Speaking with Stefan Kocev made one thing readily apparent- and that’s the power of positive energy and how small gestures, relationship building and support can make a world of difference in how one’s life unfolds.
If you attended public school in the US, then somewhere around freshman or sophomore year in highschool you were more than likely required to read the novel the Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.. The 1967 coming of age story took license with an already famous Robert Frost quote, and made everyone remember the phrase, “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold…” But the true gut punch of the story for me as an impressionable fourteen year old was Cherry Valance sitting with Ponyboy, innocently and naively turning to him and questioning, “Wouldn’t you try to help me if you could?”
This profile almost couldn’t be written. Years ago, Stefan had all but walked away from photography, Discouraged, frustrated and in a low place in his personal life, Stefan was disillusioned with photography when his wife surprised him with a Nikon as a birthday gift. This act of kindness reinvigorated Stefan, who shortly thereafter took a picture of Kron Gracie in his backyard, wielding a samurai sword that was a gift from his father- Rickson Gracie. The photograph was subsequently purchased by Moskova, and run in a French edition of GQ. The entire experience provided the spark of enthusiasm and reassurance to bring Kocev back behind the lens.
Most dream of making a living by connecting their hobbies and professional career, but the idea of surviving from passion alone is often considered too far fetched. He attributes his ability to do what he loves not to a grueling career grind, or dumb luck. Instead, he believes it is the result of his life experiences and a lifetime of establishing strong relationships. The journey of Stefan’s thriving photographic career might rub some people the wrong way he thinks, suggesting “other people could see it as frustrating.. I don’t know.” I asked him, “in what sense-- that they might be jealous?”
“Yeah. [People are] going to school, they’re going out. I know other people are way more aggressive. Everything they do is advertising themselves, promoting themselves, hitting people up. But it’s maybe not necessarily who they are you know? So then, it doesn’t happen for them, where I’m just being me and doing my thing and then, you know, it’s happening…” It is a hard concept for Kocev to express off the cuff. He acknowledges the tremendous work others may put into their work, but recognizes that the drive for acknowledgment cannot replace the passion for what one is doing when creating. It is the passion, and physical act of creation that drives Kocev's work, and is partly responsible for the recognition he is receiving.
Stefan has never approached any of the brands with which his work is most commonly associated with in order to book a gig. The projects he’s shot which have been admired by many, for RVCA, Metamoris, Shoyoroll, Citizens of Humanity and more, all came about very organically, without need for an agent or concerted publicity.
“Everything in my life has happened directly through me just living my life the way that i want to live it, and being passionate about the things I do. And helping other people.”
Jiu jitsu was one of the main things that fostered the opportunities that would arise later in life for Kocev. He references staying at the academy and being around the Gracie family and children as part of the early connections that would serve him well later in life, such as when he was chosen to photograph the athletes in Ralek Gracie’s Metamoris events. He stresses that although he works hard, he is not overly ambitious, yet it wasn’t pure luck that got him where he is. His work is a result of his experiences and curating positive relationships with people, that in turn, come back to him in an unexpected, and cosmic sort of way. Stefan has both written, and photographed for Vice’s Fightland, covering jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts.
“I helped this guy. I helped this kid get off meth and then showed up and spoke at his court case in Hawaii. His brother’s roommate lived with that kid, and ended up becoming, like, editor in chief for Vice Sports at the time [in the Venice office]. So when he heard about this kid getting out of these felonies and turning his life around... and then saw my photographs of Rickson when I went to Brazil with Citizens of Humanity… Photographing for Vice.. I didn’t approach Vice, they approached me... they were aware of me and helping other people- really Jared at Citizens gave me a great opportunity and elevated me a lot because he was being helpful to me [in turn].”
Apparel company Citizens of Humanity had already sent Stefan around the world to take photographs. But it came about largely the same way- Stefan was just training jiu jitsu with a friend that he had known since middle school, and formed the type of bond that is incredibly specific to the environment a jiu jitsu academy fosters. This type of relationship is one that Stefan if especially grateful for. We spoke of how people from all walks of life, class, social status and backgrounds converge on the mat; indistinguishable behind their gi and belt. Stefan describes the bonds on the mat as a "melting pot of intimacy." The aforementioned friend just happened to be the Creative Director for Citizens of Humanity. Stefan was helping other people, and as a result, was afforded an opportunity to work on a charitable campaign on the basis of his good hearted nature, and cultivated relationships in life.
“I was the right choice to go to Brazil with Rickson [for Citizens] becaus ... through photographing him and helping this other kid, helping another human being, my name is Googled and my photos fit that mold...
...They saw me helping other people and wanted to help me as a result."
The campaign was charitable one, where the subjects of the photographs and videos, such as Rickson Gracie and Bishop Desmond Tutu, were not paid, but instead allotted amounts of money to be directed towards charities of their choice. Stefan's involvement in the project was reaffirmation that "everything good in life is a direct result of helping each other."
With jiu jitsu being such a close, tight-knit community, it is no wonder that word of Kocev’s distinctly stark black and white, high contrast photography would get around to those looking for creative ways to promote their athletes. And with his personality and penchant for helping others, one has to wonder if these opportunities have any bearing on the existence of karma. Before long, familiar circumstances led to Stefan being booked for a Shoyoroll campaign.
“Without saying who it is, I helped another guy’s son, who was associated with Shoyoroll and then they saw my photos and approached me… It’s either been a result of me organically doing what I like doing, which is helping people. Training jiu jitsu, and taking photos, and that all falls into place.... As a result of being driven by doing what I care about, all these things have materialized for me without a lot of--” Stefan pauses momentarily. “I mean with a lot of effort, but not the effort of obtaining it... I'm more in the action business than the results business, in the business of doing what I'm doing.” It’s a difficult balance, to describe the organic nature of the opportunities you’ve been provided, without undermining the focus and determination that shapes your work, but everything with Kocev seems to come full circle as a result of the life he’s led and specific choices he's made, particularly regarding the treatment of other people. He believes that by expressing gratitude towards others, things materialize, a concept illustrated by words spoken to him by Desmond Tutu when on assignment in India, "The key to life is wanting for others what you want for yourself, and helping them achieve it." These words resonated with Kocev to the degree that they brought tears to his eyes.
Stefan comes from a family of artists, including a grandmother that was an opera singer, a mother that was a dancer, plus aunts, uncles and cousins that are fine artists and graphic artists. Art and culture was stressed early on as he spent weekends at art museums and ballets. He was raised going back and forth between Venice and New York, where he was immersed in skateboarding and graffiti culture. Drawing in black books and his proximity to Santa Monica Airlines and Dogtown further spurred his creative interests. “It wasn't necessarily about bombing, it was just about being a kid and skateboarding and being rebellious. Where I grew up, and what was happening, and the unique situations.... The people who were in that movement, I was exposed to organically.” When Stefan found photography in high school, the dark room was a natural fit. Despite taking class here and there, formal training never affected Stefan much; it was the hands on experience working in the darkroom that allowed him to explore and enhance his ability.
“I learned a lot through asking questions. Through seeing something that I liked, that kind of inspired me. Trying to emulate it, and create the same image- the light, the composition, the subject matter. That’s how i learned a lot.” He would ask the other photographers questions, and then go and try. His enthusiasm was fanned by the 35mm film he was shooting. “Shooting film, it was like, how was it going to turn out? What was it going to look like? Then, all the techniques in the darkroom of things that you can create and do…” He explains a process he used to do, that he considers going back to, where he would strip all the chemicals out of a photo, and reintroduce silver. This would replace all the greys with black and silver, and produce an image similar to Edward Westin, or Ansel Adams, who Kocev looked to imitate as a means of learning.
A variety of influences and experiences has helped Stefan to carve out his distinct style. Spending time in his grandparents’ cabin in the Adirondacks, for example, where he would hike and backpack through the national park connected Kocev to nature, which is the subject of much of his portraiture. New York also provided the opportunity for Kocev to browse the Met, and admire the work of another wildly influential artist in Kocev’s development- Diane Arbus. “When I go to New York I still love to go to all the art galleries and through Chelsea and so on and so forth. That doesn’t exist in the same way here in LA. Where LA is so much more vibrant, with the ocean- it’s just a completely different environment.”
Diane Arbus’ surreal influence on Stefan Kocev’s photography is especially apparent in the series of photographs that first caught the attention of the jiu jitsu world- the Meditate & Destroy series. The confrontational manner in which the subjects are framed, is eerily reminiscent of Arbus’ studies of normalcy. In Kocev’s series, there are two photographs of twins, the Miyaos with a sense of paranormal harmony, and the Ruotolos, whose aesthetic is juxtaposed with a strong dichotomy between the brothers.
“I just think that personality wise the Ruotolo brothers seem to be more separate in a competitive way, even though they are so joined all the time… I wanted to shoot them more individualized, and they’re so young that I wanted to masculinize them a little bit more, and then almost make them look like evil children too. I just wanted to shoot them in a darker, more masculine way. And then the Miyaos are so connected in everything that they do, and they’re disconnected from everything else. They seem joined at the hip- they have to be surgically removed.”
In no other picture is the dreamlike quality of Kocev’s photographs so understated than in a portrait of Rafael Mendes, appearing with three sets of hands resting on the lapels of his gi. The shot was influenced by the frustration he himself experiences while rolling with the six time Brazilian jiu Jitsu world champion, and is a reflection of his strong grips and precise movement. The intricacy of grips is a style foreign to what’s been instilled in Kocev, who received his black belt from Kron Gracie. An ongoing idea of Kocev’s is to shoot jiu jitsu athletes as Titan-like figures, representing them as supernatural deities, larger than life.
“I wanted to make it really hard for people to emulate, and thinking how can I take the style I’m doing and then continue to grow it in different ways. So for instance, I did that thing with the grips with the hands, I did this thing with Shoyoroll, where I put Rafa on top of a ladder that was like 20 feet high and I made these gis draping down it, and all his old belts from when he was a little kid so he was like growing out of the academy like a monster. Or Andre Galvao screaming like the Incredible Hulk, or a gorilla gnashing its teeth. Out of wanting to make things kind of abstract, like a monster, more like dream-state, but being able to use the natural environment and maybe get these guys to do things they maybe normally wouldn’t do. I feel like maybe it can be boring sometimes shooting jiu jitsu… if people want to continue having you do something, how can I make it different? But then not be constrained with- there’s not like huge budgets or anything- so I can’t create some David LaChapelle scene… I’m usually not working with a budget. I’m usually using natural light and my on camera flash and I’m always thinking if I start doing something, how can I recreate this in the future, everywhere else? I’m not just constrained to that environment or day because I want to have a catalog of things that all flow together. A catalog of work or portraits that match.”
Whereas the common expression states that “windows are the eyes to the soul,” for jiu jitsu athletes, the tale is told by their mangled hands. Knurled digits wrapped with tape is the result of years of gripping and intricate guard play, which Stefan sought to capture as well in this series. When traveling to India with Citizens of Humanity, Kocev was taken back by the hands of hard laborers who work in mines, which made him start taking notice of the stories that hands can tell. He soon got the idea that “everybody that I photograph- I want to do that. Nobody photographs peoples’ hands. I want to take the time. If you look back I did it way before [Metamoris]. I was just photographing everybody’s hands that I came in contact with, no matter who they were… artisans, chefs, fine artists...”
Making clear his wish to not sound pretentious, he described the advertising and imagery from jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts as “gross.” The hyper stylization of images, and contrived approach to documentation and presentation does not appeal to Stefan. “I wanted to make jiu jitsu beautiful and look beautiful and look like art, which i feel like nobody had done, and I feel like I was able to do for the first time.” The cohesion and consistency in his photography, especially apparent in the Meditate & Destroy series, stems from the idea that no matter where he goes in the world, he should be able to recreate the same style without depending on the environment. “It’s easy to find, especially with black & white- just any kind of top lighting no matter where you are. And that’s always going to add shadows and contrast, to where in color, that would really work against you. So I was like okay, well, I can always find top light or even harsh top lighting and I can carry a black sheet with me anywhere I go and fold it up in my bag. Or have someone stand against a black wall.”
To photograph the Metamoris fighters, maintain his own style and avoid the pitfalls that plague the majority of media produced from the mixed martial arts archetype, Stefan decided to photograph the fighters after they’ve had matches, when they are tired and under the weight of their emotions. “Watching people build up, go out and come back either victorious, with the energy around that, or come back, you know, kind of beaten… you can’t hide the energy at that point.” As Stefan traveled the country to photograph the fighters on the Metamoris card, they generally wished to be photographed before training. “I always told them I want to do it after you’ve trained. That was my goal, to photograph guys so they couldn’t hide their emotions, so I could get something else. Maybe less guarded. And try to make jiu jitsu look artistic and beautiful and clean as opposed to just-- I don’t know… kind of what it is sometimes... “
Stefan’s life experiences, growing up surfing and skateboarding, or enjoying nature, and spending time on the tatame have certainly shaped the course of his life, not only in the content he shoots, but in the trajectory his career as taken as well. His work demonstrates a delicate balance of his role as thoughtful artisan and technician, guided by his knowledge and background in most of the subjects he shoots. Still, he sometimes finds himself growing bored. Lately, he has been shooting more wildlife, specifically, underwater wildlife. Stefan brings his camera, and underwater housing along when free diving and spearfishing with friends. He admits that under the sea exists a world of which he was blissfully unaware. From a professional perspective, the underwater shoots present new challenges and opportunities for growth. “I had to figure out the lighting ahead of time or shooting in a way that wasn’t constrained, and then oh- you lose red light at this depth, or blue light at this depth and then you’re left with this” he explains.
Discussing a photograph of a shark which has since been adopted by RVCA for use on apparel, he lays out the process behind snapping the picture.
“What was unique to that trip that I went on is that we were diving at 50 feet where the sharks were most active. Most people photograph sharks at surface level, because they chum the water. They weren’t chumming the water; there wasn’t a bunch of blood in the water. There was just a massive amount of sharks concentrated in that area, and I was also using a splash housing. I don’t have a dive housing so I was pushing it to its max more than it was rated for, and I was almost worried that the camera would leak. All these guys have dive housings with complex lighting systems, so they would shoot the sharks when they’d approach much closer, and that was even messing up my photos. I would take my time to kind of enjoy the sharks when they were passing and then shoot them when they were really far away from that perspective.”
The distance from the shark does little to make the audience feel like an observer. Instead, it highlights the infinite abyss of the sea, with the shark seemingly disappearing into what feels like outer space. The light cascades downwards in a gradient, setting the scene for the shark’s exit from our field of view.
Stefan leaves for Hawaii today. He tells me “my friend said he’s going to take me looking for whales and dolphins. I’m gonna swim with sharks again. Everything in my photography is driven by the things I like doing.”
Stefan Kocev is a portrait photographer located in Venice, California. His work can be viewed at www.stefankocev.com or via photostream on his Instragram @stefankocev.