Join Richard Koci Hernandez for an in-depth discussion in this video Traveling in Central America, part of Creative Inspirations: Richard Koci Hernandez, Multimedia Journalist.
Richard: Ventura County Star Free Press on Ralston Street, sincerely Gary Phelps, said this-- hopefully this is not embarrassing. "I hired Richard Hernandez one year ago, and in that time, he has proven to be a young outstanding shooter. At the age of 21, he has shown natural talent, and I believe he will go far in photojournalism. Unfortunately, I will be losing Richard to San Francisco State University, where he will further his career. Upon his graduation, I hope to rehire him." I have no idea why he wrote this letter, or what this is for.
But I got to San Francisco State, and I think I was still a bit fresh, kind of out of the seminary, kind of free, and I was in San Francisco. And a friend and I just sat down and had coffee, and I don't know what got into us, but we decided then and there, before the semester even started, we'd paid for our books, our tuition, our housing. All of those two years I worked at the Star Free Press to get myself to San Francisco State, to continue my education in photography, and I threw it all away.
We said, "We are leaving. We are going to go. We are going to leave. Forget school." We turned our books back, our housing money back, everything we got, like 80% of the money back. And we bought one-way tickets, one-way tickets to Mexico City, and we landed in Mexico. I can't even tell you why. We just we wanted to go take pictures. I wanted to just walk the earth with my camera, and it was very naive and very immature of me, but that's what I wanted to do. At that point of my life, that's what I just felt I wanted to do.
And I had a friend who wanted to do that with me too. So we landed in Mexico City, and we flipped a coin, whether we were going to go north or we were going to go south. And it came up tails, and it was south, and we headed south. We got on a train, and we took a journey that took us months and months of--all the way through Mexico and all the way through Central America. We turned around and came back. Mexico and the Central America trip was so different, yet there was something that coincided that made it so familiar.
I happened to be in Central America, in Guatemala specifically, during Easter Holy Week, which as a Catholic I knew everything about. I had just left that life. I don't know. There is so much of me in this picture when I look back now. I mean this is a picture that I would have never thought I could pull off at the Star Free Press. And somehow, being in another country, in another frame of mind--it's dark, it's gloomy, it's mysterious, you don't quite know what's going on, it's spiritual, it's ambiguous.
Those are all of the things that are, as I've matured as a photographer, are part of what I'm going for. They are part of my style, what I bring to my work. And it's very powerful for me to sit down now and look at pictures I took at the very beginning of my career, and see that there. The ingredient that came into the mix that really helped me was a little bit of studying of the people that came before me.
When I was 12, I never thought to look more at Ansel Adams. I never thought to look more. I never thought that there were people who had taken pictures before me. I was the first person on earth to discover this and fall in love with this whole idea. So I began to study people. I began to know who W. Eugene Smith was and who Robert Frank was and Leonard Freed, and all of these people who I began to kind of admire and try and emulate, or learn from in some sense.
And I think that that's what I was doing here, looking at pictures and composition, and reading a little bit about Walker Evans changed my life--that he would shoot surreptitiously on the subway. And I thought, every time I pull up the camera to somebody's face in Mexico, or Central America, they all want to look at me. They all want to stop doing what they are doing, but what if you just did this little surreptitious thing. This idea of street photography, and I was in a place where the streets are the most vibrant thing in the world.
And here I was, there. I mean, I remember this picture is directly after I learned about what Walker Evans did, and the idea of shooting from the hip, and how you could do that. What possessed--I almost wouldn't even take this picture now. I mean these guys look like they would kick my butt. I mean these are mechanics. They are all greasy. Two of them look like practically children, and this guy looks like a tank. I mean why I felt I had the right to go up to these guys in another country and shoot pictures of them, I don't know. But I did, I did it surreptitiously.
And I just shot a few from the hip. I got this picture and a series of other pictures. I eventually brought it up to my face, and I remember. I will look at this proof sheet. You can tell when I brought it up to my face, because they all moved, and there was not this body language. So for me it was a nice convergence of studying the greats and learning about the greats, and realizing that I wanted to shoot with more intent and more intention.
In Bonus Features, Koci is interviewed by Graduate School of Journalism colleague Jeremy Rue at the Pacific Film Archive Theatre, University of California, Berkeley.