Richard Koci Hernandez

Holy Graal of digital photography – an interview with Richard “Koci” Hernandez

23 July 2013

Richard “Koci” Hernandez is an excellent and very popular mobile photographer.  He is an Emmy Award winning visual journalist who worked as a photographer for over 15 years and also a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. “Koci” has agreed to answer our questions, share his knowledge and experience in mobile photography. The interview with Richard Koci Hernandez was made by Wojtek Papaj, our Mobilni group member.

Wojtek Papaj: Whole your professional life is connected with a photography and multimedia. When and why did you decide to involve in mobile artistry?
Richard Koci Hernandez: For me, it was a very natural progression from traditional, expensive and professional gear of which I spent 20 years using, to a more low fidelity camera, because I had always been interested in alternate photographic equipment. Throughout my entire professional photographic career I was always playing with toy plastic cameras, Polaroid transfers and other alternate processing alternatives for analog photography. So in late 2007 and early 2008 the introduction of what I referred to as the first wholly digital camera, the iPhone version 1 was something that I was ready to play with photographically. Once the explosion of applications for the iPhone along with its better quality lens I was sold on it as a serious tool for photojournalism and photographic experimentation.

Wojtek Papaj: Does the gear (a smartphone) or the square form of picture hold your creativity down (compared with DSLR)?
Richard Koci Hernandez: Yes and no. Of course using a very expensive camera affords you with various luxuries and features that certainly make your photographic life “easier”. I can immediately think of things like the really fast motor drive or interchangeable lenses as things that are a luxury of expensive cameras and not part of mobile photography. But, I’m also someone who has found a great challenge both professionally and creatively when under a certain amount of constraints like the limitations of a smartphone. At the same time I was always a lover of the square format and owned various toy cameras like the Holga and more professional ones like the Hassleblad. For instance, the constraint of not having an acceptable zoom lens on a smartphone certainly changed and challenged my way of shooting. It forced me to physically get closer to my subjects and in many cases made my photographs better. But think about using something like the iPhone for a major sporting event, seems pretty limited right? And in general that’s the right assumption, but then you take a photographer like Dan Chung and he creatively constructs an iPhone adapter to binoculars and makes some amazing smartphone photographs at the recent Olympic Games.

Wojtek Papaj: How did a photojournalism experience affect the way you see and practice photography? 
Richard Koci Hernandez: My experience in photojournalism is what made me the photographer that I am today. Photojournalism is what I like to call a contact sport or profession. Meaning, there is a high level of human emotion and investment as a photographer in dealing with your subjects. You’ve got to interact with them and do “justice” by capturing as much of the “truth” as possible to tell their story. It’s humbling work and teaches one a lot about the human condition. At the same time a photojournalist’s Holy Grail is to capture a story in a single moment. Trying to capture a “decisive moment” that ultimately explains the story in a single image is challenging and hard work, but certainly wonderful practice of the photographic art. Photojournalism keeps me on my toes and has taught me to keep my finger near the shutter button with my eyes wide open, always ready and looking for the tiny truth around every corner.

Wojtek Papaj: And conversely, may photography to impair professional photography (e.g. recently casus “Chicago Sun”)
Richard Koci Hernandez: In my opinion, certainly not. A capture device is simply that, a capture device. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a wooden analog pinhole camera or an electronic smartphone, it’s just a tool, a photographic tool to get a job done. It would be like an entire profession of certified plumbers blaming a particular brand of wrench for the demise of their business. What’s happening across the country because of the democratization of photography has little to do with the actual device and more to do about the social and cultural views and acceptance of photography as an art, a profession and a viable business model than it does over and android or iPhone. Those who blame the smartphone for the demise of photography are not looking at the whole picture.

Wojtek Papaj: A street photography takes an important place in your portfolio. What that kind of photography can say to us about a man? A mankind? A society?
Richard Koci Hernandez: Street photography is something that I am drawn to because of its power to transcend time. While all photography transcends time street photography is a wonderful cultural time capsule. What I love about street photography is that it’s not really meant to be appreciated now, in the moment. Its true purpose is reflection, many years later after time has passed and we can look back at the photographs taken and contemplate cool we once were as a society and humanity. I see street photography as the ultimate historic photographic archive of a time. And as with the past it’s something that we can never relive but certainly something we can potentially learn from. I like to think of street photography as buried dinosaur bones. They are artifacts for future generations to dig up and attempt to make sense of. Sometimes they’ll be important other times they will seem banal. As you can see, I like to think about and muse over the power of photographic time. I like to think that what is done over time, time respects and that’s how I see street photography.

Wojtek Papaj: How about pros&cons of being a street photographer? Any tips & tricks?
Richard Koci Hernandez: This is a hard question to answer because when you are so involved I think it’s hard to see any of the cons. I don’t think that there is an archetype of a street photographer as there are many different approaches and styles all equally valid. There are photographers such as myself whose approach is to be silent and unseen and at the same time photographers whose passion is to interact and connect with their subjects on the street. I would have to say to the aspiring street photographer to just purchase a pair of comfortable shoes and hit the streets! Look at all of the “greats” who have come before us and learn from them. Then do your best to find your approach and style that best suits your message, mission and photographic personality. Finally don’t be afraid of the word no.  The biggest fear that most street photographers have as they began is the fear of being rejected by a subject if you are a photographer who in Iraq’s or being found out if you are a photographer who practices stealth. There is one thing I know for sure someone will always notice you and someone will always tell you “no”; it’s a part of the job so get used to it. Have no fear, be overly humble and respectful of your subjects and have fun.

