Updated: Oct 22, 2019
In this edition of our Storyteller Profile series, we sat down with Toronto-based photojournalist Hector Vasquez.
Who is Hector Vasquez?
Hector Vasquez knew from a young age that there was magic in being able to capture and keep important moments, and he discovered the camera as an instrument that allowed him to do so. Now, as a professional photographer, Hector makes a living preserving moments in time and telling the visual story of things exactly as they once were – even for a period of time as brief as a camera flash. In our interview with Hector, he dishes on the power of photography, the importance of visual storytelling, the valuable of immortalizing moments, and the road he traveled in pursuing his dream.
Check out our full conversation with Hector below:
TMC: Hector, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today. I’ve always found photography to be an amazing way of capturing moments and telling stories. So, to get us started, can you tell me a bit about how you got into photography and what it means to you?
HV: When I was younger, I always had this issue with change and leaving things behind because I always had this idea that good things could last forever. Change had always given me some sort of anxiety and stress… saying goodbye to things, whether it was school or girlfriends or friends, you know. I guess as I got older, I realized photography was an opportunity to kind of, you know… I don't want to say freeze a moment in time because it's a bit cliché to say that… but a way to preserve a moment in time and then show something as it once was in this particular time. And then invoking some sort of emotion out of that down the road.
For me, it was just about capturing a moment in time: this is how it looked, this is how things were at one time. Whether it was a good moment or a bad phase in your life, you just capture it. And whether those emotions are good or bad, that isn't necessarily the point. It's just to make you feel, to remind you of how things have changed – or stayed the same. And I guess that's made things easier for me as I got older, being able to take these photos. And rather than dwell on how things have changed, whether for better or for worse, it's more so just appreciating either how good or how shitty life was at that time because you learn from those things.
It's almost like being able to look back and see things objectively with a fresh lens.
Yeah. And as human beings, we're always going to be changing so your perspective on things is definitely going to change. I'm 31 now and I look at photographs that I took when I was 23 or 24. There are times where I kind of just melt right into the moment and I feel this warm blanket, a familiarity and comfort. Because I'm not just looking literally at what's in the photograph. I'm looking at who I was and how I was dealing with life at that particular time.
Yeah, absolutely. And they say a picture's worth a thousand words, right? There's a reason for that.
Yeah, and a thousand emotions. I mean, sometimes you look at a photo and you don't want to say anything. So, maybe it's not a thousand words. Maybe it's just a photo is worth a thousand thoughts or emotions or something like that.
That's an awesome point. And so, at what point did you realize that you wanted to that hobby and passion and turn it into a career?
You know what, man? That journey for me was a very long one. It's long in the sense that it goes back to my family history. My parents were immigrant refugees from El Salvador. They came to the United States when they were in their twenties and they stayed in Houston and then they came to Canada. And the reason why I bring that up is – you know, God bless them – but when we first came to Canada, they were very old fashioned and old school. They wanted a career and future for me that was all security, no worries, no stresses. You get in at nine, you get out of five. So, I kind of always had that pressure to do well in a secure job where there were no worries, ever.
Then as you get older, you realize – well, some people are fortunate enough to realize, but some aren't – that you’ve got to really do what makes you happy. And if you're not happy, that'll kind of just spread to other parts your life.
So, when I was in high school, I always carried around a video camera with me. And I would just document, videotape, record my friends. While we were hanging out drinking or going on a road trip. But I would just do it, and I would take time out of my schedule to edit and put these videos together, and it would just make me happy. And again, it was during this transition of being okay with change. I felt some sort of security holding onto these moments, digitally, I guess.
But then I went to university. I went for something completely different, a path that would have given me some government job, and I just wasn't happy. And I started thinking about what made me happy as a kid and if any of it was reasonable as a career – and of course I thought of photography.
And at the same time, I also said, “Well fuck it, why can't I be a photographer? What's stopping me? What would get in my way?” And I came to the conclusion that nothing would get in my way. If I really wanted something, you know, I could easily achieve it. And going back to my parents, these people came to this country with nothing and then brought us to a point where I could realize these dreams that I had. That motivation coupled with just taking the attitude of, “Why can’t I do it?” helped things really start to materialize. So, I moved to Toronto and jumped right into it.
Do you feel that you have a style of photography? And if so, how would you describe it?
That's a good question. I don't know. Even if I'm not shooting, I always tend to just look at things and analyze them. Sometimes I'll just see something as simple as sunlight hitting a flower and I just stare at it. Or it can be something like the Toronto Raptors Championship parade that I was shooting. There were just hundreds of thousands of people – and I just looked at it and saw how the crowd moved and stuff. For me, when I go shoot stuff, especially when it's photojournalistic type of work, I just like to be a fly on the wall. I don't like to influence too much. If there's a shot that needs to be influenced, maybe I'll put my hand on it and just maybe try to, I guess, push it towards something but not directly influence.
I like being a fly on the wall. I like how people react to things. I like seeing people move naturally and organically. That would be my style is just watching people and just waiting for the right moment because I like that aspect of documenting it. I like being unknown. I don't like being seen, I don't like people being like, “oh, there's the guy with the camera,” because I feel that once that happens, it takes away from whatever the moment is that you’re trying to capture.
Well, when you're trying to be true and capture a real moment, the second you influence it, it changes, right?
Yeah. It almost has a bit of innocence, doesn't it? But that's how I like to approach things, just being a fly on the wall, and just letting the person be comfortable.
