“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Richard Koci Hernandez is a national Emmy-award-winning video and multimedia producer who worked as a photographer at the San Jose Mercury News for 15 years. A two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, Hernandez is currently on the faculty at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches various new media courses, including mobile reporting. In 2011 he presented a mobile photography master class at the TED2012 conference.
Q: Much like the pioneer street photographers, your photographs are a wonderful collection of complex, layered and unguarded moments made in public places. The difference is, your work has a modern twist because they were made with an iPhone. Is the hunt for intriguing images still the same?
A: Yes, the hunt is the same. Continuing the analogy, it doesn’t matter which tool I’m utilizing to “capture” my prey, be it a net, spear or rifle, the art of the hunt and the final capture is what matters. I’m open to using all the tools available to me as a photographer. Right now my tool of choice is the iPhone.
I would describe my process for making street images as purposefully aimless. My photographs are a simple by-product of my normal life. I don’t go out of my way to make images. Unless I spot a man in a fedora, then I’ll go out of my way. Don’t ask me why I love to take pictures of hats, I’m working that out with my therapist at the moment. [Insert chuckle here.]
My images are artifacts of my daily life. For me the hunt is always on. Picking my daughter up from school, a trip to the market or on my way to a meeting, it’s open season.
I’m a very reactionary image-maker. When my head and heart scream shoot, I shoot. Photography, for me, is about honoring the impulse to make an image, no matter what.
The “no matter what” wasn’t always an easy thing to act upon. Years ago, my head and heart would scream shoot, but another voice in me would yell back: “The light is bad. The composition isn’t perfect. The subject is too far away. What a silly picture, why would you make a photo of that?” It’s taken years, but I’ve honed my skill to shoot on impulse. This means having a camera in hand and ready at all times. For me, there is no better tool than my mobile phone.
Shoot. YES. YES. YES. Shoot. Shoot. YES.
Q: Creatively and professionally, how has the iPhone changed your photographic life?
A: This tool has changed my entire process.
First, it has accelerated my output. Not only is it the camera in my hand, but it’s the printing press in my pocket and more importantly, with the rise of social networks like Instagram, it’s become my satellite dish in order to instantly transmit, globally. I can share my vision at the touch of a button and receive instant feedback and sometimes, intelligent conversation about the photographic process. It’s a thrilling time for photographers.
Second, the “connected” camera has expanded my photographic inspiration and motivation. I can see other photographers creating inspiring imagery all over the globe, even while I wait for the bus. I’ve never been more inspired in my career.
Finally, the creative possibilities and potential with mobile photography are especially exciting. I’ll admit that my work stays relatively close to a classic analog street photography aesthetic, but it’s allowed me to experiment with other forms of photography that were never on my creative horizon. I haven’t shared a lot of this work publicly, but I’m playing around like never before.
Q: Has the iPhone camera, because it’s not an obvious camera around your neck, provided you the ability to document people in their purest state because they are not aware you are taking pictures?
A: YES, YES and YES. This is the main advantage of shooting street photography with an iPhone. When I started shooting with my mobile phone, I was immediately greeted with an overwhelming sense of gratification at how much easier it was for me to capture unguarded moments. Before shooting with the iPhone, my stealthiest attempts to capture street images with a traditional camera in a post 9/11 world proved challenging. Shooting with the iPhone, I was identified as just another person on the street, not a suspicious person with a camera, but a person with a “phone.” I was able to blend in unnoticed like never before. I prefer stealth and anonymity in my approach to street photography. Other photographers can be very effective by shoving a DSLR and flash in someone’s face on the street. Not me. The size of the phone plays into my approach.
“Harmony makes small things grow, lack of it makes great things decay.”–Sallust
Q: Old school master street photographers spent hours and hours in the darkroom perfecting their images. The modern darkroom is a lot less messy because it’s virtual now. Do you labor over your images trying various apps to create the image you want in the same vein as the pioneer street photographers did?
