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“ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE” With James Hernandez

Happy 4/20! Tonight, photographer James Hernandez is having his first solo show “ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE” at Ukrainian East Village in NYC. Pulling inspiration from the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Daido Moriyama (to name a few), Hernandez will be showcasing his photos documenting NYC, as well as his first attempt at performance art.

“ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE” is an exploration of identity and the first formal display of Hernandez’s long term documentary project of NYC downtown culture and Midtown.

Through his work, Hernandez attempts to shed light on socially acceptable, destructive behaviors in order to promote positive social change and to raise awareness of the inhumane conditions that prisoners are forced to tolerate.

“This party will be a exercise in Gonzo Journalism,” the artist says. “I encourage everyone to have a great time (but know your limits and don’t be an asshole) and document your whole entire day and the event. After the party is done and when the hangovers wear off I plan on gathering all the images on 4/20 and curating a zine which will be sold and the money made from that will be donated to SWOP Behind Bars.

Check out some of that images that will be on display at “ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE” in the slideshow above, and keep reading for our exclusive interview with the photographer.

First of all, congratulations! You’ve been making work for a while now—what prompted you to show your work in a more formal setting and to take this next step?

Recently I’ve been getting into fine art, Conceptualism/Post Modernism and was really inspired by the work of Duchamp and Man Ray. But the main reason for all of this is to fight some personal demons head on and get out of this what feels like a never-ending depression. Two weeks ago I tried to kill myself and woke up in a psych ward and realized I need to turn my life around for the better. When I got out, I went home and was sitting on my stoop smoking a cigarette collapsed into myself with no idea how to even perceive my existence. I was looking at the floor, and some women asked me,  “Can I take your photo?” I paused and said, “sure.” I didn’t look or anything, and when I did, she was gone. This all happened on Easter, and that was such a trip I figured I would look into myself to try and get out of this depression once and for all.

Tell us more about “ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE.” What inspired the title?

Well, the phrase first popped up when I was getting a tattoo from Tamara Santibanez who runs Discipline Press, and they were telling me about how they met someone in the city, and that’s how they described their day. Then when I was last in California, I saw a sign in my hometown at this butchers shop that had that exact phrase on it and I basically just appropriated it and kinda made my current artist identity around that. It’s a classic phrase, but paired with my work, I feel like it can come across as very manic depressive like myself.

NYC is paradise. Anything is possible here; you just have to work as hard as you possibly can and have some thick skin. Before I moved out to New York, I always pictured this hard city where it’s kill or be killed. But if you live in New York or have been recently, you can see that everyone is nice until you give them a reason not to be. It’s the greatest city in the world; you just have to know how to hustle to survive.

You have thousands of images—how did you choose which ones you’d be showing?

So all of these images, I made about 1500 across 35mm, 120, and digital from March 30th to April 14th and I walked approximately 125 miles making all of these images. I was also heavily inspired by Araki and Daido who are known for their obsessive documentation of their personal lives as well as Gary Winogrand and obviously Hunter S Thompson and Ralph Steadman.

What socially acceptable, destructive behaviors did you come across?

Well first off, I can’t believe I can chain smoke reds all day long and if it’s a nice day out I can get away with drinking 40 in the park, but I can’t smoke a spliff on my stoop without getting harassed by a cop. That’s just dumb. But yeah, it’s incredible that drinking and smoking are legal, that shit is just destroying your body. Crazy addicting too. But hey, that’s America and capitalism.

During that span of two weeks, I was kinda drunk more or less the whole time and smoked about 3 ounces of weed and was not sleeping or really taking care of myself. I do not encourage that at all, I actually discourage it!!! But for this show, I went full Gonzo. Ralph Steadman has a quote “We don’t cover the story, we become the story.” I completely lost myself with this piece, but by losing myself and hitting rock bottom, that made me realize what I actually value in life and learned how to make a start towards loving myself and becoming hopeful for my future.

And yeah that’s exactly what I did. I completely immersed myself in my destructive habits and obsessive need to take photos and just tried to run from all my problems. After an attempt at taking my life, I realized a lot of people care about me, and that was incredibly selfish, so this was my first attempt at coping and bringing back some empathy to a disconnected youth culture.

There are several satirical themes threaded through this project—why did you take this approach?

I really enjoy photographing the police and trying to convey concepts of surveillance and also little kids crying haha… It’s kinda fucked up, but their facial expressions convey so much emotion and can bring back a sense of nostalgia. But my favorite subjects have to be the rich white upper class. They all look so fascinating and kind of similar. Midtown can really feel like a time capsule of New York at times. When I photograph these uber privileged people, and they get mad, I don’t feel too bad because they don’t have too many disruptions throughout their daily lives. I’ve been called an asshole a lot hahaha, but if you know me you know, I’m a sweetheart. My work can be described in a super pretentious way as introspective research-based portraiture. When I go out shooting street, I’m looking for things I like and people who look compelling, like they’ve lived a life. I have a lot of classic motifs I’m attracted too which show up a lot In my work. For the most part, every image I make can somehow be tied back to me and something I’ve experienced in my life. I’ve been through a lot so far in my 21 years on this earth, to say the least, but trying to stay positive and remembering how privileged you are is essential. Learn how to laugh at yourself and life will be much better from that point on. My friends and I come at each other all the time, but we are still inseparable. If you don’t call out your homies and let that build up, you’ll probably end up talking shit behind their back, and that’s not cool. It’s all about mutual respect for each other.

