Can you start off by telling us a brief story on your background and how you first picked up a camera?
Back in 2001 when I was working as a graphic designer and communications guy for a local graduate school, part of my job was making a newsletter. And that meant doing everything from writing, to layout, and photography. That’s probably the first time I actually took it seriously. I guess because I had to. The graphic designer in me knew what images were crap so it was a matter of training myself take photos that met my own standards and seeing what it takes to actually make a good shot. It’s that inner art director that made me get better. After that, I moved on to another job where I met a local photographer named Philippe Gross who — I have to admit — really inspired me to push my photography even further. The guy is incredibly prolific and has a great eye. He always has his artwork being displayed somewhere. We’ve become good friends and I give him a lot of credit for where I am as an artist.
What is it about street photography that keeps you interested?
It’s about finding magic in the mundane. It sounds corny but you know, it really is about finding the novel amongst the mundane moments every day. And because it’s street, it’s genuine and real. I have nothing against other types of photography, there are a lot of incredible captures by artists shooting other things. It’s just that street to me is all the more magical because it depends on that chance encounter and framing it in the most perfect way. It could be that, you know, that moment you capture on your camera is a moment that anyone else could’ve seen themselves. It’s out there if anyone just looks. It’s beauty, it’s emotion, it’s splendor, and it’s shock. It’s the full range of humanity and the moments in between that can be lost if you’re not looking. So yes, to me that’s the magic of it.
How do you go about your photography? Do you shoot on your lunch break, weekends, bring your camera everywhere with you?
Yup, I have my camera with me all the time. It’s another limb and I’m lost without it. It almost guarantees something unreal will happen right in front of me if I don’t have my camera. So I don’t tempt fate and I always have it.
I shoot on my lunch breaks at work, after I get home, on weekends. Family is always first though. So I make sure things are done — any chores or errands. And I only head out if everyone’s got their own thing going on. I’m fortunate now because my kids are old enough to be doing their own things. So if I have time, I’ll head out.
In your opinion what makes Honolulu unique for street photography?
It’s unique in that it’s not unique. You can shoot the same type of shots other street photographers are shooting in almost any other part of the world. Here though, we have that veneer of Hawaii as conjuring up images of paradise in people’s mind. As a street photographer here we can show the flip side of paradise. Here we have real people with the same problems and triumphs as everyone else. I try to capture the range of the human experience, but admittedly there are more shots of urban life in paradise because that’s kind of the nature of it. Yes, it’s pretty here … but not everything is. That’s what a street photographer should be capturing — the full range of humanity.
Where in Honolulu do you enjoy shooting?
I’ve just realized recently that I always find myself at Waikiki Walls — or the Kapahulu Groin. I’m not sure if that makes it my “favorite,” but there’s always potential there for certain types of shots. And there’s definitely a lot of characters there. You see both sides of Hawaii there. You have the local kids coming to surf and dive and then you have the tourists who just want beautiful shots of the sunset. There’s water and sun, which makes for reflections and shadows, and there’s this great structure jutting out into the ocean. That’s a lot of potential at any given time there. But then again, I get bored of it on occasion and from there, there are a lot of other great locations within walking distance.
What do you think needs to happen for Hawaii to be seen as a street photography destination?
I haven’t thought about that. And actually, I’m not sure that’s something I’d want. It’d be a challenge. You would have to go up against those who are already making a name for themselves as surf photographers, “adventure” photographers, landscape, and whatever else you have out there. Do we want to make Hawaii known as street photography destination? I’m not sure. The visual noise is already pretty high. Pretty shots of giant waves and girls in bikinis will always get more attention than a shot on the street. Really, if it were to happen, it’d have to come from massive exposure from a mainstream media outlet highlighting a particular street photographer or something like that. But selling Hawaii as a destination or boosting it’s reputation for street is not a goal of mine.
If you could have dinner with one street photographer past or present who would it be?
Sorry, nothing original here. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Mostly because he seemed so passionate and was a true artist. I can’t help but think it would be incredibly inspiring to even meet him. I’d just sit and listen.
