Award-winning Multimedia Journalist, Street Photographer, and Professor: Interview with Richard “Koci” Hernandez from The Mobile Photo Group

Koci Hernandez

(All photographs in this article copyrighted by Richard “Koci” Hernandez)

Eric’s Note: I was introduced to the work of Richard “Koci” Hernandez by two of my good friends, Misho Baranovic and Oliver Lang from The Mobile Photo Group. What first struck me about Koci’s work is the depth, soul, and the mood of his beautifully-crafted black and white images. Not only that, but all of the street photography done is on his iPhone!

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. His work for the Mercury News has earned him two Pulitzer Prize nominations and was awarded a national Emmy® award for the New Approaches to Documentary category for his work on the film, Uprooted. His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and international magazines, including Stern, and he has worked with to produce a course on iPhoneography, iPhone Photography, from Shooting to Storytelling.

To read more about the man behind the camera, check out my interview with him below!

1. Dear Koci, huge pleasure to have you here! Let’s start off by digging a bit into your past. Tell us more about yourself first as a human and then secondly as a photographer.

Koci Hernandez

As a human, I’m 6’1, 199 pounds, black hair, brown eyes, born in 1969. Is that what you meant? JK :)

I grew up in Southern California in a small town called Santa Paula. At 14 I left home for boarding school and taught myself photography with a camera I ‘borrowed’ from an uncle. I consider myself an optimistic human with a passion for family, pets and all things photographic. As a self-taught photographer I practiced more than most, shooting tons of film and spending countless hours in a darkroom with fixer-stained fingers. I also learned from the masters of the craft by studying their monographs in local libraries.

At 19 on a lark, I bet a friend I could land a job as a photographer at the local newspaper before him. It was ‘game on!’ I went to Radio Shack and purchased a police scanner and started chasing fires and car crashes in an attempt to build a portfolio.

One rainy morning around 3am a local oil refinery exploded. The scanner tones jarred me awake. I grabbed my Nikon FM camera and rushed out the door to snap some images. I arrived on the scene at the same time as the local photojournalist, who I later learned was the director of photography at the Ventura Star Free Press, the newspaper at the center of the bet. He was so impressed with my ‘initiative’ (his description) ‘naiveté’ (my description) that he hired me the very next day as a darkroom lab assistant.

I spent the next year mixing D76 developer for the staff photographers. Needless to say I won the bet and a year later worked my way up to a full-blown staff photojournalist.

I spent the next 15 years working as a photojournalist, most notably at the San Jose Mercury News. In 2009 I left the newspaper to teach new media journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where I sit writing this account.

2. You are an active member of The Mobile Photo group. Tell us the story how you became part of the group, and what some of your dreams for the collective are.

Koci Hernandez

Quick story, they asked me to join and I said yes. I was humbled. It’s great to have such an esteemed group of storytellers to collaborate with. My dream for the collective would be for it to thrive as a group of passionate creatives whose main goal is to educate others about the power of visual storytelling and to create collaborative projects that inspire.

3. You shoot quite a bit of your street photography with your iPhone. How does shooting with the iPhone on the streets differ from using a more traditional camera?

Koci Hernandez

In fact all of it is shot with an iPhone. The biggest and most important difference isn’t one of mechanics, but one of stealth. Maybe I wasn’t good enough at ‘hiding’ my SLR, but it’s easier to go unnoticed while shooting with my ‘phone.’ Nobody pays attention to me when I’m shooting with my iPhone, Especially when I put my headphones on.

4. A maxim that people share on the Internet that I agree with mostly is that “the camera doesn’t matter”. However I do believe that the tool you use will influence and change the outcome. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses you find about using the iPhone as a photographic device?

Koci Hernandez

I certainly agree that the camera influences the image. There is no question in my mind that, for me, the major strength of the iPhone is the fact it’s a ‘connected’ device. In a word, sharability. Not only is it my camera, it’s the darkroom AND the ‘printing press’ in my pocket. I can shoot and share with unprecedented ease and speed. That’s very powerful. I no longer ‘need’ the traditional media as a vehicle to distribute my work. What a great time for photographers!

Another strength I find is the iPhones potential to create highly conceptual photographic images with various effects. The number of apps available to image-makers just blows the door of the hinges in terms of the enormous potential to create. Not everyone’s photographic sensibilities will regard this as a strength but it certainly has opened creative doors for me to experiment and challenge myself creatively.

Weakness, hmmm, well, there’s no interchangeable lenses or viewfinder! ;) Come on Apple! Honestly, not to sound too much like a shill, but the only real weakness I encounter is it doesn’t handle low light very well.

5. Describe a day in your life (from the moment you wake up and the moment you fall asleep).

Koci Hernandez

I wake-up around 6:30 am, head right to the kitchen and make coffee. I get my iPhone, usually it’s charging. I jump back into bed and check Instagram and email while I wait for my coffee to brew. I proceed to check the news on various sites while I have my morning cup of joe, then I’m off to walk our two dogs.

Upon my return I usually make breakfast for my wife and daughter, before driving my daughter to school. The rest of the day consists of teaching new media course at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Depending on my class schedule for the day I roll back home anywhere between 6:30 and 8:30pm to have dinner with the family and try to spend some quality time with them before lights out around 10pm.

Once the daughter is asleep I usually work on a personal project for a few hours before heading to bed myself. It can range anywhere from video editing to research for class. I always end the night by reading a few chapters of a book on my iPad, followed by the final Instagram/email check, then I grab my laptop and find a movie to fall asleep to, almost always Blade Runner.

