The secrets behind @Koci’s Instagram success

Richard Koci Hernandez began taking photos when he was 14 years old, and has been a working photographer since he was 18. “When I found out you could do this for a living, I was like, this is the biggest scam ever,” Hernandez tells me. “I’ve been trying to stay in this profession for as long as I can.”

Over the past 30 years, that’s meant taking on a lot of different gigs: commercial photography, wedding photography, magazine work, and a steady job as a photojournalist at the San Jose Mercury News. And he’s had a lot of success: He’s won an Emmy (for the documentary Uprooted) and been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes (one for work on the Latino diaspora and one on the California Youth Authority). But it wasn’t until Instagram came around that he was able to set those other gigs aside—save a teaching position at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism—and begin to simply work to develop his own personal vision.

“The Sun will rise and set regardless. What we choose to do with the light while it’s here is up to us. Journey wisely.” -Alexandra Elle #tiny_collective

A photo posted by Richard Koci Hernandez (@koci) on

@koci‘s body of work on Instagram is relatively uniform, most compositions in stark black and white or with small highlights of color. There’s a graininess to the stock, and sharp geometric backgrounds play a role, while most foregrounds are dominated by men in hats, rushing off to wherever they’re demanded. It’s a cross between film noir and Edward Hopper paintings.

His account currently has over 254,000 followers, and has been name-checked by CNNTimeNew York Times, and many more as being one the must-follow accounts on the web. “His images are intimate, like digital daguerreotypes,” wrote Kristen Joy Watts, for the Lens section of the New York Times. “But they also transcend their size and invite the viewer to get lost in their complexity.”

I spoke to Hernandez, 46, about how he built a following on Instagram’s back, and how it feels to have his career tied to a specific app.

How did social media apps like Instagram change the process for photographers?

In the old school, there were gatekeepers, and the only way to get your work to the world was through them. I worked for newspapers, and there were editors upon editors who decided whether my photography was worthy. 

But as we started putting photojournalism and documentary photography onto the web, we were able to do what we wanted. There were no rules. We started to create photo essays and slideshows and personal essays.

The first social site I remember was Flickr. It continues to not be the best kind of social experience, but you could post your work and see that people were looking at it. That early bug bit me. But it wasn’t until Instagram that my whole photographic life changed.

When did Instagram enter the picture?

In 2010, a friend came into my office and said, “You should check it out this app.” I remember downloading it, taking a random photo of a book and camera that were on my desk, and within seconds there were views and comments. It was immediately addictive.

It began as an ego game. I wanted followers, likes, all that stuff. But the thing that changed me was the communication. I began to see conversations around my photography, and could answer back. Some person would leave a comment, and I got to see who they were and go to their feed.

For the professional photographer back then, your diet of photography was being curated by the gatekeepers. I knew all the great photographers. There wasn’t a great photographer that popular culture hadn’t deemed “great” that I didn’t know. Those were the people to be inspired by. But it was a very limited group.

All of a sudden my eyes were opened to all kinds of photography. It sounds like it was all beautiful—there’s plenty of crap, still is—but that’s what got me hooked.

Was there a certain moment where you “broke through” in terms of a following?

Instagram [the company] helped a lot. You need momentum at the beginning, because it’s psychological. There’s something validating when you go to a feed and see that 58,000 people are following that person. You spend an extra minute or two, versus if you go to someone and it’s 10 or 100 followers. It sounds terrible, but that’s the way we react.

“From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere.” -dr Suess #grammasters3 #tiny_collective

A photo posted by Richard Koci Hernandez (@koci) on

So what happened for me was, first, they made this “popular page” to build followers for certain accounts, and because I was early to the app, I was lucky enough to get on it. That brought me from hundreds to 1,000 or 2,000 followers. Then they had this thing called “suggested users,” and that bumped me to 5,000. Then a bunch of articles came out. I kind of rode the wave of Instagram, pointing out that I’m lucky I got on it early, and then that it got press.

How did you build from there, after the initial press bump?

Around the 12,000 range, I realized I was treating Instagram as a one-way street. I wanted people to look at my work and comment. Then, I really started engaging in the comments and I saw growth through interaction. I went out of my way to find other photographers, comment on their work, tell them I liked their work, why.

