Richard Koci Hernandez

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.

An Insight Into The World Of Marius Vieth

We had the pleasure of catching up with award winning, globe trotting fine art photographer Marius Vieth. He answered our questions, and provided us with some of his stunning work. Enjoy.

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SPi: You have inspired many photographers to take up street photography already, how important is it for you to continue inspiring future generations to take up this art?

To this day it puts a huge smile on my face when someone tells me that they started out with street photography because of me. Although I’ve heard it quite a few times now, I still can’t really believe it. Isn’t that crazy? Someone loves your work so much that they decide to embark on their very own street photography journey. If there’s one thing that means the most to me, it’s that. Inspiring others to pour all their eye, heart and soul into their photography is the biggest gift I could ever give and get!

SPi: Out of your portfolio of award winning shots, can you select just one as a favourite? If so which one?

Although “Urban Lights” has won the most awards, my favorite one has to be “Retina”. It means the world to me. Why? After “Urban Lights”, I thought I would never be able to get even close to it again. It taught me a very important lesson though. Don’t aim to recreate exactly what you achieved before, but look for something new and different. Although I wasn’t sure how to do that at first, I simply kept my eyes and heart open for new opportunities and one day I finally created “Retina”. What I love most about “Retina” is not only the highly unique moment and composition, it’s the firm belief that the best photos and moments are always ahead of us!

SPi: What themes do you look for in a photo?

Generally I’m not very fascinated with faces, clothes or other distinct features. That turns me into a rare species in street photography, I guess. I’m simply in love with the synergy of an abstract human being in a certain environment. I even felt bad for shooting that way in the beginning, because it’s generally “frowned upon” to shoot people’s backs. But I always felt it that way and eventually turned it into my style. 

SPi: A huge number of people admire your work, and there will always be a very small number of critics. How do you deal with critics?

As long as someone offers me constructive feedback, I’m always very grateful for it! Let me tell you what I think whenever I encounter a street photographer that criticizes with me in a very hateful way and acts all tough. You know what's really tough? Having the will to become better than ever before, hitting the streets even when it's pouring cats and dogs, transforming your weaknesses into strengths, and still finding the motivation and discipline to go out again even though your last five photo walks weren't that successful. With a positive mindset like that you don't even have the time for such unnecessary and pathetic behaviour. Why? Because you are too busy actually taking street photos. 

SPi: On a typical day, how many hours do you shoot and what would you define as your success rate?

During my 365 project I was actually out shooting literally every day for a year. That was pure insanity, but the best thing I ever did. Nowadays I’m also taking care of other photography-related projects that I have and want to bring to life. That leaves me less time for shooting unfortunately. But that’s fine, these are just as much part of my photography dream. Of course, I take my cam with me whenever I can, but focus more on dedicated photography trips. While I had a “success rate” in my early days, my perception of it changed. The true success in photography is every little moment you spend taking photos and giving it your all, whether you bring home the golden ones or not!

SPi: What was the biggest challenge you faced when you started street photography? How did you overcome it?

It wasn’t even overcoming my fear of shooting strangers. My biggest challenge was to create street photography that truly felt like my own. What made me feel really insecure in the first 1-2 months of my street journey was the fact that my street photography was in a way different compared to most of the street photos I had seen back then. I had a picture in my mind’s eye of the typical street shots — black and white with lots of things going on in them — and I just couldn’t make those happen. I tried and tried, but it just didn’t feel like my street photography. Eventually I reached my breaking point and said, “You know what Marius, this is your street photography and you can do whatever you think is right!” With this attitude in mind, I began trying to put my personal stamp on my street photography. It felt amazing to take photos the way I felt them, without thinking in terms of genres and rules. I felt as though I had broken my chains for the first time.

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SPi: Many of your photographs have a cinematic quality, including the slightly elongated ‘letterbox’ frame. What attracts you to this format?

My cropping is the reflection of how I "feel" my moments. To me the world around me is a stage and since I'm highly fascinated with atmospheres it already feels like a movie to me. Why not portray it in a very cinematic way then? If I had to do it in a rather classical 4:3 format, for instance, it wouldn't feel like "my" street photography. I never really cared much for conventions, certain dogmas, or how other people produce their street photography. Once you go down that path beyond getting a little inspiration you'll find yourself creating what everyone else does. Street photography is art and your deepest source of inspiration and guidance should always be your inner creative child, at least that's how I see it.

SPi: You travel a lot, what has been your favourite place to take photos?

Although I’ve travelled around the world, I must admit that I’ve taken the most beautiful photos in the ugliest of all places. Sometimes true beauty lies hidden between grey buildings and creepy alleys. However, I loved shooting in Seoul in South-Korea. Such a vivid city with so many beautiful places and really kind people. I’ve learned that no matter where I go, you’re having a great time as long as you’re open-minded, nice and have a smile on your face.

SPi: In Broken Amsterdam your lens gave the subjects anonymity, was this your original intention when going to do this work and if so, how did you plan to achieve it?

My classic signature shows anonymous human elements for 99% of the time. I somehow always wanted to take close-up photos of people, however, I never wanted to show their faces. I loved the idea of doing it in a very abstract way though. With the “Broken” series I’m giving the viewers an abstract idea of the person, but most of it is still left to their imagination. I simply love that! Although this is a key element of my “broken” signature, the more important intention of the set was to show how you can “develop your negatives” and turn bad moments into great photos. For those who don’t know the story: my precious 1600$ L-lens fell to the ground, it couldn’t focus at all anymore, I looked on the bright side, fell in love with the blurry look and created a whole set with it.

SPi: Getting out and taking photos is one way to improve your photography. What other publications, media, or literature helped you on your photography journey?

This may sound very strange and even egocentric, but I rarely read or looked at anything street photography related back then. Wherever I did research for street photography, it pretty much recommended the opposite of what I did. It simply made me feel insecure. That’s when I decided to just do it my way and do what I shouldn’t do. That’s how I developed my minimalist style with the rather abstract human element. Funny how this “mistake” turned into my signature in the end, isn’t it? If you’re just starting out with street photography, it’s absolutely fine to educate yourself though. As long as there aren’t too many rules and dogmas, it’s very healthy actually. I hereby officially invite you to check out my website, YouTube Channel, and free street photography e-book. It teaches you a lot about street photography while still encouraging you to create your very own interpretation of it. Never forget: At the end of the day, your are holding the pen of your very own street photography story!

SPi: Thank you, Marius!