6. Let’s talk more about your influences in photography. Who are some photographers you admired growing up, and who are some photographers that have the biggest influence on you right now?

Koci Hernandez

To name a few of my early influences, Josef Koudelka, William Klein, Elliot Erwitt, Robert Frank, Leon Levinstein and Gary Winogrand. Specifically I would point to one major influence and that would be the work of Roy Decarava.

I particularly love his work because it was born out of pure love of recording what was happening around him. There’s such an honesty and integrity to his work. You can feel the very strong personal nature of his images. I see a wonderful sense of style and I think he thought of himself as a human being first and a photographer second and it’s something that I think has stuck with me. He also never gets the proper credit as the master that he is. I travelled hundreds of miles to see one of his shows.

More recently I’ve been head over heals about the newly discovered work of Vivian Maier. I so admire her intensely private but passionate street photographs. I’m so glad they’ve been found and shared with the world. Maier went about her daily life not as a photographer, but as a nanny and quietly and boldly recorded a piece of her time and place that has made a photographic impact on the world.

7. I love the bustling community on Instagram, but one of the critiques I hear about it is that the comments and feedback you receive aren’t very constructive. What kind of advice would you give to people in order to give more constructive feedback on photos?

Koci Hernandez

Instead of just saying things, like, wow and awesome, simply tell the photographer, as best you can put into words, WHY you like an image. Things like, “I love how the light falls on the corner of her dress and her body language speaks volumes!”

Just a suggestion, but anything that really gets to the heart of your feelings about a photograph make for great comments and feedback.

8. Due to the format, instagram only has a focus on single images. Do you feel that it restricts people from working on projects with more cohesion and meaning?

Koci Hernandez

Not at all. In fact I find the format very inviting for projects and cohesion.It’s all about context.

For example, if you let your audience know that the next ten images are part of a series or project, then you prepare them for it and I have found that it increases level of excitement and expectation. It almost becomes like an old-time radio program, where you leave folks hanging-on for the next ‘episode’ or image.

While I haven’t tried it myself I’ve even seen some very unique uses of the grid format. As photographer will post three related images and over time it creates a beautiful cohesive layout if you view their feed in the grid mode on their profile page, almost Hockneyesque.

9. What excites you the most about the future of photography? Also what are some of the biggest challenges you think it faces today?

Koci Hernandez

I’m most excited by the fact that we have no idea what’s ahead. I love change and unpredictably. Bring-on the unknown! I think it’s the greatest time in history to be a photographer. The instant access to a world-wide audience and the creative potential unlocked by current technology, certainly make for exciting times. Specifically, advancements like the Lytro camera, while still in its infancy, has awesome potential.

Not having to worry or think about something like focus, allows me to focus on story and moment. Camera mechanics and technical proficiency are overrated.

In the end, what we care about as humans is the resulting image. We’re not concerned about what camera the image was shot with or weather it was manually or auto-focused. We react to the image on an emotional level and without an emotional response, it’s just a snapshot, not a photograph. I think photography’s biggest challenge will be the lose of identity.

The metamorphous is already taking place. In the future we might need to find a new label for photography because I suspect it won’t resemble in mechanical form, what we’ve come to recognized as a ‘camera.’

10. Describe the story behind one of the favorite street photographs you have taken.

Koci Hernandez

I haven’t taken my ‘favorite’ image yet. Pretentious, I know. But if i ever felt satisfied with an image I think I would lose my passion to continue. It’s a photographic defense mechanism.

But for the first time in 15 years of street photography, a subject actually saw themselves in one of may images via Instagram and contacted me. They were so happy with the image they wanted a copy. I was more than happy to share it along with the outtakes. As a photograph, it wasn’t anything special, but it did remind me of the power of social photography.

11. What do you think is the similarities and differences between street photography and documentary photography?

Koci Hernandez

More pretentiousness, coming your way, :)

I’ve always struggled with labels and terms like ‘street’ and ‘documentary’ because the moment you label them, you constrict the possibilities and potential of the medium. If I ventured a comment on the subject it would be that I see all street photography AS documentary by pure definition but not all documentary is street photography it’s just a branch.

In my mind every photograph is a document, an artifact worthy of attention and free from the constraints of labeling.

12. Who is one other contemporary street photographer on Instagram that you recommend us to follow and why?

Koci Hernandez

Daniel Arnold, for sure. I can’t put it into words, he leaves me speechless. He’s raw, pure, honest. His images of New York, like the master’s before him, leave an indelible mark on my psyche. @arnold_daniel on Instagram.

13. What are some current projects you are working on?

Koci Hernandez

I’m searching for the cure for photographer’s who can’t stop complaining and obsessing about what kind of ‘camera’ or ‘filter’ someone else is using. I’m getting close. I found if they take one of these Shut-the-Hell-Up pills and wash it down with with a glass of Go-Out-And-Take-Some-Pictures-Of-Your-Own it makes everything better. [Insert a wink and smile here]

14. Any last things you would like to mention or people you would like to give a shout-out to?

Koci Hernandez

I think I’ve said enough, :)

Shout out to my Hommie @konstruktivist

Follow Koci

You can follow Koci via the links below:

More photos by Koci

Koci Hernandez

Koci Hernandez

Koci Hernandez

Koci Hernandez

Koci Hernandez

Which of Koci’s photos speak to you the most and what do you think of his work? Show him some love or ask him any questions by leaving a comment below! 

Scroll to Top