“Street photographers need to be respectful in the space we occupy at any given moment. We can still be assertive in our approach, but we need to be very aware of the subject’s reaction. We have to develop a set of coping skills to defuse any given negative response that might arise from what we do. I learned that lesson the hard way, but it was memorable and stuck with me.”
Alveraz Ricardez (born 1973) is a street photographer currently residing in Los Angeles, California (USA).
He learnt street photography on the streets of Los Angeles. Alveraz Ricardez’ recent project “Downtown L.A.” is currently exhibited in “Blackstone Gallery” (L.A.).
Interview with Alveraz Ricardez
Alveraz, why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
I’ve always been drawn to people-watching since I was a child. There’s something about observing ordinary people in extraordinary situations that I find compelling. When I discovered a process to capture those moments with a camera it felt like a natural progression to explore.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
I had a knife pulled on me within the first couple weeks of shooting. I was a little more enthusiastic and aggressive at the time because I had just discovered street photography was an actual thing. I was understandably awkward with personal space and trying my best to get closer and closer to subjects. I had this naïve notion that people were just fine with having their picture taken since I hadn’t come across anyone angry yet. So I got closer, and closer. I had no idea I was pushing my luck.
Anyway, I got too close, too fast on a guy who freaked out and pulled a knife on me. I was scared but diffused the situation quickly with a few reassuring words about what I was doing. I explained it was a hobby of mine. I showed him the images and everything was cool. But that was my first lesson in humility and confrontation as a photographer.
Street photographers need to be respectful in the space we occupy at any given moment. We can still be assertive in our approach, but we need to be very aware of the subject’s reaction. We have to develop a set of coping skills to defuse any given negative response that might arise from what we do. I learned that lesson the hard way, but it was memorable and stuck with me.
What does photography mean to you?
I also happen to be a writer and there’s an old saying:
We don’t write because we want to, we write because we have to.
I’ve never been that guy, in writing or photography. I used to get hung up on other writers and photographers who spoke of the craft with this deep sense of conviction and belonging, as if they were part of a secret society and they would die if the pen or camera was ever taken from their hands.
For a long time I didn’t understand why I wasn’t blessed with this intangible connection to the craft. I finally discovered I’m just not the type of person who can attach himself to any process, whether it’s writing, photography or anything else really. Well maybe eating, I like to eat a lot and would indeed die without it.
The camera is just a tool to capture my hobby of people-watching. So I guess what I’m saying is, photography doesn’t mean that much to me in the sense you might think it should. I do have a great time when I’m on the streets shooting, but it’s not motivated by any deep sense of commitment or belonging. I just shoot to shoot I suppose and don’t attach much else to it.
Is there anything in particular that you want to say with your pictures?
I’m not really motivated by saying anything with my images. They do speak to some people in different ways, but that’s not why I shoot. I take pictures because that particular subject or moment interests me. I try to envelope myself into any given situation and record the unique qualities of that space. If the image says something to someone then I feel it’s just a bi-product of a moment that has already passed. I’m no longer part of the equation. I’m in this for the experience and just happen to have a camera with me to capture it.
Which (street) photographer has inspired you most? In what way?
I didn’t even know street photography existed before February, so I’m having the pleasure of discovering all these amazing street photographers for the first time. I’m still in that honeymoon period of finding giants of the craft every single day. I definitely gravitate to the grittier work of photographers like Moriyama, Gilden, D’Agata, Boogie, Agou, etc. I prefer black and white, high contrast and loads dark sensibility. I like work with something extra, whether it’s a simple portrait with something deeper in the eyes, or various levels within a story or moment. I’m not a big fan of the ironic to be ironic stuff I see a lot of these days online but that’s just a taste thing I guess.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
It’s funny, when I first read this question I went and googled “photography quotes”.
They were all corny platitudes and I realized how dumb it was I was googling quotes in the first place. Guess I don’t have one.
How do you handle uncomfortable situations while shooting street photography? People, for example, not wanting to have their picture taken or not understanding the concept of street photography.
I’m a big guy, 6’3, 250 pounds and I have a large and loud DSLR. So people know when I’m shooting them for the most part. I’ve had mixed reactions and have learned to simply be available for the subject if they become agitated. I answer questions and do my best to defuse the situation whenever I can. But for the most part I’ve learned to move in and out quickly. Most subjects don’t even know they were part of the picture and I rarely if ever make eye contact before or after the image is taken.
In the beginning I was in some sort of confrontation daily, but by the end of this particular project I was rarely confronted. I guess I just figured out a way to be a little more stealth in my process. With that said, I do use my size and presence to my advantage. I think a lot of my candid portrait work has a deeper sense of truth due to the initial look I get when the subject looks up at me in that split second of the exposure. I couldn’t capture that if I was outside looking in and not as present as I am in the space I work in.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
I have the luxury of being technically ignorant. I was never trained in photography and couldn’t tell you how to use most of the bells and whistles on my camera. I only shoot digital and I’ve never even shot with film. I wouldn’t even know how to load film into a camera. I know, that’s got to be some kind of photography sin, but it’s the truth. I just don’t know much about cameras and lenses. But like I mentioned, I’m not in this because I’m a photographer, I’m in this because I enjoy watching people. I still find it difficult to say I’m a photographer because I feel like I’m not worthy of the title considering all the greats out there who dedicated their lives to this craft, the gear and the experience. I’m just not that guy I guess.