Does utilizing humor help you to bring light to some of the dark realities of life and imprisonment?

Humor for sure helps. On a darker note, I’ve been waking up every day for the past almost ten years just bummed to be alive, not hopeful at all. I’m really into black metal, and a major theme of the genre is self centered-ness and empowerment through one’s self. So like anything else you take what you can and make it work for you. So now to cope with my depression and social anxiety, I make work that makes other people uncomfortable, similar to how I feel most of the time in public. And with these works I don’t want to glorify this lifestyle like people such as Goldin, Clark, and Mcginely have been criticized for, I want to show the dark realities of battling depression and substance abuse problems. I’m going to make compelling images, so they draw your attention, but I do not any of my work glorifying destructive behavior, I’m simply documenting my life living in the lower in NYC in 2018.

How did you partner up with SWOP?

I actually learned about SWOP Behind Bars from a friend at Fun City tattoo, and it was the perfect organization for this piece, especially with all the legislation such as FOSTA/SESTA being put into effect which has basically destroyed the possibility of online sex work. Also, it ties back into my relationships with fringe culture as well as my personal relationship with the law and government. I think juxtaposing my battle with depression could be comparable to an extent to being in prison. I’ve woke up the past 10 or so years feeling trapped in my life dreading the day before me. I’m doing better now that I’m getting lost in my work.

You said that you’re actually working to make this experience as uncomfortable as possible? Why?

I want everyone to have a great time at the show and really lose themselves in the performance piece. It seems like everyone is so aware of their “Brand Image” now that everyone is never truly being themselves because they’re worried about their social media image or that they might get judged. I have horrible social anxiety, so that’s why I’m so standoffish and smoke so much weed. I want people to experience that sensation via over-stimulation and by creating such a unique environment that people have sensory overload. Kinda like putting the cyclone that is midtown into the East Ville haha. Being uncomfortable and suffering isn’t all my bad you become a stronger person and get richer life experience.

What does Gonzo journalism mean to you? When did you start categorizing your work as such?

I recently read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and had seen the movie many times before but the book paired with Steadman’s illustrations really resonated with me. Thompson wrote while abusing substances and well I like to drink and blaze then go for a walk in the concrete jungle that is Midtown. I recently got put onto poetry by this girl, and that really changed the way I looked at my work and myself as an artist. I want all my images to tell several stories and force the viewer to think about concepts that they normally wouldn’t; they don’t need formal composition they just need a concept and proper execution, kinda like a poem. For this piece I went full Gonzo, I faced my demons head on and just tried to run away and move on. I wanted to depict the mania that I’m experiencing by showing that through a massive body of work made in a very short period of time. When I go out and shoot I now force myself to get completely zoned.

I have headphones on and smoke before and then have to detach myself to a certain extent from empathy towards others because I personally think my documentary work is that important. Now that I’m curating the final touches on this show I don’t feel as compelled to only get 3 hours of sleep and then wake up at 4 am to scan in film for 4 hours, then go and shoot for 5 hours. I still need to obsessively document my life experience because that’s all I have right now. I never had a strong emotional relationship with my family and have had a lot of loved ones and friends pass away. Anything from a freak accident, old age, or drug overdose. Life is precious, and once I tried to take my life and woke up in the psych ward, I decided it was time to take back control of my life. Documenting my loved ones is something that makes me very happy, and I love sharing images with friends and see them get stoked. My friends are everything to me they inspire me so much, and they’re all doing some dope shit right now so who knows this obsessive documentation may come in handy 40 years from now.

How is your artwork linked to survival?

This whole show is literally me trying to regain control of my life. Initially, when I started making images, I was just getting drunk and walking and had no fear, so I started making images I was really into because that social anxiety wasn’t there. I was slowly trying to legally kill myself via cigs and alcohol. But once I read more into Gonzo Journalism, I realized I could maybe use my addictive personality for a positive social change. Every since my brother passed away when I was 15 I have been severally depressed and slowly killing myself without realizing it. I adopted all these addictions and destructive habits in a desperate attempt to find any kind of escape from my reality. In high school I was trying every drug I could then ended up in rehab in Connecticut. I was out there for 45 days, and that really took a toll on me. I wasn’t really able to use my camera there, and when I got back, I was barely able to pass my senior year of high school. Throughout my life, I’ve always been able to turn to photography or skating to escape, but when I get really really depressed, I forget about both and just start self-destructing. I have a lot of issues as you can tell, then I fell in love, and things didn’t work out, and yeah this whole piece is one giant confrontation with my depression and social anxiety and getting over my trust issues while making myself very vulnerable to the audience. When I go out and shoot street or am really in the moment with my friends I’m not thinking about all the suffering I’ve endured, I’m living in the moment and enjoying that moment. I need documentation to survive now simply because I don’t want to forget how I felt at specific moments in my life. I experienced love for the first time, and I also hit my absolute rock bottom. Everything happens for a reason, and I know whatever is meant to be will play out, all I know is that I’m going to make sure I have a very vivid documentation of my time spent on this earth.