When you go out to shoot, do you have a specific goal in mind?
I definitely go to every shoot with a blank slate. When it comes to your craft, obviously, the more you get into it, the less mistakes you make. But you still have situations which you realize didn’t work out.
Every time I go to a shoot there is at least, maybe, 30 seconds to a minute where I panic. And not panic in the sense that I don't know what I'm doing, but panic in the sense where I’m just nervous. But in that moment of nervousness is when you focus in and think of what worked last time, what didn't work. So, I go into it with a blank slate every time. And I get a vibe of what's going on and try to see what I can take away from that.
And you know what they say is that when you still get nervous doing something, it means that it still matters, because you still care.
Absolutely, and you have to care. You’re storytelling, you’re working, but at the end of the day, it's your brand. If you want to be a master of your craft, you have to take it that seriously.
On that note, how did you master your craft? Were you 100% self-taught? Was it trial and error? How did your craft evolve?
Man, it was a bit of everything. I mean, look... I came into this knowing what I wanted out of it and knowing that the type of work I wanted to do. But I was never a natural born talent. The thing is that it’s gotta mean something to you. It can't be just a way to make a buck. Because when you care, then you're never going to quit.
And let me tell you this, too: doubt and fear are the only things stopping you. So, you have to be okay with making mistakes. You have to be okay to fuck up and you've gotta be okay to feel like a failure. What matters is whether or not you pick yourself up from that. Maybe 80% of people who hit that first wall of fear and doubt won't get pass it. But there's another 20% that will. Those people will carry on, as those are the people that actually care enough about what they're doing that they're willing to make mistakes. But out of those mistakes comes more skill and a more skill and confidence.
It’s easy to sense the passion that you have for your craft. So, if you could shoot anything, anyone, anywhere, anytime ever in history or the future, who or what would it be and why?
That's a good question. There's a photographer called Pete Souza. He was the Presidential photographer for Ronald Reagan and Obama. His photos are amazing. I can't explain to you how well he mixes photojournalism with emotion. It's almost like photojournalistic art, if you will. It's very odd.
And for a while, I thought that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to shoot maybe a sitting Prime Minister or just get into some sort of international relations issue and shoot that kind of photography. But you know what, getting older kind of made me realize more about where I come from, where my parents come from…
So, I think for me, to get back to where my parents came from – to El Salvador – and to shoot in that area, I think that's something that I would love to do. I would love to go back to my roots and shoot the people there and be able to tell a story that's worthy of these people.
El Salvador's a fucked up country and it's pretty crazy there. My parents saw a lot of friends die and stuff. And I think for me to be able to go back there and document what people there are living through would probably satisfy me career-wise for once in my lifetime.
It’s interesting that you say that because the one thing that always strikes me with photography is its ability to be a 100% honest and pure form of storytelling. Like a journalist in a war-torn country sharing images with people across the world who may not otherwise see it or be aware. So, from your perspective, why is the storytelling aspect of photography such a powerful thing?
It’s so important for humans to feel what other humans are feeling. Humanity can improve so much just by putting ourselves in other people's shoes. And I think when it comes to issues like this, photography is so powerful because it helps you understand somebody else’s story. You can see a photo and you can cry, and you can feel remorse and you can feel hate because of something you're looking at. It's not the easiest to look at that kind of stuff or want to put yourself through that. But it's important to feel what other human beings are feeling. It's important to understand that we are all human beings regardless of ethnicity or race. Regardless of who you choose to love, how you identify. It's important to know that we all go through this stuff together.
We all have a life to live. And life is not always happy. But when it's happy or when it’s sad or when it's bad, we can learn from that. And then that's why storytelling is important. Storytelling is important in any medium for that reason. An author can write you a world full of lessons because you feel for the characters. You can look at a painting and it can invoke some sort of emotion because you're relating it to yourself. Even cinema. In all these forms of storytelling, you’re feeling some sort of connection with a person. You're feeling the humanity within those people.
I'm telling you, man, when you feel that, when you're able to connect with that, that will change you and will make you more sympathetic. That will open up your point of view. That's why storytelling is important. I mean, sure, we all need an escape once in a while, but there has to be something, you know, to take away from it. Especially when it comes to photojournalism across the world and, you know, documenting these situations that we may never be in ourselves.
And if you're ever able to influence or inspire even one person to do something for somebody else or to change the way that somebody looks at a particular situation through your photography, that's probably one of the biggest rewards that you can get.
Yeah, and when you hear people say that you have impacted them in some way, what else do you really need? That fulfillment can take you to cloud nine and keep you up there for years and years, man, because it just feels great. It feels good knowing that there's some purpose there. There's some purpose in the work that you're doing.
Absolutely. And my last question – I always like to wrap these things up with this question – is this: what advice would you give to anybody who has a passion but isn’t ready to pursue it yet or might feel like they aren’t able to pursue it?
If they're not ready, there's a reason why you're not ready. And you have to look into that. But you know – and this is easier said than done and I understand that – just jump into it. You're never going to be ready.
There's always going to be something holding you back. But just do it. Do it. Do it when you're able to be honest with yourself about what you want out of it. It's scary. It's incredibly scary, because one of the worst things is having somebody tell you that what you did isn’t good enough. But you'll make those mistakes and then you'll learn from them and you'll come back about 200% better. Just do it.
And if you'd like to explore opportunities to tell your own story, get in touch and let's talk. Because every story has to start somewhere.