It was a real pleasure having an opportunity to interview Los Angeles-based screenwriter and street photographer Alveraz Ricardez. Alvarez is a regular on Flickr in the street photography forums and has gained quite a following in a short period of time. Although he has been practicing street photography for only a few months you can’t tell from his work.
Alveraz’s background is a unique combination of experiences that have prepared him for shooting on the street. As a former cab driver on the mean streets of San Diego, he’s fearless. He credits his work early in his career as an investigator in the retail industry for making him a keen observer of people. He’s also a film maker which gives him a natural eye for composition.
Taken collectively his work tells a story of life in a neglected neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. His style can be described as assertive, which means he doesn’t sit on the sidelines or back away. He’s far from shy and gets up front and personal with many of his subjects.
However as a practicing Buddhist, Alveraz approaches street shooting with a mind like water, expecting nothing and accepting what comes his way. Working in the same neighborhood for many months has given him an opportunity to know many of the characters in his ever unfolding story of life in the city.
Let’s hear what the photographer has to say, here’s Alveraz Ricardez. Use the player below to hear our interview (you must be connected to the Internet to play the audio).
Tell us a little bit about your background and what got you to where you are today?
I just started shooting street photography, I guess in late February 2013, so we’re only talking a few months. But I’ve really been focused on this particular style.
About five years ago, I started shooting headshots and kind of doing some portrait work with some actors and things like that here in LA, but it became a little bit too much like business for me. And then basically, I didn’t have any fun with it. I gave that up and it didn’t really satisfy anything creatively for me, so I just left it.
I was already into writing at that time: I’m a screenwriter and I was kind of heavily into that anyway, so I just dropped the camera basically. Then about three, four months ago, I had the time and so I decided to go ahead and took up the camera again.
I went out and I got a camera and thought I would just to enjoy myself with it and do more creative work with it if I could. So I just started walking in the streets and taking as many images as I could and I found it to be a lot of fun and it was pretty fulfilling and it just sort of started from there.
As far as street photography I’m self-taught, I didn’t really know that it existed.
Then I started looking up more names. I came across guys like Bruce Gilden, Josef Koudelka, some deeper, darker photographers that I was like, “Wow”. So there’s really something special out there with what some of these guys are doing. That was really exciting. So I just come down to it, you know, and just have really a good time with it. And it’s just been a really, really fun experience and a pretty exciting hobby in the last three months.
When we spoke earlier, you told me, you made mention about a couple of reasons that you feel you’re a very observant person. And so what do you mean by that?
I just watch people; but I think that my observing of people has been rather intense for many years. And I think a lot of it comes from various jobs and from my background. When I was about 18 and 19, I was desperately looking for work and I found a job catching shoplifters at a grocery store. And they… basically they have anybody walk around undercover pushing a shopping cart, and all I did in the entire time is watch people. You know, watch their behaviors. I’m looking for people that are sliding candy bars down their pants or whatever. And then I will have to stop them outside and put them “under arrest” and then send them off to the cops or whatever.
But anyway, the whole process was just an intense observation of people. And I did, and it’s funny because it’s kind of escalated into a long term position with several other companies and it sort of went on and on. But I did that for quite a few years. I’m not just catching shoplifters, but you know it has developed more into internal investigations in different stores and in different company and things like that.
It became a study on human condition in certain ways; people are constantly making a lot of different moves, and there’s a lot of body language involved and there’s a lot of communication between them and things that they’re going to steal or the other people that they’re working with. I think I sort of accommodated into a stronger presence for myself, just stay there and watch what happens.
And then much longer after that, I became a cab driver. I drove a cab for a while and this is still all back some 20 years ago, something like that, maybe 15 years ago. When I was a cab driver it was just dealing with people constantly. And I was also living in Downtown San Diego at the time.
So I was driving a cab in Downtown San Diego and… I’m trying to remember some of the areas down in the South part of San Diego. So I came across a lot of different people and a lot of different cultures down there, and a lot of different class levels really. Again, it all keeps going back to just observing people and it was kind of an exciting time.
