On March 8, 2014, PhotoPhilanthropy will host the 5th annual Activist Awards, honoring the past year’s outstanding work done by photographers in collaboration with nonprofit organizations worldwide. We have an amazing panel of judges for this year’s awards and in the coming weeks we will be posting a short Q&A with each of them.
First up is the great Richard Koci Hernandez.
Photo by @koci on Instagram
You’ll be taking part in a PhotoPhilanthropy workshop called Mobile Photography and Storytelling. What are some of the ways mobile photography is changing news photography and photography in general?
First, let me speak personally.
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.
I suspect that my personal view is shared by many other photographers and could also be interpreted as a general view of how mobile photography has changed the profession.
I think there is a valid argument that it hasn’t changed the art of the final product, being the actual photograph, which still represents beautiful composition, light, moment and color. But, on the other hand for many of the reasons I explained above it has changed the process in which we capture, share and communicate with photography.
Photo by @koci on Instagram
The movement both here in the US in Chicago and abroad in the UK of media organizations firing entire photojournalist staffs is troubling and could be argued that it’s related to the democratization and proliferation of mobile camera devices.
Also there is a debate that mobile apps change the reality of a news situation and the world of journalism is all about transparency, therefore we should not use them in news situations.
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 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.
Photo by @koci on Instagram
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 to photograph. 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.
You have a huge following on Instagram. A lot of what you do on Instagram reminds me of some of the great street photographers (Robert Frank, William Klein, Cartier-Bresson, etc). And you pair your photos with great quotes. Can you say a few words about your approach to mobile photography and how you draw on the past to create new work?
I would describe my approach 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.]
Men in hats. Photos by @koci on Instagram.
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. A concept taken from many of the greats you mentioned above. 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.
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 guess you could call me a romantic chap with high nostalgic tendencies.
Therefore, 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.
You’re a Google Glass Explorer. What are your thoughts on the technology so far?
First, I think the device has gotten a bad rap and certainly a significant amount of bad press, creating terms like Glasshole. This bad press is mostly due to ignorance of the actual device and technology. Lots of the commentary revolving around the device are not based in reality and are usually written by folks who have not worn the device at all, or for any significant amount of time. This just leads to bad commentary.
Photo by @koci_glass on Instagram
With all transparency I am a bit of a neophile (n. person who loves novelty, one who likes trends; person who accepts the future enthusiastically and enjoys changes and evolution.)
Even with that said, I’m pretty hard-pressed not to be blown away by a capture device that is so close to my eye. It’s actually pretty awesome that I can program it to shoot a picture when I blink. AMAZING!
Overall, it’s certainly a technology in its infancy but I have to say one of the biggest surprises was the quality. The images are fairly stunning as well as the video considering that the photo sensor has less megapixels than an iPhone. I think it has tons of potential and I’m certainly a believer in the notion that the next wave of technology will be aware of eyeballs whether it’s glasses or watches or even implants, :-)
Who are some of your favorite photographers working in areas of social change?
Ironically enough, the work of Marcus Bleasdale, especially his work for the National Geographic, The Price of Precious and how the minerals in our electronic devices have bankrolled unspeakable violence in the Congo.
Also It’s hard not to mention the work of the godfather of social photography, Sebastião Salgado.
You teach at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. What trends are you seeing among your students?
They are just crazy innovative thinkers and to use the cliché, extremely outside of the box thinkers. It’s so refreshing that they don’t carry legacy mentality into their futures. They see the visual world with fresh eyes and while being mature adults have a very inspiring youthful, beginners outlook. They’re also not afraid of new technology and are certainly more willing than most to use the best available and most appropriate tool without having to debate its merits. I love that in them!
Any thoughts on the upcoming Activist Awards?
Excited! I’m continually in awe by the work that comes out of the awards as it’s often humbling, inspiring, enlightening and certainly informative. I’m a believer that there is an equal amount of photographic “signal” amongst the photographic “noise” and I find that these awards often surface some of the strongest signals out there.
Richard Koci Hernandez will be taking part in the PhotoPhilanthropy workshop, Mobile Photography & Storytelling on March 7 and will be a judge at the Activist Awards on March 8.
Take a look at Koci in action on the streets of San Francisco: