In Conversation: Ryland Hormel

In Conversation: Ryland Hormel

When it comes to the demands of daily life — our 9-to-5 jobs, family obligations, keeping a household running — many of us begin to lose touch with the passion that set us on our paths in the first place. Nothing could be further from the truth for Ryland Hormel. A dedicated photographer from San Francisco, Hormel’s life has brought him to many disparate places.

From growing up in Haight-Ashbury to traveling the hidden backroads of America to his current home on a houseboat in Sausalito, he’s never played life by the book. Ryland's upcoming book, When Do You Feel Free?, featuring 100+ interviews with America’s quintessential voices, is a study both on the passion that keeps life interesting and the freedom necessary for pursuing it. 

When Do You Feel Free?, hardcover and beautifully printed on 224 pages featuring 100+ images, will be available in the U.S. July 4th, 2023.

How long have you been a photographer and what initially drew you to the profession? 

I've been a photographer now for 10 years and started in 2013. I've always been connected to the arts and the creative space. My dad is a musician. My mom was an actress. But as a kid I always leaned towards sports and athletics. That’s what I was just naturally gifted at. That took me to college, and I played four years of soccer there. I remember my teammates coming back from graduating to watch our games and just asking them what they were doing with their lives post-college, and they were working 9-to-5 in finance. A couple of them mentioned missing the passion that they had with soccer, and that scared me. I didn't want to lose this ability to live passionately.  

I broke my back when I was 18, so I always knew sports at that elite level would have an expiration date on it. At the end of my junior year I decided to explore something that I could carry with me for the rest of my life. I bought a GoPro camera and started playing around with that, and when I came home for break I borrowed one of my mom's old DSLR Nikon cameras and started experimenting, going out and pairing that with my love for the outdoors. Long story short, one thing led to another and I started to get better at the medium. I got my own camera and started to explore different styles of shooting and photography, and just fell in love with it. Then I realized that this is something I can do for the rest of my life. 

You were born and raised in San Francisco. How has this affected your view on the world and approach to creativity? 

Growing up in San Francisco greatly inspired my creative work and my practice of photography. I really do think of photography as more of a tool for connection. It’s a way I connect with life and see the world differently. Growing up in San Francisco, it did that for me right away because I was raised in Haight-Ashbury where the ‘70s peace-and-love hippie movement happened. Before that movement, it was a jazz epicenter in San Francisco. This neighborhood has so much art alive in it already, and then the cast of characters that live over there are very diverse and come from all different walks of life.  

I was lucky enough to walk up and down that street by myself when I was 12 years old and meet different people, see business owners, see homeless people, I mean, you name it. It exposed me to the diversity of life, that wide range of humanity, and I was always connected to that and very interested in it. My direction with photography stems from that origin because my work is really driven to connect with humanity and to help others do the same.  

I was about to ask why you chose to include so many people in your book from different walks of life. There are immigrants, fishermen, convicts, even cowboys. Was that why it was so important for you to feature that diverse array of people? Because you grew up with that? 

Yeah, that's one of the reasons. I've always been lucky to have a diverse group of friends both from school but also from playing soccer, which has exposed me to a lot of different communities. And, you know, it's just a part of who I am. I really like being around people with differing opinions and ideas than myself. A great way to learn and grow is to seek out disconfirming information. The origin story of the book is that I was in San Francisco during the middle of COVID. We were in quarantine mode, locked down, and I started to notice this kind of bubble-thinking in the city. It’s a very liberal city and that time period was so charged about things like vaccines, quarantine, and mask mandates. I started to notice this energy surrounding, “We're right, and everyone else is wrong.”  

It felt very limiting, and I fell into that trap as well. But then I realized this and started to feel disconnected from humanity, so I called my cousin, who's a cowboy in New Mexico. I had always wanted to document his lifestyle because his profession always sounded so interesting to me. So I called him up and said, “Can I come live with you for a few weeks and document what you do?” He said, “Sure, but we're gonna have to teach you how to ride a horse. Once you get that down, we'll take you out on jobs and you can live playing cowboy for a bit.” And so that's exactly what I did. Being around them during that time, it felt so different from where I had just come from in San Francisco. Talking to them after these jobs, they all mentioned something about freedom in their own words along the lines of, “We don’t make a lot of money doing this work, but our lifestyle is very free. We are free to do what we want.” 

That’s what planted the seed of wanting to explore freedom more deeply, and the mechanism by which I was able to understand that was by immersing myself in a community that I'm totally unfamiliar with. Really, the only way to truly understand it is by listening to the perspectives of the people and communities that make up this country. That’s where I got the inspiration to really immerse myself in conversation with different types of people, and I wanted to do that across different states. When you cross state lines, things can feel so different. 