Then eventually when my writing started taking off I moved up to Los Angeles and I got into the film industry and I became screenwriter. But I also directed a couple small low budget films; that came into play as well with the whole observing people thing. So I think all of that comes into play with what I’m doing out there right now. I have a feeling that’s probably 90% of why I’m getting images that I find exciting. And fortunately, some of the people are enjoying them as well.
When you look at your work overall, I wouldn’t say that it’s in your face. But you seem to be assertive in what you shoot. But you’re right up there. And I was wondering, do you think that’s because of the background you have of catching people, stealing things, doing investigations and driving a cab in probably some tough neighborhoods. Do you think that has an influence in your style?
I’m sure it’s all in there, you know. I mean I grew up in a couple rough neighborhoods, and I’ve been around some pretty dark scenes in my teens and in my early 20’s. You know I was around a lot of drugs, there’s a lot of gangs, a whole environment that was kind of my thing. I eventually grew up, and I got my act together in my 30’s. But you know, I spent a long time in a really dark place in my life.
I was that cab driver who went to those areas and some people didn’t want to like you, and I think the security work I did with the whole shoplifting thing, that translated too, because I really was around a lot of people that were, you know in desperate times and hurting; there was a lot of pain there and anger and it could get very hostile. And I have no problem just being in the middle of that. So you know, I think that all comes into play.
I also happened to be Buddhist; I’ve been so for the past 10 years. And you know something that is really important in my practice is always being present: It’s not really about going into a situation on the streets and thinking what’s going to happen next or I need to get the hell out of here. You know, it’s more of just constant being, no matter what happens. If I’m just present and fully aware, I can be there for amazing experiences sometimes. And that’s when I have the opportunity to click my shutter; I think a lot of it is attributed to my practice in Buddhism. Also all of that craziness in my 20’s and in the places I work, I’m sure they’ve all had something to do with it.
Many of people have a hard time getting into that moment, getting into the zone. And it sounds like it comes pretty naturally for you. And are you able to articulate how somebody who has difficulty getting into the zone can do it?
You know, I don’t know and I thought about that; I asked a few people that have e-mailed me and just reached out and said: You know I like your work, and how do you think I can get to that space where something special happens; am I looking forward or should I be waiting for it, or should I be creating it? I’m such a baby in this process that I don’t feel qualified enough to give any advice on how to get there. I can only say that, I feel like I have an eye for seeing it, but only because of my nature, my practices I mentioned, and the experiences that I had. I think all of that has accommodated into me being able to really observe people.
And if you see something, an emotion rising out of somewhere, or if you see somebody trip on the sidewalk, you anticipate something is coming next. There’s an expression; there’s something in that moment that could be important to that person or to that supposed environment, or somebody else watching. So it’s just being there and always being present and always being aware of what’s going on.
Let’s look at some of your work. The first photograph a guy with a hoody, smoking a cigarette. Is there a story behind this?
Yeah. And I just want to clarify that when I say I’m moving fast. There is definitely a moment, especially on this particular corner in downtown, that I will huddle on and hangout for some time. So when I move fast, I think it’s more my brain that is moving fast, not always my body. I’m continuously looking for something that excites me that I want to share with people. But, back to this photograph, in this corner and this guy here. I remember I just came up off him; where we were, he was looking down at the ground and smoking and with a hood hanging over his head, it was just really dark.
I saw the gentleman in the background, you can see him over to the left coming out. And he looks like he just had a nice workout and there was a nice contrast there. Obviously that’s what I thought, “Oh whoa, look at this”, there’s contrast there. This guy here has a really dark presence with the hood with him, you know, and the moment he looked up, I was able to put the exposure in. And I both kind of looked into that, I was waiting for that moment so I could have contact.
A lot of street photography that I’ve seen is usually folks that are kind of looking away, or on the outside looking in on a particular scene of that group or a person or whatever the subject is of course. And I don’t see a detachment there, this is the look that I’ve seen that way. I have been actively trying to get a little bit more presentable in my images, and sort of being part of the story. And I’m noticing a lot of that comes with that split second.