Another thing I noticed were the images of mine that people were responding to. Fortunately for me, it was the kind of thing I liked to do, which was my black and white work. And I have this weird fascination with men in hats, and people were responding to that too. So that became my thing. My feed became very consistent. If you scrolled up, it was black and white, minimalist, clean.

Twitter and Instagram have had issues with people stealing other’s work and making a profit. Have you?

I’ve never organically found my work in another feed, but I’ve had people say, “I was on this feed and this person is using your image with no credit.” Normally, I tell the person, that’s my image, give me credit. Mostly, it’s a younger person, and they apologize, and either take it down or give credit. I don’t mind. That’s what you sign up for if you’re a photographer and posting your images.

One more day to enter the streetfoto sf contest!!! #archive #tiny_collective

A photo posted by Richard Koci Hernandez (@koci) on

You’ve also purposefully deleted images from your Instagram before. I remember you holding a flash sale of some sort.

Yeah. I was probably around 200,000 followers, and having a midlife Instagram crisis. I hope this doesn’t sound too naval-gazing-artist-wearing-a-beret-smoking-a-cigarette, but I saw there was nothing special about the work. I was in love with the idea of the photograph being this ephemeral thing that’s there, gets experienced, goes away. If you went to a gallery show, you see images, and go in the gift shop, buy a piece, or a book, and it becomes this precious thing. It’s not like there’s a constant show, 24/7 at a gallery. That makes it less special.

So I thought, I’m gonna delete these images and start over, kind of an artistic cleaning. But before I wiped it, I had friends say, “There’s one image, do you think I can have it?” So I thought, what about a flash sale? It was an experiment to see what audience was there. I said, “I’m going to delete my feed. If you want something, take a screenshot, send me one, and I’ll sell you a print.” And I was blown away. It was unbelievable.

One thing that always blows me away is it’s global in scale. I sound like Jerry Lewis saying, “I’m big in France”—but like, in Iran, I’m huge. It’s so humbling.

What is your process of creating the photos?

Everything is shot on the native iPhone camera app. I shoot in color, and shoot a lot, but I’m very, very patient. I wait around. I scope out a spot that I like for its geometry, its lights, or its people moving. And if I’m there at a time that’s not good, I write it down in my journal and come back. And then I’ll position myself and shoot. But I don’t look at what I shot. I try to divorce my initial feelings for shooting the image. 

That’s something we don’t do a lot. We shoot when we’re excited and just post. Sometimes, I think our emotions get the best of us and we end up posting crap because we’re so close to the emotion of it.

When I go through the roll, I start app stacking. I do a significant amount of post-processing. I use SnapFeed to make the images black and white, and add a lot of contrast and gray filter. Then I use an app called Mextures to add grain. Then I might take it into VSCO for their black and white presets to change the tone. Then I’ll put it back into SnapFeed. Filterloop is a new one I’ve added. That’s the process every time. It’s 15–20 minutes on one image, and sometimes at the end I’ll realize, boy, this was beautiful the way it was. Let me just make it black and white. Sometimes, I print it on my Epson printer, and rephotograph, and bring it back into the apps. When you bring it into the physical world as a print and rephotograph, it’s one step less digital, and I think you can feel that.

After that, I let the image sit. At any time, I’m sitting on tons I’ve made that I love. But I only let them leak into the online world, instead of this firehouse approach of sharing everything. I think that’s one of the lost arts of photography. Nobody edits anymore. 

So, I put things out depending on my mood, often with a quote. I’m very deliberate. I’ll go a week, two weeks, three weeks without posting. And sometimes, I’ll post one or two images in a week. It’s very much an artistic diary.

Are you ever worried with your career so entwined with a particular social media that they may suddenly tweak the algorithm, or even shut down?

In the old days, audiences were the town square. Everybody went, that’s where the cryer went; it was predictable. But now, audiences are a moving target. Now it’s maybe Facebook, but maybe it’s moving to Snapchat, then maybe to something we don’t know. I’m going to go there. I’m not afraid to go where the new thing is and put my wares out. It’s like a flea market. I have something to show, something I’m passionate about.

Right now, the place is Instagram. If it were to fold, it’d fold because of something else. I love social media. I love putting my stuff out there. I love being inspired by other people, and hopefully having my work out there inspiring people.