Please tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography.
Well, I am 47 years old and I have been shooting photographs since I was 14 years old. My first experience with photography was on a family trip to Yosemite National Park. I had just wandered into the Ansel Adams photographic gallery, which is situated in the heart of the Valley.
It was a significantly mind blowing experience to view his large-scale black and white images, and then walk outside to see the reality of what he photographed. What struck me was the artistry that he used to capture the surrounding landscape. I immediately grabbed the camera from my uncle and shot my first photographs. They were terrible of course, many of which weren't even exposed properly, but it's safe to say, I haven't left my hand since that moment. I taught myself everything I know about photography. So, I started out in the analog world, developing my own film, and eventually worked for a local small newspaper in Southern California, before moving to the San Francisco bay area to get a degree in journalism from San Francisco State University. While in the bay area, I was the photographic intern and eventually spent 20 years as a staff photographer at the San Jose Mercury news, before leaving to teach new media visuals at the University of California at Berkeley's graduate school of journalism.
Your street photographs are captured on 3 different models of iPhone. Why iPhones in particular, and have you experimented with any other brands or models?
I am extremely open-minded when it comes to choosing photographic equipment for my work. I have tried many, many different models of smartphones and personally, have never felt that anyone has yet surpassed the quality and app ecosystem of Apple's iPhone. When someone does, I'll be the first in line, no matter who it is; but I've always found the iPhone to be the perfect photographic tool and post production platform for my work.
Is the trade off in image quality using a phone camera worth being inconspicuous in terms of capturing moments?
This is a great question, and in the earlier versions/models of iPhones I would have certainly answered yes to this question. I have always valued and honored inconspicuous, fast and portability over megapixels. Even when I was shooting film I often used a $20 plastic camera called the Holga. I very much embrace imperfection, as I often find images that seem to technically perfect or flawless, boring. But I have to say, with recent versions of smart phones the quality has been astounding. One only has to look at the recent advertising campaign by Apple itself–and I certainly don't mean to sound like an Apple fanboy –but they took images shot on mobile phones and published them in newspapers, magazines and large-scale billboards worldwide; not to mention a beautiful high-quality coffee table photo book. And it's hard for me to understand why anyone would argue about quality after seeing those images on all those platforms and at that scale. Not to mention that most people’s work will never make a billboard or a large print in a museum or gallery, but viewed on a mobile phone. So sometimes I think it makes a little bit of the stance for more and more megapixels and image quality a little weak nowadays.
There are thousands of photo editing apps available. What are your go to ones for editing your images?
I've spent hundreds of dollars on apps; I am more a shift to downloading and trying out editing apps and have always fallen back to my favorites, which are Snapseed, Filterstorm, Mextures, Afterlight, Blackie App, and Hipstamatic.
Dark contrasts feature a lot in your work, is there a particular photographer who's influenced that style?
This would certainly be a long list indeed, but one of the critical aspects of teaching myself photography was consuming the work of photographic masters in the form of their monograph books. A few of my particular favorites which have influenced my "heavy hand" in terms of contrast and dark tones, would certainly be William Klein, Josef Koudelka, Helen Levitt, and to a very large degree the work of Roy DeCarava. Roy gets very little attention, but he is the photographer closest to my heart for many reasons, and so worthy of discovery and praise. His tones and printing style were a big influence on me, not to mention his work ethic. I find so much heart and soul and subtlety in his work, and it continues to be a huge inspiration.
You have over 250,000 followers on Instagram. Apart from your incredible content, how important is engaging with them a part of that? And what impact did social media have for your photography?
Engagement is really how I got to where I am now if we are talking about followers. For me, it's really less about the follower count and more about the honest and sincere engagement and communication with particular people on the platform. I have made some of my very closest friends via Instagram; it has transcended the digital and moves itself into the real world with actual face-to-face meetings, photo walks and invitations to people's weddings, who I had only known in the digital social media space. That's really what it is all about when you think about it, connecting with other like-minded individuals who appreciate and have a passion for photography, sharing techniques, talking about composition and geometry, and especially light. This is why I keep coming back to the platform. On a larger scale of the impact that social media has had on my career and my photography, it’s not an understatement to say it's been life-changing. I spent 20 years in the analog world, using the traditional media platforms, and never have I experienced such a large sense of community, and assignments and attention to my photographs than through social media. I think it's the golden age of photographic communication when you can post images on a social media platform and reach an audience on a global scale, and actually have an impact. I have also been one of the lucky ones who has been able to turn my social media presence into paid assignments and other lucrative opportunities. This is the era of social photography a digitally transcendent platform whose voice is visual and whose impact is global. I find it very exciting.
Your photojournalism has given you two Pulitzer Prize nominations, and your video documentary work has won you a national Emmy award. With these genres and street photography so closely related, how do you change your mindset to shoot each style?
That's a great question, and there certainly does have to be a different mindset when approaching various distinct styles of photography. I think the ethics of photojournalism, street photography, documentary photography, and art photography, certainly do have a different set of values and approaches, and the most important thing to remember is the fact that you must perform and act differently in each area. Especially in reference to photojournalism, where the standard of ethics and truthfulness are at their highest. Fortunately for me I've had a very distinct separation of styles in my career which hardly ever had crossover. When I was a photojournalist and in the photojournalist mindset, that was the only kind of photography I was doing, and then when I left photojournalism and moved towards street work that is represented on social media and in art galleries, I was able balance my visual journalism as an artistic adventure. Certainly my work has some photojournalistic qualities but are, for the most part, NOT photojournalism. I would not consider myself and my work on Instagram photojournalism.
You're a member of the Tiny Collective (a collective of mobile phone photographers), what do you feel the benefits are of being in a collective?
Inspiration. Plain and simple. Being around a group of like minded individuals who are bursting at the seams with energy and creativity, and are willing to share their advice, expertise and companionship, is the best thing about being part of Tiny Collective.
You are obviously a very instinctive photographer; separate to those gorgeous moments when it all comes together, do you react more to light or moment?
Personally, I see light first and then pray and hope for a moment within that light. It's a very religious experience for me,:-) as I am always praying deeply to the photo Gods to send a person or moment- if you will- into the light I happen to be in. Of course I never say no to a moment with imperfect light if the photo Gods are willing to send it to me,:-)
Street photography is hugely popular at the moment, why do you think this? And how difficult is it to be unique and memorable among the many?
That's a really hard question to answer, but if I were to venture, as I will, I would say it has to do with the ubiquity of the camera, as placed within a device that is always on us as we move about the world, and therefore leads to people wanting to record and document the life going on around them. I think it's as simple as that, the human need to capture/create, and the availability of a tool to do so, so instantly is way this form is so popular. To answer the second part of the question and sound ridiculously pompous in doing so I would say that it's not at all difficult to be unique and memorable, because all you have to do is stop trying to be someone else, and just be yourself as a photographer. I believe that photographs are as unique as our personalities, as there are no two the same. But I remember myself as a young photographer, trying too hard to imitate the work of others, without asking why. Why? That's the key question. Once you can honestly and sincerely answer the question, why you are photographing what you are photographing, then that's the unique aspect. Unique and memorable images come from the heart and transmit straight to the heart.
Lastly, if you were giving a young Richard Koci Hernandez advice going into photography what would you tell him?
Wear comfortable shoes, don't take yourself too seriously, and always remember why you started shooting in the first place.