The eye behind A$AP Rocky’s TE$TING visuals, New York-based photographer Israel “Mr. iozo” Riqueros refuses definition by manipulating light and colour, creating cinematic portraits of people and the world around them.
“You should give up,” is something that all artists have heard throughout their creative journey. While many fall under the pressure of everyday life, there are also those who persevere. Mr. iozo is one of these such artists, who simply believed in his craft while continuing to create and carve out his own lane.
Inspired by film, music and the human condition, Mr. iozo’s work can be described as cinematic, his photographs have an ethereal-like quality, steeped in dark realism, intricate set designs and evocative use of lighting. We spoke to Mr. iozo about his work, shooting the visuals for A$AP Rocky’s recent TE$TING album and the necessity of the human element to all of his work.
How’d you get your start in photography, tell us a little about your background?
I got started 3 years ago. I’m not really from a creative household, it was more so finding art on my own for the most part growing up. As a kid, I would go to a sort of military elementary school set-up in my country Ecuador, so most of my focus was always told to be in service and military growing up. It wasn’t until I moved to Houston with my mother that I began to find more creative outlets such as film and video games. I used to do photography just with my flip phone back in High School and through 19 to 22 years old. Just creative iPod Touch pictures of myself, which I still have saved on my computer just to look back on, or maybe they will be worth a lot of money in five years. Having that drive in photography from a mobile device, I asked my brother who actually was a photographer years before to let me borrow his camera, a Canon 40D since I was going through a breakup and became really depressed, so I used and still use photography as a form of self-expression.
When did you first realize that you had something special?
I would say about after my first photo series called Kiss Land, seeing the response from several magazines and the online community really pushed me on that “Well this is just one idea I have of several, so I’m just going to take shots at this.”
What do you want someone to feel or think when they see your work for the first time?
If they see it in general well they should feel whatever they would like to feel, it wouldn’t be fair for me to say how someone should feel when they encounter my work. I’ve had people telling me it empowers, it can be religious, it can be inspiring. Personally, my work deals a lot with melancholy and sadness but some images have a dash of hope and happiness.
What do you think makes you and your type of photography, unique from other artists?
I would say the fact that I don’t corner myself to just one style, you know? Like a portrait photographer will only do portrait, landscape would only do landscape, nudes only nudes and so on and their work ends up looking the exact same through their portfolio. I like to just shoot whatever I want, however, I want, trying to always change the visual style, and I am pretty lucky I have an audience that supports that sort of change visually. Then again I also have that signature style which people just recognize off my work, I can’t explain it myself but the best quote I have heard for it is “His work is just interesting to look at.” I love to add layers to an image so it has multiple meanings or stories to it.
What was it like working with A$AP Rocky and AWGE for TE$TING? How hands-on was Rocky and AWGE in the creative process or did they allow you the full creative freedom to conceptualize and execute?
It was awesome! Rocky is a very down to earth creative guy, he is like a Kanye, Tyler, or Pharrell. An artist in terms of being creative and experimental so being brought into this project just for that alone was very exciting for me. They laid out the blueprint for me which was the crash test site with dummies, that’s the idea they presented to me and then I was basically told we want cinematic. We want what you do. So I had a great deal of freedom in terms of how I wanted the images to look and what kind of set-up I wanted. For example, that pile of dummies I wanted to make it really big. Like 100 dummies big. And at some point set them on fire in the background. I had so many more ideas and shots I wanted to do but oh well! I’m still very happy with the way the images came out.
How did this collaboration arise?
My friend Hidji who ended up becoming part of AWGE as an artist and director at some point in 2016. From what I was told, he showed Rocky my work and Rocky just wanted to meet me, which that alone had me on cloud nine. Just having that recognition from him.
How long and how hard was it to get to this point in your career?
It was very hard, I know 3 years is not a lot for most people but it felt like forever for me, the first year I was just working full time at a supermarket making shit money, second year I lost my room in NYC and my job at the same time so I had to couch hop for 5 months. I was doing deliveries for several delivery apps just to make money for rent once I found a room. That second year when I found my room it was shit! I had to sell most of my stuff just to make rent, eat noodles and hot dogs for like a year, surviving the winter with no heater, I mean it was super tough that year, but I really believed in myself and that I could get out of that struggle. By May 2017, things were looking up a bit. I met Rocky, moved to a better room, got a better job and my photo work was gaining more traction. It was pretty wild those first 2 years.
Has social media played a large role in your rise so to speak?
Social media definitely played a huge part, Instagram is where I contact everyone and most people contact me. Without social media to put my work out to the world, I’m sure I would still have made it just because I am very driven, but it would have been a lot tougher.
Should upcoming artists place a huge emphasis on social media?
I would say yes, it does help. But not to become too addicted to “followers” and “likes”, those things will make you lose track of why you really do what you do. I very much appreciate the support everyone gives me on social media, but at the end of the day, I have to tell myself I shoot for myself, because I love to. Otherwise, I would shoot for other people and what they would like to see, whatever the trend is.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment to date?
The fact that I made it this far, that I never gave up even when everyone was telling me I should.
Visually that they are very different from each other, I treat series like an actual series… none of this 7 images and they are all portraits or whatever from a different angle shit. I like to make a series feel grand, approach a different visual to it and make a narrative for it. Kiss Land is neo-noir, a night in the life of. Gosh is a desaturated story about a gang of girls, about morality and revenge. Paraiso is about beauty, heartbreak and love.
What’s your favourite photo that you have taken to date?
That’s a really tough one. As of right now, the image I have on my “contact” page on my website from my photo series Gosh. The way it was set-up, I think it’s just beautiful. You can see the struggle on the girl’s face who holds the gun, her boss in the background, the victim on the ground.
What does the future hold for Mr. iozo? Any exciting projects?
There are a couple I can’t talk about but people will see over time. I have several ideas for a series. The one I am trying to produce is about an Android. Not sure what I would call it yet, but I know how to shoot it.
Words by Moe Topping – All images © Mr. iozo.