30 April 2015
Michał Koralewski: Let’s start from the past. Why did you decide to travel to Bosnia in 1992 and photograph besieged Sarajevo? You were only 21 years old – very young for – I suppose – dangerous job of war photojournalist.
Thomas Hurst: As odd as it may seem, I went to Bosnia because I wanted to experience war. I had a yearning to see it with my own eyes and I wanted to learn something about myself as a young man trying to find his way in the world. I had a deep desire to know how I would mentally and emotionally handle being in a war zone and no longer wanted to rely on how romanticized TV shows and movies portrayed it. I decided the only way to learn that about war and myself was to put myself in a war. I was not a photographer at the time of my first trip to the war that was starting in Bosnia the summer of 1992. A few days before I was set to fly to Europe it dawned on me that I should have some sort of “professional” excuse for needing to get inside Sarajevo. I created an imaginary name of a newspaper, crafted a fake press credential, and drafted a fake letter of introduction from my imaginary boss at my imaginary newspaper. Then I borrowed an old Nikkormat film camera, a couple of lenses and used those items to convince the United Nations in Croatia to put me on their Aid Flight headed into the airport outside of Sarajevo.
M.K.: You were returning to these places some more times, photographing life in engulfed Bosnia and Kosovo. You were also taking photos in Afghanistan, Haiti and Rwanda and other places touched by war. You won three World Press Photo Awards and you were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for your photo reportages. My gut feeling is that those recognitions on one side gave you a lot of satisfaction, a confirmation of job well done, but on the other hand, photojournalists often document terrible violence acts, hoping to shake the public opinion, and – even indirectly – support efforts leading to end the conflict. How about you? Did you ever believe that you can “save the world” with your photography?
T.H.: I wasn’t going to become a journalist or war photographer. As I began my journey into the Bosnian War in 1992 – the press credentials I had created and camera gear were simply meant to be props to convince people I should be there. In fact, it wasn’t until I was inside Sarajevo that I took my very first photograph with a 35mm film camera, but the moment I did, I believed I would dedicate my entire life to documenting people, war, conflict and struggle in hopes of helping others and inciting change. I believed from the very beginning that my images should and could change the world in regards to ending the wars and conflicts I photographed. I believed that the better I became as a photographer the more I would be published and the more people who had the chance to see my photographs the more chance a war would end. I believed it wasn’t just my responsibility, but my obligation to take pictures so compelling it would propel people into demanding change and I believed if I wasn’t getting published or people weren’t demanding change then neither I or my pictures were good enough yet. It was this type of pressure that helped drive me to become a good photographer, but it was this type of pressure that led me to becoming emotionally paralyzed for fear of failing those I was photographing and those who were following my career.
M.K.: How much the winning of the most important awards can change the photographers life?
T.H.: I was still a college student the year my work started to be recognized and awarded in such venues as World Press. Being young, inexperienced, and not understanding the business side of photojournalism, I actually didn’t grasp the perceived importance of those awards. Though I received my first World Press Award in 1996, four years after I began shooting in the streets of Sarajevo, I was still an infant in terms of experience or ‘vision’. My ability to creatively ‘see’ images only truly began forming in 1996, when all of a sudden I began winning awards nationally and internationally – as a college student. I had no perspective of what it meant or how to leverage the exposure I was suddenly getting within the industry. Looking back now, had I won those awards as an older man with more life experience, more self-confidence, and more photography experience, those awards would have created a greater sense of freedom. Instead they created the exact opposite – I felt paralyzed – I felt an immense burden to always be on the big story, always be in the middle of the action, and to continue winning awards. With no perspective, or guidance to help me understand what was happening inside of me I became afraid to take chances and began taking easy and safe opportunities regarding my career.
M.K.: How did a war photojournalism experience affect the way you see and practice photography? What that kind of photography can say to us about a man? A mankind?
T.H.: War is a mirror that reflects the darkest side of man. The people who document war hold the mirrors we’re all forced to look at so we might remember the brutality we would otherwise choose to forget, attempt to justify, or attempt to glorify. I believe deeply that all wars start with a deep-rooted fear. It’s fear that breeds our desire for power and control, because it’s power and control that makes us think we have nothing to fear.
For me personally, documenting war, conflict, and the human suffering that comes with it taught me many things and impacted me in many ways, both good and bad. I would say that I become a much more compassionate person with each war or conflict I covered and therefore became an even more compassionate photographer. I would also say that being in conflict zones has taught me to value the ‘moment’ much more than I once did because I understand how fleeting life and all it’s little moments really are.