Actually, in the second there is the irony with my camera; and actually, I’ve been given the most exciting images. For me what I’m seeing, I go, “Wow, you know there’s something there in the eyes”. There’s something very vulnerable and very readable with the subjects I’m thinking. And some of my images, some of the people I wouldn’t be able to get it if they were just looking down the street, of course they were looking somewhere distracted. There’s something about that immediate reaction: maybe there was something on their mind, or maybe something was in the back of their head, or they were just completely engaged in something else and I get that tale out when they look up into my camera.
Let’s take a look on another photo and that brings up a couple other questions. This is a photo of an elderly gentleman with glasses. And then there is a young boy behind him looking at his reflection in the glass. It looks to me as if you engaged him and he allowed you to take this photo. That’s what I read into it, I could be completely wrong.
Well, you know it’s funny that you started with the other picture because that’s really the only image that I have online anyway. Well that one is candid. But like I said afterwards, I asked him and took other pictures. So even though I call that first one with the black gentleman with the hood candid, I’m like, “Well, really”, I don’t know. I did talk to him and engage with him and we shot more. That particular situation, he actually has his back to me. His right shoulder there was turned inward and he was actually waving to the child. And so, I was giving the shot over his right shoulder to the kid against the window. And what is good or bad, you know some people have different taste on equipment. But, I have a pretty loud shutter, you know because I didn’t know about photography. I didn’t know that, “Hey, you know maybe it’s better to get a smaller quieter camera”. So all I had was this big, loud Nikon 5100, and it’s really loud, you know; it’s sort of an aggressive, big, bulky camera. So anytime I’m shooting, you’re going to hear me. I’m kind of that guy, you know, which is a blessing and a curse at the same time.
But anyway, when I took the shot of the child, he heard me and he turned around. And I’ve noticed that I usually get at least a couple seconds there, a couple exposures, until they really figure it out that guy is shooting me, or maybe shooting me, or they don’t know. There just a moment when they’re not sure what’s going on and this one of those moments. I think when he turned around and the child in the background was still… the whole subject for me was the child. I just love the way that he was playing in this reflection. And he’s checking out his feet and kind a digging in himself and dancing and having a really good time.
But this gentleman turned around and I think I was about f11. But then, I was able to get a quick focus on him, which obviously softened up the back there a little bit, and I got him put in the shot. And he was trying it, the way this gentleman looked. He didn’t say anything. You know I got it, I sent two exposures here and then just walked off, and that was that.
Everything I’ve seen so far is in black and white and I think you’ve got a very distinctive look or style. What, I mean do you have a secret sauce that you use to create this effect or is it something you come on by accident? I think it looks great.
No. I’ve always wanted to try black and white. The only time I ever shot again was five years ago, and I only shot for a short period of time, and all I was doing was like actual headshots. It was like my worst experience ever with photography. So that was my introduction to photography, but I always had an itch to get back to it and try something different. And so, when I am downtown or when I’m in areas of, for lack of better words, I’m calling it darkness or dark areas, there’s really so much beautiful life downtown and in these areas. I really don’t want to give a description of that as all despair and darkness, and I really should be careful with that, because that could very well just be my stereotype I’m placing on it.
There’s many beautiful people down there, and beautiful characters and wonderful people to talk to. For example, in this corner right here, just take a moment to get to know the people and go down and hang out. I started shooting down there in February; I wanted to try black and white. So I converted all these images and shot them with Nikon color and then I converted them in a light room to black and white. And it is just with the erosion of the concrete, the textures, the steel and some of this kind of darkness again and depths of some of these characters; the black and white just really leant itself to these images I think more of a black and white deep contrast image than I thought. And so, all I do in light and more in post-processing is just check of contrast a little bit really. And I’ve learned to use the full of my frame, which took me at least the first month to really figure out.