What don’t you document?

There isn’t too much I won’t take a photo of, I usually don’t photograph the homeless or street performers. I feel like those images have been made so many times before that we just don’t really need any more of that kinda stuff. Two weeks ago this guy died in my neighbor’s apartment and the body was just chilled in the doorway all covered up. I wanted to take a photo but that was a little too real and you don’t want to shit where you sleep you know? I wish I would’ve taken that photo now looking back on it.

How does social media’s fetishization of skateboarding and the “heroin chic” aesthetic inform your artwork?

Being a photographer, unfortunately, I feel compelled to be apart of the carcinogenic platform that is Instagram. Instagram sucks. Its just there to make money off the guise of friendship and connectedness when in reality it’s actually destroying the way we interact with each other. When you go into a classroom, everyone has headphones in and is on their phone or computer trying to look like they’re doing something when in reality they’re just scrolling mindlessly through Instagram. Also, the fetishization of 35mm photography on there is so frustrating. I totally back everyone shooting photos but amazing cameras like the T2 and others have gotten so ridiculously expensive because everyone wants to get clout from the hashtag 35mm haha… The past six months have been very hectic, to say the least. A lot of partying and substances, I lost about 20 pounds from all the partying, so I look like I’m literally dying and haven’t slept in years. With my work I want people to realize that even though that’s a popular aesthetic or whatever, mental health issues are very real and depression can get so bad that it could cause you to do some stupid shit. I want my self-portraits to make you feel uncomfortable; those images are presenting you with a first-hand look at a constant struggle with depression and social anxiety. Thank god for skateboarding, it’s pretty funny how years ago you would get beat up for being a skateboarder because skating wasn’t what it is today back then. Now everyone wants to dress like a skateboarder but doesn’t really back the actual culture behind it. Shooting street and losing myself in that is the closest sensation I have experienced to skating and the freedom that comes with it.

Also back to SWOP Behind bars, plenty of sex workers use platforms like Instagram and Tinder, etc. to get the attention of clients and with trumps administration, their livelihoods are being jeopardized even more so than before. They need this money more than ever right now, and if I can help with that, I’m going to try my absolute hardest to bring about this change.

You shoot on film, can you tell us a bit about your process? From camera choice to scanning the image to editing? 

I shoot with an M6 and a 35mm mainly, but I also shoot with my Klasse and Mamiya 7, and more recently I started shooting intimate personal life with my iPhone 6, and that camera is so sick. I shoot whatever film I can get my hands on, I love black and white for the sake of making darkroom prints, but I’m broke right now, so I’ve been shooting Lomography color film and the cheap Fuji films. I used to develop at home but having a broken hand has gotten in the way of that so I have been shooting a lot of color and dropping it off at Luster around the block and they are just the best. Big shout out to Luster for developing all these rolls in time for the show.

I just get my negatives processed there and then go home and scan in everything with my Epson scanner. I try and stack up negatives so I can have like a scanning day where I can smoke, drink a 40, chill and read a book. Then I usually don’t look at my images for a little bit; then I import them into Lightroom and starting editing and processing. Once I find the images I like,  I make a Xerox print of them and hang them up on the wall for a while to see how I feel towards them later on down the road. I’m constantly editing which images I would like to represent me, and then those images usually end up in a zine or some type of artist book.

Can artwork exist outside of the institution? How?

Of course, tattoos and graffiti. You can’t stop either, you can try and police it, but that’s just going to slow both down. It’s interesting to see where both will be 20 years from now considering you can live in NYC and get plenty of jobs while having neck, face, hand tattoos, etc. My good homie Noah does stick and pokes, and he did a spiderweb on my elbow, and I get mad compliments on it, but we literally did it just chillin on my friend’s couch. Tattoos can be very empowering, I never really felt connected to my Chicano culture because of Orange County, but as I got older and started looking into my culture, I realized how much I felt connected to Chicano imagery. Now I have plenty of traditional Chicano imagery tattooed on me, and it gives me a better sense of my identity as a Chicano Artist.

Graffiti just can’t be stopped; people have been writing their name on shit since the time of the Romans haha. Graffiti and skating are some of the only things I know of that allow you to view the world completely differently than everyone else. Skateboarders are constantly thinking of the most creative spots and making spots. If you pay attention to graffiti living in a metropolitan area, you can see some really amazing pieces and some spots where you just look at the tag or whatever and think “how the fuck did you get up there and do that?”

Images courtesy of James Hernandez

Stay tuned to Milk for more photographers on the rise. 

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