I also noticed how this idea of freedom, on one hand, can disconnect us because when I think about freedom, that kind of face value of it, it’s an extrinsic freedom that’s derived from something. Social freedom is not created equal. As a white man in America, I have a lot of social freedom, but some of my best friends who come from different communities don’t. I saw how, on one side, freedom can disconnect us, but I was curious if freedom is this inherent and somewhat universal thing that we all share. It’s that real part of freedom that America is all about — it’s the type of freedom that connects every heartbeat in the country. 

Is there a response to your book’s question of When do you feel free?” that resonated with you the most? 

There's so many to choose from. I feel so lucky to have gotten this experience because I just met 100+ new teachers in my life. Every single one of these conversations was a lesson in how to be a good listener.  

The answers ranged from very deeply philosophical, to very simple, to funny and hilarious, but if I had to choose one…early on in the project, I was collecting these anonymous answers from people. There’s something really special about those, because they were so raw and honest due to the fact that the person knew their photo and name would not be attached to it. One was from this kid who must have been around 12 years old, and his answer to “When do you feel free?” was on Friday after school. 

That one really hit me because it felt like it had a deeper resonance to it. Everybody can relate to that feeling. You’re a kid, it’s Friday after school, you have the weekend, and you’re free. It really tells a deep story about freedom, and how freedom comes to exist where you find a constraint, because it's the breaking away from the constraint that creates freedom. School is the constraint, and the moment school is done, you've broken away from it and you have this overwhelming feeling of freedom. The way I see it now is that what leads to freedom is time and space creating choice. What I learned from all of these answers is that I don't really see freedom as a good or a bad thing as much as it’s a feeling that gives you the ability to choose, and that's where we have to cultivate our own discipline and individual accountability to make choices that will sustain our happiness moving forward. 

What first drew you to shooting with a Leica M6 and how does it compare to other cameras you’ve used? 

The Leica is a family heirloom item that my cousin, Robbie, found when he was talking to our grandfather. He’s also a photographer, and our grandpa mentioned that it was sitting in the closet. I don't think he quite knew what he had. The plastic was still on it, brand new. Robbie shot with it for a while and then he gave it to me, and that’s when this project idea started to come to life. I had been reflecting on some of the portraits I've taken over the last year on digital cameras, and one thing I noticed I disliked was the ability for someone to then ask after shooting, “Oh, can I see the image?” We all tend to be our own harshest critics. I would start to notice this internal dialogue and judgment people would have towards the image I've just taken of them. In my mind I’m like, “They're beautiful.” There was a disconnect there and a breaking of trust.  

I realized for me to do this work, to connect with strangers, this deeply intimate level of trust is the biggest element. You can't fake trust. It has to be authentic, honest, and real. That’s where the idea to shoot this on film came to life, because it immediately takes away that ability to see the image right away. There’s this dance that happens between subject and photographer that you just have to trust. It was a bold direction to take but it was also pretty uncomfortable. I didn't feel like I had mastered the craft yet. 

The two cameras I used were the Leica M6 and the Hasselblad 500, one 35mm and the other 120mm medium format. The other element and ingredient of film that I really resonated with is the way it slows you down. It forces you to be very intentional with the way you're shooting and not wasting frames, because you don't have an SD card you can just plug in. It also amplifies your ability to be aware of and observe what's around you by increasing your ability to listen, because you can’t talk to someone while checking the images you just took. It’s out of sight, out of mind. 

I just have one last question for you, Ryland, and I would be remiss if I didn't ask you: When do you feel the most free? 

The feeling of freedom is a presence, it's a flow state. It's where my senses are heightened and I'm totally engaged with life. It feels like this pause between the past and the future. I'm just here and the thing that brings me to that state is photography. That’s where my journey with the camera started, with this feeling I got from shooting. I would go for a walk with my camera and two hours would go by like nothing, and that's freedom. Surfing, paddle boarding, any kind of activity where I'm moving my body. 

I’m also engaged in that way when having conversations with people, especially new people. That deeply intimate human connection, just getting totally immersed in those moments. I feel free riding horses, and spending time with those cowboys I felt incredibly free.  

That feeling I described, it feels like walking to the beat of a song. You know, when you go for a walk, you're listening to music and then all of a sudden you catch yourself in stride hitting the beat. To me, that is freedom. 


Learn more about Ryland Hormel