Eric Mencher: From Photojournalist to Master iPhone Street Photographer

Few street photographers and photojournalists have over 95,000 Instagram followers, shoot 100% on their iPhone, and have a World Press Photo prize. Eric Mencher is one of them.

Mencher was the recipient of the Overseas Press Club Award for his “Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide.”

I had the pleasure of watching Eric photograph in small towns near San Miguel de Allende Mexico where we both lived. I had never experienced walking about with a more intuitive photographer. Here is, well, some of his story.

Peter Levitan: I want to start with a quote you wrote on your bio: “I am a documentary photographer concentrating on long term projects and everyday street photography.” How do you make a distinction between those? Is everyday street photography not a long-term project?

Eric Mencher: In my eyes, yes, it is. In the eyes of those gatekeepers of traditional photography, no. They’re very separate things. Yes, you can put your street work into a book later. Think of Garry Winograd and all those pictures he did in 1964. Or Robert Frank’s The Americans was street photography. Then they combine the individual images and say, oh, suddenly, it’s some sort of project. It is, so there’s a lot of overlap.

At any rate, the powers that be in the world of photography, I think, like to make distinctions. I make that distinction more to help people understand that I have kind of a finger on both worlds, that I go between the two, but there is a lot of linkage. I mean, there’s no doubt. It’s like my long-term work in Guatemala definitely started as street photography, but it’s evolved into a couple of long-term projects. There’s a lot of overlap.

Tell me a little bit about your career path.

I started in Florida at a paper called the Tampa Tribune. That was after working for my university newspaper as a staff photographer. Then, I moved across the bay to the St Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, and then came to the Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-80s, when by the way, it was one of the leading papers in the country, both with the written word and photo journalistically.

We had a staff of Pulitzer prize winners, a Sunday magazine, we were doing a photo essay once a week in the magazine, sending people all over the world to cover international stories, and a lot of leeway. The way I like to say it is was I covered everything from wars to world series and everything in between.

Probably the best work I ever did as a photojournalist was in Rwanda. It was four years after the genocide, I was there to look at how the country pieced itself back together after this horrible genocide.

Just to give you an idea of the range of work, the first assignment I had when I came back after doing what I thought was this world-class photojournalism was to go photograph some cannolis in South Philly.

That was the range of the work that you do. Anyway, working at the Inquirer was a great experience because I love photographing a bit of everything, whether it was food, portraiture, sports, you got it all. You didn’t have to kind of find a niche and make it work.

What was it like to just jet into Rwanda or to cover a story in Chechnya to do a story? How do you prepare for that type of foreign assignment?

It’s tricky. The number one thing is to make sure that you have the proper equipment. In the days of newspapers, a lot of that meant sending pictures back daily to the paper. Not only did you have to have cameras and film and lenses and extra batteries and all of that and a passport and visas, and what you needed logistically. But also, you had to have enough stuff so you might have to set up a portable darkroom, a transmitter to send pictures back, or make contacts so you could reach somebody when you get to this place to help you send pictures back. We always had fixers and translators too. That was helpful for local navigation.

Those newspaper and magazine glory days seem to be over. What would someone who wants to be a documentary photographer today do? What’s the path?

I have no clue at all. I speak to a handful of university classes a year. My advice is, number one, to work on a number of different projects, a long-term project, a shorter-term project, and then concentrate on your editing and your marketing of your work. Having a long-term project is really crucial because it gives you something to fall back on in those days when you’re feeling kind of down that your work’s not going anywhere, you can always turn to this long-term project. I’m suggesting to people, you’ve got to do these projects because that’s what editors want to see, the creative types. They want to see that you’ve done projects.

I was just looking at the Magnum website the other day. Once a year they look at prospective new members. Now they’re asking for two significant bodies of work, two groups of 50 pictures each. That’s how they can kind of judge you as a photographer.

That’s not to say you can’t put together individual pictures in a portfolio. I mean, you should, but for the wellbeing of the photographer of the young photographer or older, if you’re just now getting into it, you got to have these longer-term projects and a shorter-term project going on and it’s got to come from, can you see my heart, it’s got to be something that you care about, NOT because of you’re working on something that you think other people want to see.

Are these projects just about telling a particular story?

Make sure that the projects are visual in nature. There are a lot of great stories to tell, not all of them visual.

What are the elements that you would look for in a new series? Examples, social commentary, a visual opportunity, that it’s just a great visual, personal connections? What are you looking for?

Well, I would say the visual opportunity is key. But if there is something that’s close to me that I care about, that’s key as well. I think those two go hand in hand because I’m not going to be that interested in something that doesn’t have great visual opportunities, although you never know either.

I would say there are three things that I think I can sort of distill it down into why I do photography, and it’s to create, to connect, and to communicate. I mean, we all have creative instincts that we need to fulfill. We do it in different ways. I do it mainly through my photography. To create, to connect, because after all, I mean, yeah, you can do it for yourself, but ultimately you need to be able to connect with other people through your work and to communicate what you’re seeing, how you feel about what you’re seeing, and to communicate how you feel about life too.

These days I’m interested in ambiguity. I think a little bit of mystery or magic or spirits, spirituality, all those elements. Those are the things that interest me. Now, you can’t plan that in advance, maybe sometimes. In going to Guatemala the last thing I expected was that I would be affected in a spiritual way like I have been, but it’s a country that has this confluence of Spanish Catholicism with ancient Mayan customs. There’s a spirituality that I try and capture in my pictures. Now, I didn’t anticipate that when I went there, but it evolved into that.

Do you use words to support your stories? You produced the book Lincoln Highway with your wife Kass. Does the book include words? Do you think words are necessary?

I don’t think they’re necessary, but I think that every project is different. Every picture is different. Sometimes words enhance the value and the meaning of the picture to the viewer. Other times, they distract from it. It really depends.