You can shoot with one street photographer for a day who would it be and why?
Assuming we’re still talking about someone living or dead … Vivian Maier. Because she seemed to love life in such an introverted way. I’d have liked to see how she maneuvered in the streets. Not necessarily to learn techniques to shoot better, but to watch how she carried herself and basically adventure through life while being invisible. I want to be one of the people who saw her on the street. And now that I mention it that way, that’s another reason I love street. It gives me the excuse to adventure through life. The perfect shot is that treasure to hunt for, that White Whale, or whatever you want to call it. It’s the hunt for magic in the mundane. It’s what Vivian Maier did through her photography. And guess what? When her photographs were discovered, they definitely were a treasure — for all of us.
How would you describe your street style or photographs?
Contextual. I usually enjoy the wider angles. I enjoy having the whole diorama in the frame. And what’s in the frame usually includes at least one character for the story to play out. It’s boring to have a beautiful setting with no one in frame to interact with it. That’s why my recent exhibition was called “Model Citizens.” I usually have a person in it to be my first person, second person, or third person character in that story within the frame.
I ask this with everyone. If you can have one street photographer shoot your wedding who would it be?
That’s hard. I follow several on social media that I couldn’t pick out by name, but I’m really enjoying Pau Buscato’s work. You can tell he has a lot of fun shooting. I’d love to shoot more like him. He has a great eye and perspective on the world. There’s a playfulness and excitement when he shoots. I’d love to be always in that sort of mindset when I shoot.
If you could shoot a particular style of a photographer who would it be?
Definitely, Maier. I find that I’m looking to replicate the same type of shots that she’s done. Again, sorry. I don’t study a lot of street photographers. I know what I like. I order the same thing over and over again at restaurants too.
What are your short term goals (1-3 years) and what are your long term goals (5-10 years) if you have any with photography? And what are you currently doing in trying to achieve those goals? If any, what struggles are you currently facing?
Street photography goals. That’s hard because I don’t think of goals when it comes to shooting street. It’s very much a journey. I’d like to somehow create my own projects for a living. Whether that’s shooting or writing or video, that’d be great. In one to three years, I think I’d like to get more of my shots seen. That means putting my work and myself more out there, building my own reputation. So that means I’m looking at doing more project-oriented photo series. Not necessarily getting paid work out of it, but covering more events through a street photographer’s point of view. Pretty much documentary, which is what we’ve all doing as street photographers anyway. In five to ten years, I imagine I’d have a larger body of work. So maybe publish a book then. I’d be traveling more too. So I’d like to shoot other streets in other parts of the world. It’s about the journey … and I guess building up a treasure trove if we’re sticking with that theme.
I noticed you like to shoot/document events around town (pow wow, protest, parade setup)…what is it about those events that draw you in?
Event shooting is different from street shooting. When I’m at events I find myself switching between those two mindsets. Events like POW! WOW! Hawaii! or protests are unique to the times we live in. They should be documented because it’s part of the culture and history of Hawaii. While I’m doing that, I also shoot street because there will always be interesting people and sights at these types of events — participants and onlookers. To a lesser degree, there are other events that I enjoy attending like parades or what have you just to experience a new situation in a familiar location. It helps to change it up for myself so I don’t feel stagnant or grow bored with the same scenery.
Are you currently working on anything in particular?
I’m working on a YouTube channel. I’m not sure what it’ll look like, but search for “Agena Street Photography” and subscribe. I should have one short video up this month.
Any personal tips or advice on street photography?
I have plenty and that’s partly why I’m starting a YouTube channel despite my introversion. I would say shoot what you enjoy and if that means making yourself grow a little, stretch into your most uncomfortable parts of being, that’s what you should be doing. We’re all on a journey so don’t mind others who are ahead of you. Mind your own path and see where others are making mistakes and where others are going that you’d like to follow. Most of all, the most important thing is to get out there to shoot with purpose.
To keep up with Lance Agena’s work, please see below!