Let’s look at another image here. It’s a photo of three gentlemen. And I’ll just tell you the story that comes to my head. I mean every time I look on one image, I form a story or an opinion. I think you happen to be walking by this place and there’s three mafia guys sitting outside plotting a murder or a drug deal or something. And you just happen to capture them in the act.
It’s kind of a closed in, small street, I believe it’s called Saint Vincent Court or something like that. And in this court along these two walls, it’s just beautiful light that comes in there. So it’s just crazy not to go in this place because all of the light just kind of fills in from the front of the opening, it’s just beautiful light; it just kind of rolls down the small street. But on the side of the streets are little shops, little Delis, I think there’s a little barbershop in there along this alley.
It’s really quaint and it really felt as if you’re walking in there, and it’s a little Italy kind of feel, a vibe, and it’s a really gorgeous little spot. So there’s a lot of little shop keepers in there and they all know each other: there are 12 of them that I see regularly that are huddling in different spots in this alley and they just talk about whatever, you know things about business and stuff like that. So, in early February when I first got down there, I went in there and started shooting.
There was a group of maybe six of these guys. And there’s another image you have that is on my website, on Facebook or whatever that has the same feeling as this one, where there are these six guys, kind of in a huddle. But there is little bit more in the darkness and it’s really got this mafia feel to it. That just got me really excited, I said, “Wow”. You know there is something going on inside, it’s a little colder that side.
It should be told, it’s just the shopkeepers, with the Deli there and they’re all just kind of hanging out. And so, I started going there every day, so all of these guys got to know me and I think they know my case a little bit, you know like, “Oh here comes that guy again. Damn it, get out of here”; but they’re cool about it.
They got used to me walking around and taking candid shots. But this particular shot here is a couple other shop owners and a friend; they were down in the corner playing, I think it was chess. I don’t remember what they’re playing, but they’re playing some board game. But they huddled around and they weren’t looking at me at all, and what I have to do now with all these guys in this alley and I have to sneak up on them, and it becomes kind of a little cat and mouse games with a lot of these guys so I have to sneak around. So at this point I had walked up to that wall on the sidewalk, so I have a better angle, camera left there. So I step off and I didn’t want to take the board game, I felt there was something a little more menacing about what was happening in that corner, because they were really shoved in the corner. And that was really weird because it’s a very long street and they are really isolated, and there is something special about that. So you know, I can feel there was something a little bit more menacing about it, and if I have a picture and them playing mahjong, I wasn’t sure if that would be evading what I was after. So I did try something low to high, and I also like to get in the street sometime as much as I can.
If there are other people who wanted to do something similar to you. What would you want them to learn from your experience?
I suppose patience: there’s value to being patient out there. If we’re talking strictly about someone who I want to photograph and I want to get strong images of, that’s what I’m after. If that’s for sure, I want to get some more next images out there. Being patient and you know, things are unfolding constantly, like stories and people and lives, you know it’s happening everywhere. And you don’t have to go to a certain place to do it, you can step out on your front porch and hang out for a few minutes and something will shake out.
You know, it’s just so you can be there for that moment, and you’re going to be fully present for it to unfold. And I think that would be my first note of advice for me. And again, I feel strange giving advice, only being three and half month old photographer here. But you have to learn what you’re able to capture, you know, and then not taking it too seriously. I’ve also seen some photographers out there on the streets that have just been really intense and I’m wondering, I haven’t seen the images. So you know, maybe that works for them and that’s cool, but you have to remember to have fun too. That’s why I’m out there; I just want to have a good time, you know. So I think being open to experiences and being patient is something that I would advise.
What’s been your biggest learning experience? What’s been your biggest take away from doing all these?
I’ve learned a lot about how I handle myself, now that I turned 40 recently. And I’ve learned a lot about how I handle any given situation, now as opposed to how I probably would have handled it in my 20’s. When I was in a different stage, surrounded by similar people, but handled the situation much differently: I was far angrier then, and I was very reactionary. And I think now, through my practice as a Buddhist and also being just present and available for these moments to unfold, there’s a lot of confrontation that happens. You know, nobody wants it, lot them don’t want a camera right there in their face when they turn around. There’s a lot of ethical discussion about this, it’s no secret to people that are street photographers especially. They’re doing all the time and you can read about it all the time online.