Wojtek Papaj: Your photos have a unique style – how did it come about?
Richard Koci Hernandez: Through many years of practice and experimentation and not being afraid to try new things. I know that answer sounds very trite, simple and rudimentary but I believe it. Style is something that reflects your passion and personality and I believe that every human is continually searching for their true self their true personality their true mission and passion in life so often your style will tend to change. That’s okay, that’s part of life. But for me as I suspect with many others there is a point in your life that can come at any age where you finally feel comfortable in your skin you finally feel comfortable with the personality that you have developed and the moment you stick with it not only does your style emerge it begins to solidify. I can feel my personal style solidifying as we speak and I can let the resulting form or structure keep its shape or I can take a hammer and break the mold and start again. Who knows?

Wojtek Papaj: Would you tell us something about your secrets of post-production?
Richard Koci Hernandez: I certainly don’t have any true secrets of post-production otherwise I would have skipped answering this question. My workflow is a little something I like to call application stacking or App Stacking.  This simply means that before anyone sees a final image it has been filtered through several mobile applications. So, I may make the original photograph in an like Hipstamatic, then save that image and open it from my camera roll in another application, like, Wood Camera,  to apply a particular border or tone that I like, then save the resulting image, now version 2 back to my camera roll before opening it in another application like Snapseed  and applying a border or frame that I like along with some grain, save that resulting image version 3 to my camera roll and open it in yet another application like Mextures or Afterlight  to apply some grunge, dirt or light scratches to the image before saving it to the camera roll. I may do this a few more times before eventually posting it to my social networks. Sometimes it’s only a single app and other times it can potentially be five or six.

Wojtek Papaj: Is it truth that some pictures you treat with a knife to scratch their surface?
Richard Koci Hernandez: Yes there is truth to this I have often been disappointed with all of the cookie-cutter filters in the various applications. So, I attempted to think about how I could bring my own unique “touch” to my images. Since my ultimate style and aesthetic that I am looking to transmit digitally is an analog style, very ironic I know, I found that sometimes the best way for me to achieve this is not digitally but in an analog fashion. My workflow would often go a little something like this, I would take an image with my iPhone then printed out on an inkjet printer, then get a fork or knife or pen or pencil and markup or scratch the inkjet print and then re-photograph it with my iPhone and post the resulting image on my social network. I call this little process a round trip. From digital to analog and back to digital again. I’m continually playing around with and refining this process.

Wojtek Papaj: What is your main inspiration – any other photographers, literature or art?
Richard Koci Hernandez: I’m a very firm believer that what strongly inspires a person is where the seeds and roots of that artists personal style emerge from. So as I list my influences and inspiration you’ll probably be able to understand my photographic style a little bit more. In literature, I’m a huge fan of magical realism to my favorite authors are Gabrielle Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. Cinematically I am a huge fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, film noir and old spaghetti Westerns. Photographically, I have a wide range of influences as I am a lover of all things photographic but some of my absolute favorites are Roy Decarava, Elliot Erwitt, Leonard Freed, Helen Levitt, Vivan Maier, William Klein and Saul Leiter, just to name a few :-)

Wojtek Papaj: What is a relation between image and word at your photos – illustration? Caption? Balance?
Richard Koci Hernandez: I think this has a lot to do with my roots as a photojournalist. Photojournalism is a balance of image and text or words. All photojournalism has a proper caption which can provide much-needed context and information. While I certainly admire the marriage of pictures and words, I also believe in the power of the single photograph, un-captioned to provide another level of mystery to the viewer. But sometimes a word phrase quote or passage will inspire me to make a particular kind of photograph and in such cases I will often post the quote and image as a couple. Sometimes a picture makes me think about a particular set of words or quote and sometimes it’s the other way around.

Wojtek Papaj: You described your work process in three words: discovery – collaboration – sharing. Could you roll the rule out?
Richard Koci Hernandez: I feel strongly that my approach to modern photography are exactly those three things almost a Trinity that cannot be separated. For me photography is ultimately about discovery, it’s what keeps me going back to the streets every day and without the collaboration of a viewer then I’m creating nothing but empty dispatches. The viewer as collaborator is just as an important ingredient in photography as is the final image. Finally, for me and I suspect for all photographers who were honest with themselves sharing our work is the final step. It’s closely related to collaboration but myself as a photographer the sharing of my message is important to me even though my message may not be found understood until I am dead as I see street photography as having a very long tail in which my work will probably only be important many years after my passing but it is about sharing and letting the world know that I was here and met my photographic artifacts are what I saw and what the world looked like when I was alive.

Wojtek Papaj: There is question especially important for our group: do photo-collectives still make sense? What to do (or not to do) to maintain a group dynamics, to develop and promote it?
Richard Koci Hernandez: Absolutely. In its simplest form a collective is a group of like-minded professionals. Mingling collaborating and sparring with others who share your passion is an important part of the photographic process and art. Without it, you become isolated and often times paralyzed creatively and professionally because you don’t have that human interaction. A group of committed passionate people can do great things so to me it’s a no-brainer that they make sense. I think the key is a strong leader healthy debates and constant interaction.

Wojtek Papaj: Mobile photography is a quite new branch of art. How you see its future? Its progress or decline associated with technological development?
Richard Koci Hernandez: I learned long ago not to even try to predict the future. 10 years ago I could have never predicted the tools that we have now like the smartphone or wearable glasses and watches but those things are here and influential and often appropriate tools. I think that technology will only advance the visual arts both in still and moving images to heights and awareness in visual literacy and at the same time continuing to make the tools easier to use and forever accessible to all.

The list of Koci’s favourite applications:

– Hipstamatic

– ProCamera

– Filterstorm

– Snapseed

– Wood Camera

– Mextures

– Afterlight


More Koci’s photos here:





PS. Richard is experimenting with photography using Google Glass. You can see the effects of this experiment here.

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