A: YES. I’m always in search for the perfect black and white app or app-combo in order to achieve the look for my images. I’m a fan of having my black and white street images look as if they were stuffed in an old shoe-box for the last 30 years. For me, that means finding the right borders, tones and virtual scratches for my images. That takes time. I certainly devote a fair amount of time to the darkroom in my palm, but nothing like the time spent in a real one, waiting for my fiber prints to dry.
My virtual darkroom technique goes something like this:
I’ve named this process the app-dance:
1. Shoot original image in an app like Hipstamatic or ProCamera.
2. Import the image from my camera roll into another app like Camera+ to add some more tone or even another black and white filter.
3. Import the image into yet another app to add a border. (optional)
4. Import again to add minimal scratches in an app like ScratchCam. (optional)
5. Import into Instagram and post. (Note: I rarely use the Instagram filters.)
I’ve also been known to add some real analog love to my images in something I’ve called round-tripping, but others call flip-flopping.
Repeat steps 1-4 from above, but before step 5, I print out the image on my printer, then apply real scratches via a butter knife or fold the print, then re-photograph the result with my iPhone, then post to Instagram.
“Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.”–Danny Kaye
Q: There is a debate raging in the world of journalism about the use of smartphones using photography apps to document news events. Essentially the debate is that apps change the reality of the situation and the world of journalism is all about transparency. Where do you stand in the debate?
A: If there is a side to stand on in this debate I’m certainly on the side of less filtration for photojournalism. That said, I’m certainly not against all filtration. There is a place for it when used sparingly and with great intent. Filters, like many things in photography are judged in degrees of use. In photojournalism I believe there should be as little filtration as possible. A photojournalist should be as keenly aware of the power of a filter to change reality as they are with the power of a lens to change the reality of a scene. In this debate, I like to think of myself as a cautious optimist when it comes to filters in relation to photojournalism. I’m cautious in that I think that photojournalists should use filters with caution and understand their power to manipulate reality and truth. But I’m also an optimist in that I love new technology and the potential it has to democratize and aid in truth telling. It is important for me to point out that while I have been a journalist, a photojournalist for 20 years, the last 12 months of my Instagram feed have certainly been a lesson in deep filtering. In the days of the darkroom, we’d label my Instagram techniques as ‘heavy handed’ and I would agree in most cases too heavy for photojournalism.I think it’s going to be a tough road ahead for photojournalism. With all of the advancements in photographic technology, I don’t believe we’ve even begun to see the ‘digital revolution.’ Going forward, photojournalists need to do their best to keep the connection to truth as pure as possible. I do understand that even that statement is open to debate. Here we go!
“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” — Ansel Adams
“Apps change the reality of the situation” — yes, but — so does the choice of my DSLR lens, white balance settings and what I choose not tophotograph. The only thing that truly changes the reality of a situation is the photographer’s intent to deceive. As a photojournalist I’ve photographed street corner protests of 10 people. If I wanted, I could easily photograph the event in a way that makes it look like hundreds were in attendance. With the right lens, angle and caption, and my intent, I have more power than any app to change reality.
The debate is pointed in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on the fact that the emperor is wearing no clothes, we should be focused on the emperor’s intent to come out onto the balcony naked. Why would he or she do something like that?
In my opinion it’s not about whether we use apps like Hipstamatic for news events, it’s how we train and inform our photojournalists on how to use and apply these techniques to mobile images and how transparent we are in the process.
In a nutshell, a photojournalist’s guiding principle should be the pursuit of truth. Photographic truth doesn’t reside in the camera, or in an app, but in the heart and mind of the image-maker. Let’s not point fingers at apps and technology. It’s not Photoshop or Hipstamatic that create photographic lies, but the photographer.
iPhone apps, as with Photoshop, there continues to exist a slippery slope for photojournalists when trying to convey the truth of a news situation. I believe photojournalists should use the tools of the day, including iPhone apps, in moderation with the right intent. I don’t believe we throw out the baby with the bath water.
“Constant repetition carries conviction.”–Robert Collier
Q: On Instagram — the iPhone photo-sharing app — you have 148,000 followers and counting. Do you think your work is getting more exposure now than ever before because of photo-driven social media? Why?
A: Yes I KNOW that more people are exposed to my work than ever before. I like to half-joke that I have more Instagram followers than some newspapers have circulation. The potential for someone to see an image I took last year, comment on it and take some kind of inspiration from it, is unprecedented, not only for me, who happens to be a professional, but for the photo enthusiast.
Not only does my work get more exposure on Instagram, but it’s led to many articles, books deals, freelance work, workshops, travel, speaking engagements, etc. All in abundance unsurpassed to me previously.
Q: You were in the world of photojournalism for some 20 years before becoming an assistant professor at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The world of journalism is changing dramatically but, to the core, it’s still all about good storytelling. How are you preparing your students to be the new generation of storytellers in this ever-evolving technological world of newsgathering?
A: Another quote from Ansel Adams is appropriate here:
“I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.” — Ansel Adams
STORY! STORY! STORY! I like to tell my students not to focus on the device, the elements of good storytelling are eternal and will outlive technology. I believe the future journalist needs to be a creative problem-solver. Today it’s the iPhone, tomorrow it’s something else, get used to it! I’m attempting to create journalists that thrive as technology gets faster. At the core of my teaching, whether it’s photography techniques, caption writing or video editing, problem-solving techniques are the underlying lesson.
“The world is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Q: What is the goal of your website LoFi Mode?
A: It’s a website I created with a friend I met on Instagram, Dan Cristea – @konstruktivist. We just wanted to create a space where we could share our love of good photography and tips about using a mobile phone to make compelling images. In the end it doesn’t matter what tool you use, but it does matter that you know what a good photograph is and how to capture one.
As it says in the About section: “It’s pretty simple, we love photography, especially mobile photography. We’re passionate about learning and sharing. Enjoy the show!”
Q: You made a Blurb book of your iPhone photography called “California Street.” As great as digital images are, do you think there is still value in hard-copy photography?
A: I’m a huge fan of the printed artifact. Digital is great, but there’s nothing like holding your creations in your hand as a bound book. I love knowing that when I leave this world, there’s something tangible and more importantly, easily accessible for my family to hold and explore. I doubt they would enjoy or even want to search hard drives and the Cloud for my life’s work, but knowing that there’s a stack of printed books or prints of my work on the bookshelf is very comforting and important to me.
Q: What are your favorite apps?
A: Hipstamatic — I’m in love with its black and white films.
ProCamera — It starts up fast and shoots fast, along with its intuitive exposure and focus lock, it’s a go-to app.
Hueless — New kid on the block, I think Ansel Adams would use this one, a pure black and white joy.
645Pro — It has a night shot mode that allows shooting at 1 second, so if I’m in the mood to shoot some light trails…
Camera Awesome — For its extreme amount of border and texture options.
Lo-Mob — It rocks the old school borders like no other app.
ScratchCam — Scratches galore!
6×6 — Best Hassleblad substitute, when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic.
Instagram — Like a free billboard for your images on a VERY busy highway. Who could say no to that?
Filterstorm — It’s like Photoshop on your phone and IMHO better than the actual Photoshop app.
Q: You twin your images with inspiring quotes. What is the process like to twin the visual world with the written word?
A: I’ve added another new layer to my posted works online, famous quotes as captions. I was intrigued by the idea of finding and attaching meaningful quotes as another element to my work. Cutting my teeth in journalism taught me that there is great synergy between words and pictures. I’m always looking to the words of great men and women to inspire me in my daily life. It was a simple thought to marry the two online. I figured if the image doesn’t speak to you, then maybe the words will, and if I’m lucky, they’ll both complement each other and create something unique. I’ve found that discovering the right quote to match my images is often as time-consuming and rewarding as the post-processing of my images.
View iphoneography courses led by Koci on lynda.com