pieces like this make me want to improve my design and web development skills so that I can distill my ideas into elegantly engineered communication rockets and launch them into the cosmos. The book by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki that the title references is excellent too.
#373: On Time Scales by Jack Cheng
We live life on different time scales. What do they feel like? How do they affect our behaviour?
A short and sweet essay about a dad drawing on post-its to put in his son’s lunch box. It’s a meditation on parenting rituals and a recognition of the power of constraint to boost creative output.
100 Bits of Life Advice by Jacob Falkovich
From the sage to the saucy.
How We Will Fight Climate Change by Noah Smith
Against degrowth, anticapitalism, and doomerism as effective tactics for environmental change. Provocative, interesting, and hopeful.
Things I Recommend You Buy - Sam Bowman
A list of things that Sam thinks are Really Good, from cookware to software, via toilet brushes and ‘challenger banks’
Visions by Robin Sloan
Robin finds one track after another on Spotify that are apparently by different artists but are all algorithmic variations on the same core theme.
Part of the story here is clear. Some mystery producer developed a scrap of a song that sounded appealing, and rather than put all their wood behind a single arrow, they decided to make dozens — hundreds? — of variations and inject them all into the system, all in different places. The artist names and track titles are nonsense; to me, they carry the clear flavor of AI text generation. For album art, our mystery producer has used the most banal stock photography you have ever seen — almost impressively boring.
Beyond that, it’s all questions.
Barebell Strategy Examples
Applying the Barbell Strategy, which is normally used for investing, to the rest of your life. Suggestions for avoiding the ‘meh’ middle and splitting your resources between rock solid but low-yield investments on one side and moonshots on the other. Some interesting suggestions that run counter to the kind of plodding consistency that I think is the bedrock of successful creative practice.
Does This Count as Therapy or Procrastination? by Van Neistat
A simple, almost silent film where you watch Van fix little annoyances around his house rather than get on with the work he’s supposed to be doing. Slightly bittersweet and with some great reveals where you finally see the use for the thingamajig that he’s been so carefully assembling.
Walkie Talkie with Joe Greer
I really enjoyed this short film that follows Joe Greer as he shoots on the streets of NYC and interviews him about his process. I love the city so much, and it’s great to follow along vicariously as he snaps the weird and the wonderful in one of the best places in the world for street photography. Also, I really need to level up my shooting outfit — my black-on-black ninja look can’t hold a candle to Joe’s white dungers, brown bucket hat, and leather man bag…
“If you don’t have the opportunity to “do great things”, focus on consistently achieving small wins. These small things in fact do not need to be done in a great way, but a good way, repeatably” —Steph Smith from How to Be Great? Just Be Good, Repeatably
Street Portraits 3/100 — Jay and friend