If you just look up street photography, you will probably find a hundred articles about the ethics and street photography and taking shots of people without their consent and so forth. And so I discovered that when I’m taking a shot and if somebody is angry, unless there are hostile or a mentor, any reaction that they have is fine. I’m just available for them, I’m just there, I don’t have a pre-conceived notion on how I’m going to respond.
Let’s take a look on one more photo. A lot of people have commented on it on Flickr. And you talk about patience; I think this is probably where maybe patience was combined with good luck as well. It’s a photo of a guy sitting on a wall and a woman was walking by and you were able to get a shot of him, just that she’s… just in a middle of her step. If you know the one I’m talking about.
Yeah, I had to pull it out real quick, I agree. This is kind of a little study on patience here because this guy, it appears in the image when I notice it, it looks like he is just kind of playing on his phone here and just looking down at his phone.. But what he’s really doing is nodding off, he kept kind of just nodding there, and then he would nod up for a few minutes and then he would sit up straight. And this was before I was thinking about blocking by or anything. I was just like, “Oh, this is really interesting guy”, you know, “I don’t know what he is doing here”. I wanted to know more about him. So I just hung out there for a few minutes and walked around, and he was just nodding off and looking into his phone, but he wasn’t really doing anything on the thumb which I thought it was interesting.
I was trying to find different angles, and I walked around to his left side and got some shots over there. And he was completely unaware of me. So this is one of those moments, fortunately, when I was that photographer and he was unaware. I was able to just be there, a little filed, filling out. When I back off, I wanted to get something from the front, and I back off a little bit and I got nice and low. I just want to get a low to high shot here of him, I was hoping to maybe catch a little bit of his face in there, but I wasn’t able to. And then people keep walking past my camera, and I’m not really connecting with it. I was irritated at first, so I was like, “Damn”, you know I always have to live like this, so I can get the shot.
But then I started seeing the space between the lady and the people walking by. And here I go, well crap, there you go. So I got a few shots out for the few people walking by in front of me, because the people were crossing the streets in front of me, and afterwards they just walk straight on, so I have three or four shots between the legs. And this one seems to have the nicest feel to it: I thought her legs frame him up really well and I like her movement in this image.
I shouldn’t say it’s a combination of patience and luck. It’s a combination of patience and timing and timing is perfect.
I think that’s what it is. You have timing for sure. Yeah, I didn’t know about luck as much because I was really working at it. You know this is one, but this is every one that I was working at. Once I figured out the whole leg thing, I was like, “Oh well, I’m going to try to nail this one”.
Who’s your greatest influence in terms of your photography?
I don’t know if I have any one influence. I started this a few months ago, when I found out that street photography was a real thing. The whole world has opened up to all its wonderful photographers, so since then I’ve been buying books like mad. So I have at least one or two books that come in, not every day, but maybe every other day. So I’m not absolute right now, this is all fresh to me and I’m sure all the photographers out there might be listening and thinking, “Oh boy, I remember those days.” I’m just experiencing all these guys for the first time.
When I discovered people like Josef Koudelka, Moriyama and Araki, I gravitated to a lot of it. I guess I keep going back to that darker world, I don’t know why, just kind of a really deep sense of grid and high contrast and deep black and white, you know. And I’m just absolute truth and just being there in the moment that is almost surreal. So those guys really stick out for me. And I like the boldness of what these skilled men are doing, and I’ve been turned on to guys William Klein and I really dig him.
But there are a lot of guys that I’m finding now, just online and on Facebook and Flickr and hundreds of hundreds of really good street photographers out there, you know what I mean. I’m just a very, very, very small drop in this bucket of great photographers. These guys just humble me everyday; what I see out there and it’s inspiring.