M.K.: A couple of years later you ditched the career of photojournalist and became a pastor in Mars Hill Bellevue church. Such an unusual shift, going so far from the work you’ve done before. What made you put the 20 years photographer experience aside? Was that the war experience that had the immediate impact on your decision to become a pastor?
T.H.: I remember sitting in traffic one day coming back from a photo assignment and thinking to myself, “here we all are living in the midst of the Information Age. We have more information coming at us in more ways – Satellite TV, satellite radio, the world wide web, it’s in our homes, our cars, our workplace, in our hands. We know more about war and tragedy then ever before and yet there only seems to be more and more war and conflict, why is that?”
Since my first days with a camera in Sarajevo in the summer of 1992 I had believed, wrongly, that if people had information that would create heart transformation and that would collectively bring us to an evolution of peace towards each other. Photography, especially in the war, conflict, and tragedy I so passionately wanted to document, had always been about informing people through powerful images of what was really happening so that they would demand change, reform, intervention, or anything that would stop the brutality of war. I was driven by the dream that my pictures could make change, but it dawned on me that day in the car – that it wasn’t ‘information’ that brought heart transformation, so I began searching out what does. My parents were/are hippies, I was born in the early 1970’s in San Francisco, California and our family lived in the hippie center of the city, if not the world, Haight Street & Ashbury Street. Being raised by hippies, the idea of “spirituality’ was never far from me, I had always believed that there was some greater power in the universe and I began asking if it was a ‘greater power’ that changed hearts. So, I began looking into many world religions and beliefs. I talked with people who were Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian and what I found was heart transformation in following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I also found that the first person who needed heart transformation wasn’t everyone else, but me.
Truth is, I never had any plan to leave photography and become a pastor. I didn’t grow up going to church. I never wanted to work for a church. I didn’t like people who went to church. I never wanted to be a pastor, and I never thought I’d be a pastor of a church of 3,000 at its peak. However, over many years that is exactly where God led me. So with an unusual background, no formal theological education, a short two-year stint in day-to-day ministry as a deacon, and an enormous sense of compassion for hurting people, I was called to pastor a fast growing church and I just kept walking down a path of faith with all its joys and hardships until I felt God calling me to something else, which I believe he did with the idea of creating COVR Photo and I stepped down from my role as pastor last November. After five years in ministry and having studied Christ for the last 11 plus years, I can honestly tell you that the God of the Bible brings heart transformation in people – I witnessed it first hand in my own life, then the life of my wife, and then in the lives of hundreds of other people. I don’t believe in religious legalism I believe that Jesus Christ is who the Bible says he is, and apart from God’s gift of grace through Jesus, those that follow Jesus – Christians, are some of the worlds most broken, confused, self-righteous, judgmental, hypocritical, historically violent, and screwed-up people you might ever meet… trust me, I know.
I have always wanted my life to be about helping people. If I can do it through sharing their story to the world through my photography, if I can do it by loving and serving them without judgment as Jesus’ teaches, or if I can do it by providing them a photographic tool like COVR Photo so they’re able to capture moments that turn into memories, then that’s what I will do. If one day it’s something else then I’ll go do that. In the end, I want my children to know, having seen it in the life of their dad first; that a fulfilling life is one not lived out for ourselves, but lived out for others. Are wars going to stop because I found Jesus or because I made a smartphone case with a camera lens in it or because I win awards for my pictures? No, but that doesn’t mean we should stop taking pictures, stop being innovative with technology, or stop seeking what we believe to be true.
M.K.: Let’s talk a bit about your latest activity – successful Kickstarter campaign for COVR, an iPhone case with a built in lens. How did the COVR idea arise? Was that the answer to your own needs?
T.H.: The COVR Photo Lens Case was indeed an answer to my own needs first. A few years ago my young and healthy wife Angela was expecting our fourth son, Samuel. Several months into her pregnancy she began experiencing some unusual pains. Over the course of a month it was ultimately determined that Angela had an advance stage cancer. Not long after her diagnosis, our son Samuel was born prematurely, and doctors were unable to save him. The idea of COVR came out of our urgency to make sure that we captured real, natural, and timeless photos and videos of our loved ones and above all, our three little boys – James, Dakota and Reilly. With a very uncertain future ahead of us as a family, we knew we needed to capture as many special moments as we could so our boys would always have a picture to look at or a video to watch when they wanted to hear or see their mom and how much she loved them if the cancer took her life.
