For photojournalist at the pinnacle, Instagram is a game changer

Persons of Interest logoThis story is the second in a new weekly series exploring the lives of students, staff and faculty, both on- and off-campus.

As a photojournalist, Richard Koci Hernandez reached what he thought was the pinnacle of success: two Pulitzer nominations, one Emmy.

Then along came Instagram.

The smartphone photo-sharing app has opened new worlds for Koci Hernandez, on the faculty of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism since 2008 and now an assistant professor.

Richard Koci Hernandez

Richard Koci Hernandez makes art of daily life. (Robyn Dudley photo)

“My interest lies in this thing right here on the table,” he says, pointing to the shiny black iPhone he had just set down so he could grab his coffee. “Creatively and professionally, it has changed my life and the life of other photographers, photojournalists, like never before.”

Instagram didn’t exist two years ago. By the time Facebook snapped it up earlier this month (for $1 billion), it had some 31 million users. And Koci Hernandez had more than 113,000 Instagram followers (as of April 23), a community attracted to the artful black- and-white shots he posts, and his dialogue with his public about photos, journalism, art and creativity.

Though he spent 15 years at the San Jose Mercury News, and his work has gone out over international news wires and appeared in Time, Newsweek and the New York Times, “More people are now being exposed to my journalism than ever before,” he says:

He can validate the claim with statistics, “likes” and looks and comments. But the point isn’t to brag, but to demonstrate the drive and vitality of online journalism, its expansion to embrace citizen journalists  and the revolution being forced on the tightly controlled, one-way info flow of traditional journalism

“Now I have access to literally the entire world,” Koci Hernandez says.

Five Instagram photos by Richard Koci Hernandez

Four Instagram shots by Koci Hernandez, who posts a quote with each image. For the top one: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” - Calvin Coolidge

And that access is instant. When he started out as a photojournalist, it was all about waiting: for “the shot,” for darkroom chemistry to tell him if he’d gotten the image he wanted, for editing, and then for printing. Digital cameras cut the wait, but the photojournalist was still tethered to laptops, to cafes with wifi, to editing and publication controlled by others.

“You still didn’t have access to the community,” he points out. Now, his only leash is the wrist strap on his phone. He goes everywhere with it, and can shoot and post a photo within seconds.

“To me, all journalism is storytelling,” he says. “You want to get the story out. Now I can do that. I don’t need the New York Times anymore. That’s both a scary and empowering thing.”

These are among the ideas he’s both exploring and teaching at Berkeley, where he started out as a Ford Foundation fellow, part of a group creating the J-School’s hyperlocal news sites — Mission Local and Oakland North, among others — as a teaching medium for journalism students. Now in a tenure-track position, Koci Hernandez teaches basic journalism as well as skills like video editing, motion animation and his specialty, visual journalism.

Tips on smartphone photography

Richard Koci Hernandez shows what he does in this Vimeo video.

“I’m teaching a new breed of journalists reporting mostly for the web,” he says. “Students don’t just go out and report, and write, or shoot and edit. They have to put it on the web.”

Koci Hernandez’s Instagram photos don’t look like conventional news photos. He tends toward mood and abstraction, and has a penchant for hats, faces and men in coats. His subject is the life around him.

One of his posts — an Instagram photo of a person in a raincoat, shot through a rain-blurred window — attracted a lot speculation about the magic and mystery of what the image represented. In fact, it was the product of a quick stop for creamer at Safeway, on a rainy day. “I look out my passenger window and along comes this woman walking and I just get this photographer’s impulse and I shoot.

“It’s just my daily life, I didn’t go out of my way to shoot this picture. To me that’s the beauty of photography.”

Is it journalism? Says Koci Hernandez: “I’ve always had a broad definition of journalism. Even when I was employed for 20 years in various newsrooms, this definition was always true. I always saw journalism as another form of storytelling.”

At the Mercury News, he told stories through his prize-winning photos and video — of life in California’s juvenile prisons, where students worked at desks in cages; of the Latino diaspora in the 21st century, amid Nebraska grain silos not California barrios; of two families forced out of their mobile homes by development in Silicon Valley.

Journalism’s requirements — truth, ethics, objectivity and transparency — are as easy to fulfill via Instagram as on a newspaper’s front page, he says. And he can meet all those values and “still bring a sense of artistry to what I do.” Beyond that, online sharing lets him have conversations with people in Croatia, Spain or Oshkosh about his work, theirs and the bigger issues raised.

Koci Hernandez, who has been at the leading edge of the change, is well aware citizen journalism is as divisive as it is community-driven.

Instant access to publication for all, and other technological advances including Instagram, have made it easier than ever for anyone to manipulate reality. “Our grandmothers know what Photoshopping is now,” he observes.

And that has the potential to further erode public trust, he says: “The coming crisis in photojournalism is the coming crisis of truth.”

At Berkeley, Koci Hernandez is working with journalists in training, the ones who will thread the path through that crisis and lead the redefinition of journalism into an indefinite future.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to be disconnected from technology ever again,” he says. “It’s a very, very, very interesting time for storytelling, for journalism, for photojournalism. But it’s exciting. I love it.  I guess I like a shakeup now and then. I think it makes us think.” 

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