Remembering Bruce Lee: What Photographers Can Learn From the Little Dragon

Bruce Lee Statue in Hong Kong. 2008

Last Saturday (November 27th) saw the 70th birthday anniversary of Bruce Lee. As a belated birthday tribute, I decided to write this post not just as a personal homage to a movie star who had a big impact on me growing up, but to also relate some of Bruce Lee’s thoughts on martial arts and how they can be transferred to photography. “Seriously?” you might ask. It was Alex Majoli of Magnum who started me thinking about this many years ago when he said “We should think of a photographer as a Samurai who makes rituals, moves and gestures in order to develop his techniques and his instinct.” Now, Bruce Lee was not Samurai, however bear with me as I take you through some of his writings and thoughts and think how they can be easily related to our practice as photographers.

Bruce Lee 'the photographer?'

I discovered Bruce Lee, as did most my age, as a teenager watching movies such as ‘Enter the Dragon’. I was inspired to take up martial arts and practiced them throughout my teenage years. Whilst acquiring a certain discipline that comes from studying martial arts, it also planted the seeds of interest in Asia for me. Bruce Lee was from Hong Kong, which obviously drew my attention to China. I now find myself having lived in China for 4 years and am sure those early seeds of interest were planted in my teenage years.

So, what can photographers learn from Bruce Lee? Well, as well as a widely popular movie star, Bruce Lee was also an extensive writer and philosophizer on martial arts, notably culminating in his book ‘the Tao of Jeet Kune Do’. This book was a cronicle of physical and mental methods in practicing the style of Wing Chun Kung Fu which he developed himself. Below, I have jotted down ten of my favourite quotes from this book and other sources. I don’t think it’s too difficult to relate these to photography. Try to think how they might relate to you and your approach to photography.

1. “When there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity. The classical man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition. If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow – you are not understanding yourself.”

Madame Tussaud's in Hong Kong. 2008

2. “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

3. “If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo. “

4. “Do not be tense, just be ready, not thinking but not dreaming, not being set but being flexible. It is being “wholly” and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.”

5. “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”

6. “Don’t think, feel. It is like a finger, pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory”

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7. “Artistic skill, therefore, does not mean artistic perfection. It remains rather a continuing medium or reflection of some step in psychic development, the perfection of which is not to be found in shape and form, but must radiate from the human soul.”

8. “Obey the principles without being bound by them.”

9. “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successfull personality and duplicate it.”

10. “Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own.”

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