The first thing we did was set out buying a new digital camera and a new digital video camera, but at the end of the day we realized the device we used almost exclusively was the device in our back pocket, our smartphones. This created a problem we weren’t expecting: our kids had become so accustomed to seeing us lift our smartphones in front of our faces to take their picture or to shoot a video they would either stop what they were doing to awkwardly pose, or they’d suddenly become shy or stubborn and refuse to have their picture taken. While all our boys knew their mom was sick, they had no idea how important it was for us to capture the special moments right then and there. I was desperate to find a solution.
That solution came to me as I was sitting on my couch watching two different baseball games on two different TV channels. During a commercial on one channel I would point my TV remote at the TV and press a button to jump to the other game. After doing this a few times, I thought, “why couldn’t we operate our smartphone cameras like we operate a TV remote? Why can’t we just point the smartphone towards our subject, look down at the screen to compose our picture, and press the shutter button?” It was exactly what Angela and I needed to help us capture real and lasting moments and it was when I began to wonder if there were other people out there who could capture beautiful pictures with an invention like COVR Photo.
M.K.: What kind of problems does COVR solve?
T.H.: The COVR Photo Lens Case solves four clear problems: First, it allows you to not be as obvious when you’re taking pictures or video with your smartphone. The built-in prism on the smartphone’s protective case allows you to hold your camera-phone down by your waist and not in front of your face. Because you can be less obvious while you’re shooting pictures or videos, you have the opportunity to capture people and culture without influencing or disturbing it. I often wonder how many times we have all gone to take a picture with our camera-phones and everyone reacts by changing the direction they’re moving or what they’re doing? People have become so aware of cameras and so insecure of themselves, being less obvious as you compose a beautiful image or capture the essence of a powerful moment is awesome! I also wonder how many of us, myself included, have passed on taking a picture because sometimes it’s just intimidating being the one everyone’s staring at you while you’re holding your camera-phone in front of your face? If you just consider those two examples of how we miss pictures, ask yourself how many amazing beautiful pictures are missed or not shot everyday, all around the world? I’ve spent 20+ years honing the craft of capturing special moments, but imagine how difficult it is for the amateur photographer, or beginning photographer or a parent trying to capture candid moments of the children. The COVR Photo Lens Case breaks through those barriers for people who value natural candid pictures.
Second, COVR Photo is always on your camera-phone. I built the COVR lens into a protective case rather than making it an attachable lens because as a photographer I know that real, natural, candid moments rarely happen when you’re ready for them. Part of what makes special moments special moments is because they’re there and then they’re not. While I think there are some great attachable camera-phone lenses out there, if you’ve got to dig your lens out of a pocket or purse and attach it to your camera-phone you’ll never get the moment. That’s why serious photographers always have their cameras on, strapped over their shoulder, ready to shoot. If you want to capture something sudden, powerful, and real with your camera-phone, having the ideal equipment attached and ready is key. COVR Photo is just that, ideal.
The third problem the COVR Photo Lens Case solves is offering lens choices. I built the COVR lens so that it could slide back and forth over the smartphones built-in camera lens. I did this because as a photographer I want to be able to have options, not limits. I didn’t want photographers to have to choose between the amazing lens already in their smartphone OR the COVR Photo lens – I want people to have the best of both worlds. I wanted people to have the freedom to have lens choices just like I had when I was out on assignment shooting with my digital SLR’s – each of my two cameras had a different type of lens mounted to it. COVR gives people a two-lens option because you can be shooting with the COVR Photo lens forward one second and in an instant, slide the COVR lens back and be shooting with your built-in camera-phone lens – fast, simple, freeing!
The fourth problem COVR solves is that you can easily take pictures using just one hand. Unlike the way you’re practically forced to take pictures with your standard camera-phone, using two-hands, in front of your face, the COVR case on your smartphone allows you to hold it steady and comfortably, cradled in one hand, just as you would if you were texting or emailing. In this busy day and age we live in, needing both hands to snap a quick, quality, candid picture is often not possible. We’ve all had amazing moments that have been missed, passed on, or just came out too blurry to be any good because we only had one hand free to try and capture the picture or video. And with the sizes of mobile devices getting larger, the COVR Photo lens case is an increasingly valuable tool.
M.K.: Why did you decide to use a prism lens instead of a mirror. Isn’t it a bit more expensive solution?