The camera is a necessary nuisance for me; a tool I need to share these moments I experience with others. The camera I’m currently using is a Nikon D5100 with a 35mm lens. That’s all I’ve had since I began shooting street and it’s worked so far just fine. As far as processing, I use Lightroom 4. I know some of the basics, like converting my shots to black and white and juicing up the contrast, but not much more than that. I’ll play with some of the levels, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to accomplish very much with the software. I guess this is a good thing so the viewer is left with an image that’s more truthful to what was captured.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
I think this is the same as asking what qualities does one need to observe life? Street photography for me is being present in any given situation and capturing the moment. It’s not as layered and difficult as many would suggest. Some “pros” out there would have you believe it’s some studied method that takes some bullshit workshop to understand (their own usually), or years of practice and deep understanding. That’s all garbage. All it takes is a willingness to hit the streets and some basic understanding of whatever camera you choose to take with you. Boom, you are now a street photographer.
I think it’s important we get as many varied personalities and styles as possible in street photography. So anyone who can look through a viewfinder and click a button should get out there and have fun, because I for one want to see what others are experiencing on the streets all around the world. Street photography is the recording of life. How cool is that? For me, the more records, the better. We all get a better understanding of the human condition this way. If it were up to me I’d put camera’s in every hand across the planet. In today’s day and age with camera cell phones everywhere it seems to be progressing that way anyway I suppose.
I do see too many so-called “purist street-togs” who spend more time bashing other photographers than spending their time on the street shooting and just enjoying themselves. That’s what this is about. It’s about exploring your own interest, not being so critical of what others are doing.
Sorry for the little rant, it’s just been a very sad decline I’ve been noticing in photography forums and street photography circles. There’s a lot of jerks out there who discourage new photographers from exploring street and it’s really sad. We should be encouraging each other, not criticizing each other. Shoot for yourself, not for others. That should be first. If others end up digging your work, that’s just a bonus. But don’t be discouraged when people (other jack-ass photographers) shit on your work. Just remember, you’re not doing it for them so who cares?
Street photography is very much about seizing the moment. Things usually happen unexpectedly. How do you train your eyes to “know” when a special moment is about to come?
I don’t think I train myself for anything but I do happen to be a Buddhist and I think my years of sitting on a cushion in meditation has only helped my ability to be present for anything that happens on the street. Being completely still in Zazen (meditation) gives me a little more patience and clarity I suppose. I’m a little more open to the chaos around me. Though I move fast with my camera, I’m usually very aware of my surroundings.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
This is subjective in nature so I can only speak for what I enjoy in a picture. I like that “something extra” in the image, whether it’s a dark emotion coming from the eyes of a subject, or the more complex image of varied layers within the frame. I love stories and I love having more questions than answers when I’m looking at a street photograph. I love the unknown and I enjoy creating my own story when I look at someone’s shot. I think this is why I don’t like shots with titles. I don’t like the photographer spoon-feeding me the story. I like to figure it all out on my own. That’s what differentiates the great from the mundane for me, the image that makes me work at it, or just strikes an emotional chord I guess. It doesn’t have to be complex. In fact sometimes just a simple portrait can do wonders for me.
There’s an intangible quality art has that strikes each of us in a way that makes my concept of a great image, different from yours. I think that’s more important than anything, having varied tastes. I wish more street photographers would stop all the absolutes when it comes to street photography. Too many have “rules” on what constitutes street and it’s complete bullshit. They need to ask themselves, where does it end? At what point does a rule begin and stop? You can’t put one rule on art and then expect it to end there. Once you open a can of worms, they all spill out. I think street should be 100% organic and without any rules whatsoever. If I want to take a picture of a white wall, void of anything else and I want to call that street, then fuck you, it’s street.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
I think my challenges are more technical. I still struggle with exposure and using manual mode. I shoot mostly in AP and SP but I’m trying new things every day technically with my camera to improve and give myself more options with my exposures. But outside of that I don’t find street photography as a challenge at all, it’s just a lot of fun. Being a challenge implies there’s something to overcome. I guess I prefer to look at it as an unpredictable adventure.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
Nikon D5100, 35mm lens. Lightroom 4.
What photography book would you recommend?
I think the only instructional book I ever picked up was Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson.
That gave me the basics I needed to get started. Outside of that I think everyone should just buy a shit-load of books by photographers you admire.
My shelves are getting packed with photographers I enjoy. Those are the books that keep me inspired and keep me motivated to keep hitting the streets.
I love the Magnum books as much as the next guy but I encourage everyone to buy stuff from new guys with fresh perspectives as much as possible.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a street photographer?
Do it for yourself first. Hit the streets and just have fun. Don’t have any expectations and don’t buy into all the criticisms, rules and arrogance you’ll find in photography forums and social outlets (FB) online. It’s a madhouse of people calling themselves pros out there and most of them just want your money, or want you to fall into some sort of preconceived notion of what street photography is supposed to be. Street photography is what YOU want it to be. Have fun and keep shooting!