In our Lincoln Highway book, we had to tell a little bit of the history and support a little bit of our project. There we used quotes from people like James Joyce, Cervantes, and Jack Kerouac that we thought were appropriate for our project.

On Instagram, for example, which is my major outlet right now, I try and come up with some sort of very short title, a couple of words that might be witty — usually it’s not, even though I try. They give the viewer some hint or a clue about why I’m posting the picture.

You’ve shifted to being a 100% iPhone photographer. Why?

A few things. First of all, when I was shooting film, I used a Leica as a primary camera. The Leica is small, it’s intuitive. You’re seeing in your mind, your mind’s eye what the image is. The camera is just a tool to get you there.

The iPhone is to me, a poor man’s Leica, it takes me to the same mindset that the Leica did, the same ability. I’m framing something in my mind and the iPhone is just a tool to capture what I’m seeing in my mind. The digital camera, it’s up to your eye, you’ve got all these other things going on, maybe a zoom lens you’re fussing around with, aperture, all those things. It can get in the way. Now, the Leica obviously had the same adjustments, but it was quick and intuitive.

The iPhone to me is just an extension of what I’m feeling and what I’m seeing. It’s so quick. Yeah, there are quality issues. I mean, it’s going to be tough to make huge prints from it and that’s okay. But, the Museum of Modern Art is not calling me to hang a show on their walls right now. What difference does it make? I want something … It’s quick, intuitive, and I feel at one with it when I’m photographing.

Do you post process on the iPhone?

I use Snapseed almost exclusively for my editing. That’s a great app. It’s got history. I mean, it does all these things that kind of a basic Photoshop or Lightroom would do. I think I can use Snapseed more effectively now than I can use Lightroom. That said, if I’m doing exhibition prints, I’ll take them into Lightroom to maybe tweak it, fine-tune it, just to make sure because I don’t want to have a print made that’s going to hang on a wall and all I’ve seen of it is on my iPhone, but pictures I post to Instagram, it’s all toned on my iPhone using Snapseed.

How fast do you work? You take a photograph on an iPhone. Do you kind of crawl into a corner, do your editing, and then post to Instagram?

No, it’s rare that I do that, although it depends. If I’m in Guatemala and I’m shooting pretty heavily, then it’s like maybe I’ll post within a day or two something I shot the previous day or two. I like to be thoughtful about it too. I don’t like to just throw stuff up on Instagram just to throw stuff up. I like to be confident in the photograph that it’s a good representation of who I am as a person, who I am as a photographer, and what I’m trying to communicate, and again, who I’m trying to connect with. I like to think I’m pretty thoughtful about it, unless it’s something that boom, I know is something really special and I’ve got to get it up there. I give it some time. That might be a day or two. It might be a couple of weeks.

Let’s shift to Instagram, @ericmencher has over 95,000 Followers. How do you get to 95,000?

A total fluke. I got into Instagram early on. In the first few years, they had something called “suggested users” where the application pointed people to your feed. It wasn’t like being an influencer, but it was similar. It was photographers that Instagram wanted to sort of promote.

Most of the time, I would say between 5,000 and 10,000 people see a picture, a post. 95,000 people are not looking at my picture every post. That’s why I say it’s, I mean, the total number can be just totally bogus. I’m like, I don’t care. I just want people to appreciate what I’m putting out there.

Well, speaking of appreciating your work, I do appreciate it. Not that we’re in a volume industry, but the volume of your quality work is astounding to me. I’ve always wondered about this concept of “street photography”, that it requires a photographer to stand still and see a special light and then wait for something to happen. Are you waiting for something to happen most of your days?

No. I think that, well, patience is a virtue in street photography, but man, there’s so much I need to say to answer that question.

Number one is just paying attention. When you see something that might be a nice background, nice light, maybe it’s a matter of waiting until the right thing happens within that framework. That’s not typically how I work. I don’t have much patience.

Walking is key. I mean, you just can’t do, obviously you can’t do, street photography if you’re driving. In the United States, we’re a total car culture so people do drive a lot. In respect to cars, someone once said to me, “You’re only as good as how many U-turns you’re willing to make.”

It’s so true in any kind of, whether you’re walking or driving, it’s like, you’ve got to pay attention. When you see something, you’ve got to photograph it immediately because it’s going to get away. The light’s going to change. The moment’s going to change.

You need to be a flaneur. It’s a French word for people who walk at a leisurely pace and take in life all around them. When I see something, I pounce on it with my camera. It’s a simple act. I spend a lot of time walking. A lot time walking.

Who are your influencers?

I think that you’ve got to know what came before you in the art world, in literature, in film, and all of those things that influence how you see and how you photograph. My personal influences are painters, they’re writers, musicians, and obviously photographers.

Photographically, it’s like all the major ones, and for good reason. Without question, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Vivian Maier, and Dorothea Lange. Dorothea Lange was amazing. You look at her work and it’s just mind-blowing. She’s just phenomenal.

On Instagram, I come across new photographers every day who are doing phenomenal work. One feed I look at is @billshapiro who was Editor-In-Chief of LIFE Magazine. Every Friday he posts work from an unheralded photographer who is doing high-quality work and wow, where does he find these people?

Great information and insights. Thank you. By the way, where are you heading next?

My wife and I are going to spend three months in Valencia Spain. By coincidence, we’ll be living in a neighborhood of Valencia that Robert Frank photographed in when he was there in 1952. Now that is great inspiration.

And, yes, I will bring my iPhone.

You can find more of Mencher’s work on his website and Instagram.

About the author: Peter Levitan began life as a professional photographer in San Francisco. He moved into a global advertising and Internet start-up career. Peter photographs people around the world using a portable studio. This is his excuse to travel and meet people.