T.H.: First and foremost it came down to the quality of the image or video once it was captured. I made it clear to our engineer at the beginning of developing the COVR Lens case that the vision behind COVR Photo was to be able to capture important, powerful, real moments of the people and places important to us in such a way that the content whether in picture or video, would last and be shared for generations. The quality of a prism lens compared to a mirror was drastic. Once we began researching, designing, and testing the possible material that we could use for the lens, we quickly found that mirrors were inferior to a prism on many fronts – they caused distortion, compromised the quality of the final image, and are a nightmare to clean. In the end, we refused to make something that degraded the quality of the photograph. So we spent an immense amount of time coming up with a unique prism that could be kept small and provide a sharp image.
M.K.: One of the first real-world testers of COVR was Richard Koci Hernandez. Were you getting any feedback about the way the case is designed? What’s his opinion on COVR?
T.H.: I remember being amazed at how quickly Richard understood what it was I had built when I reached out to him about testing one of our first functioning prototypes. He was excited to shoot with the COVR case and helped influence how we approached the design. The pictures he was making with that first prototype and the conversations we would have after he posted his COVR pictures helped us determine what was working and what was not. Another aspect that was beneficial with Richard’s involvement is that he had tested countless other mobile photography lenses and accessories. His wealth of practical knowledge helped us to see that we were onto something very unique and different than what was already on the market and how needed it was when it came to capturing otherwise difficult moments.
M.K.: How long have you been working on the COVR Photo concept?
T.H.: July 2012 is when the idea of COVR was born. I quickly filed for the provisional patent, but it took us two years to get the design, engineering, and testing completed before we felt that we had something of quality we could confidently launch. On April of 2014, we began our initial Kickstarter campaign in an attempt to raise funding and see if there was an actual market for the COVR Photo case. For a guy like me with a thousand ideas, two years felt like a lifetime, but we just refused to rush and risk compromising quality.
M.K.: Do you plan to release COVR Photo for smartphones other than iPhone?
T.H.: Absolutely! We have plans and designs for building COVR Photo for Android and Windows phones, as well as continuing to produce COVR cases for iPhones. The truth is, I can’t stop thinking about new ideas and designs for the next generation smartphone lens-cases. It’s just going to take a bit more time to get the financial traction as a start-up company like ours needs before we have the research and development revenue needed to bring all the other lens-cases to market.
I have a dream for COVR that goes far beyond just building lens-cases. I want the company I’m starting to be influential in documentary photography one day. I want COVR to be a company that doesn’t just talk about caring about people, but we show it by how we use the resources we might earn. The question at COVR isn’t how much can we make, but how much we can help. That’s the dream that keeps us motivated and innovative at COVR.
Overall, I feel good about the pace COVR is growing at as a company because it’s a pace that allows me to learn as the Founder and President. Our steady pace allows us to do it right, not rushed. The truth is, there is absolutely no guarantee that we’ll even make it as a viable company – there are just so many risks and pitfalls that could sink us at this early stage. But while an uncertain future can be unsettling, I’m at peace that in the end, I cannot dictate the outcome. While it’s critical that I work smart, hard and with passion, I’m not entitled to anything and what I have or get is a real gift. I suppose that’s one of the great blessings I’ve learned through my wife’s cancer diagnosis.
M.K.: What’s your opinion on mobile photography? Is it the next step in the photography evolution, a breakthrough, or just a temporary hype?
T.H.: The smartphone is the single most powerful and influential tool ever created as far as I’m concerned because everyone has one in his or her pocket 24 hours a day – seven days a week! We never turn them off. Our culture and society are addicted to them. So in my opinion, mobile photography isn’t going anywhere because mobile devices aren’t going anywhere.
The simple truth of it is, mobile photography is another tool we get to use to record and document the world we live in. Mobile photography isn’t going to replace the other tools we’re accustomed to because it has certain limits, but it is a wonderful tool that more and more people are learning how to use to powerfully express themselves, and I think it’s amazing. At the end of the day I want to see beautiful, powerful, real, truthful, pictures of people, moments, and culture. I don’t care if those images are made with a film camera, digital slr, a smartphone or a pin-hole camera – by any tool necessary and that’s exactly what the COVR Photo case is – a $55 tool to help people capture amazing pictures of their world and allow us, the viewer, to be amazed by it.
M.K.: Thank you very much for this conversation and – good luck!
Thomas Hurst website: http://www.thomashurst.com/
COVR Photo website: http://covrphoto.com/
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