I’ve been really into Spartan culture lately. I’m impressed with their physical fortitude, their obedience and duty to the state and their frugal lifestyle, and I find myself wondering what kind of Spartan attributes we could apply to photography.
1. Only one camera and lens a year
Spartans (according to the history of Plutarch), were given only one cloak to wear a year (no underwear). When they went out in public, they didn’t wear a shirt.
Which made me wonder, what if we were only allowed to use one camera a year? The problem that many of us face is the stress of abundance: most photographers I know suffer the stress of owning too many cameras and lenses.
So a Spartan photographer would gladly accept one camera and one lens per year, and wouldn’t demand anything else.
2. Bearing the cold
I’m pretty weak when it comes to the cold. I’m always afraid of being cold, so I often over pack and over dress. The Spartans were known for being able to brave the cold. I also read some ancient advice that said something like: dress a bit colder in the winter than you’re used to.
For me, the benefits of being able to withstand the cold are many.
First of all, you can travel with less stuff—fewer thick jackets, less bulk, less weight.
Second, winter clothing is expensive—if we’re accustomed to the cold, we can save money.
I traveled in Tokyo and Seoul this winter, and I made it a practice to take ice cold showers in the evenings. Even though it was a bit painful at first, I found myself being able to withstand the cold better when I was outside.
The next time you travel or go out shooting street photography during the winter, conscientiously build strength and resistance to the cold. This will allow you to shoot longer outdoors, and not fear the cold to prevent you from going out to take photos. (Obviously be safe, no getting hypothermia).
3. Frugal diet
Apparently, Spartan men were fed enough to satisfy their basic hunger pangs, but little enough that they were still a little hungry afterwards. By having the Spartans always a little hungry, they were sharper, more fit, less sluggish, more muscular, and stronger.
I’m a child that needs to always be fed. I fear lack, and hate going to sleep hungry.
But now that I’ve been traveling a lot, I don’t always have access to food. Sometimes, late at night, all the restaurants and stores are closed and there is simply nothing to eat.
I’m trying to build my body to be more resistant to hunger. I do this by frequently skipping breakfast and sometimes skipping lunch, and only eating in the evening. By being a little hungry throughout the day, I actually find myself sharper, more keen, and more aware. This helps me be more productive mentally, write more, be more creative, and read more.
When I’m shooting on the streets, I’m less tired, less sluggish, and more agile.
The main meal Spartans ate was in the evenings, and all of them ate communal food. No matter how rich or poor the individual, they all ate this brown-black soup broth. Apparently it tasted horrible to foreigners, but the locals loved it. Even the kings ate the same meal.
The way I’ve applied this is to try to eat the cheapest, most frugal food just to keep me from starving. I eat a lot of eggs (super cheap) and drink a lot of coffee to sustain me. I still love the taste of good food, but I’m trying to make it a practice to be able to withstand hunger, and be okay not always eating good food.
To paraphrase Socrates: eat to live, don’t live to eat.
4. Avoid winning or losing
Spartan youth weren’t allowed to play any games that had “winners or losses.” No games were allowed in which they could “keep score.” The reason is that they wanted to prevent their youth from feeling the loss of “losing.” Even the 300 Spartans (yes, like the movie) were said to be “slaughtered,” instead of them “losing” the battle.
In photography, we often “keep score” and have “winners and losers”—in social media, photography contests and competitions, anything that requires comparing your photography to others.
If you want to become immune to the feeling of “losing” in your photography, just refuse to play the game. Spend less time on social media, and don’t enter photo contests with “winners,” because if you don’t win, you will be implied a “loser.”
5. Physical fitness
To be a good photographer, you want to be strong physically. You want to have strong legs to walk all day and shoot photos, you want to be agile and quick on your feet, you don’t want to get tired easily, and you don’t want extra weight to be a burden to you.
The Spartans valued physical fitness, and glorified strength.
Let us seek more physical strength as well through bodyweight exercises, lifting weights, doing Yoga, or working out at the park. Smaller steps count too: walking more, using a standing desk, and being less sedentary and reliant on our cars.
Lastly, the Spartans were known to be some of the bravest people in antiquity. When they were about to go into battle, instead of asking, “How many enemies are there?” they asked, “Where is the enemy?”
If you want to be a better photographer, seek to be a braver photographer. Go for shots that scare you, especially in street photography. Build a spine of steel by being able to predict and deal with negative confrontations. Take photos without hesitating. Take photos without regret. Get closer to your subjects, and learn how to “work the scene” by taking many photos.
If you’re a commercial photographer, have the courage to charge what you’re worth. Don’t be afraid of taking chances and risks. If you never take risks, you will never succeed.
I praise ancient values more than modern ones—modern values have made us weak, flabby, and ungrateful. Instead of being grateful for the cameras we already own, we are constantly dissatisfied and want more.
I’m the biggest sucker for gear. I’m always dissatisfied with my photography, and think (wrongly) that a new camera will unlock some inner hidden potential. But I’m my own stumbling block.
We don’t have enough courage in our photography. I lack courage when I need it most. So each day, I strive to be less timid in my photography. I don’t want to have any regrets.
Lastly, I’m seeking to make fewer excuses about my photography and make more photos. Photography and life are not dainty affairs. It is war. It is tough. So suit up, put on your shield, build your inner courage, and continue pushing forward.