The eye behind A$AP Rocky’s TE$TING visuals, New York-based photographer Israel “Mr. iozo” Riqueros creates 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, some persevere. Mr. iozo is one of these artists, who believed in his craft while creating and carving his 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$AP Rocky’s newly released album, TE$TING and the necessity of showcasing humanity in his work.
How’d you get your start in photography, tell us a little about your background?
I got started three 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 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 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 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. He was a photographer years before to let me borrow his camera, a Canon 40D since I was going through a breakup and became 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?
Viewers should feel whatever they would like to feel; it wouldn’t be fair for me [the artist] to say how someone should feel when they encounter my work. I’ve had people telling me it empowers them, and it can be religious. 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 portraits, a landscape photographer would only do landscapes, nudes only nudes and so on, and their work ends up looking the same through their portfolio.
I shoot whatever I want. However, I always want to change the visual style, and I am pretty lucky I have an audience that visually supports that sort of change. I also have that signature style in 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. 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. I had a great deal of freedom regarding how I wanted the images to look and what kind of set-up I wanted. For example, that pile of dummies I tried 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 pleased with the way the images came out.
How did this collaboration arise?
My friend Hidji who’s also an artist and director who happens to be part of Rock’ys creative agency AWGE. He showed Rocky my work from what I was told, and Rocky wanted to meet me, which 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 three years is not a lot for most people, but it felt like forever for me; the first year, I was working full time at a supermarket making shit money; the second year, I lost my room in NYC and my job at the same time so I had to couch hop for five months.
I was doing deliveries for several delivery apps to make money for rent once I found a room. That second year when I discovered my room, it was shit! I had to sell most of my stuff to make rent, eat noodles and hot dogs for like a year, survive the winter with no heater, I mean, it was super tough that year, but I believed in myself 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 for those first two years.
Has social media played a large role in your rise so to speak?
Social media 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 do what you do. I appreciate everyone’s support 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.
Tell us a little about some of your other projects such as Paraiso, Gosh and Kiss Land?
Visually that they are very different from each other, Kiss Land is a 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 who holds the gun face, 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.