Thomas Hurst is an admirable man and one that I am very pleased to know and call a friend. Originally, he was introduced to me by one of our Columnists and also good friend, Kevin Kuster – former Senior Photo Editor for Playboy Magazine. Hurst created the COVR lens case and launched a hugely successful campaign via Kickstarter last year for the iPhone 5 raising over $85,000, today he has launched a new campaign for the iPhone 6, you can read more about that here.
I have been intrigued by Hurst for sometime, and wanted to learn more. Within this conversation, mostly in his own words, Hurst takes us through his experiences of becoming, enduring and surviving being a war photographer. He talks us through his devastation of his wife’s colon cancer diagnosis late in pregnancy and the subsequent loss of his son. He talks about the motivation for creating the COVR Photo Lens – it may not be what you’re thinking and he discusses the production process of this great product.
I am suitably humbled to publish this conversation and thank Thomas from the bottom of my heart, for sharing so much with us today. I wish him every success with his new Kickstarter campaign. Please, enjoy…
Thank you for taking part in this interview with us today Thomas. I would like to learn more about your background and experiences as a Photojournalist…
Thank you also Joanne for the opportunity; war will teach you things about yourself that you can’t learn anywhere else and in the spring of 1992, with my college courses coming to a close for the summer, I decided I wanted to learn those things about myself.
I was not a photographer, nor did I intend to become one, as I set out to travel on my first trip to the war beginning to rage in Bosnia the summer of 1992. In fact, it was just a few days before I was set to fly to Europe on my way to the Bosnian War that it dawned on me that I should have some sort of ‘professional’ excuse for needing to get inside Bosnia’s besieged capital city Sarajevo. So with the help of a close friend’s father I created an imaginary name of a newspaper, crafted a fake press credential, and drafted a fake letter of introduction from my imaginary boss at my imaginary newspaper. I borrowed an old Nikkormat film camera, a couple of lenses and used those items to convince the United Nations in Croatia to put me on their Aid Flight headed into the airport outside of Sarajevo.
I wasn’t going to become a journalist or war photographer and the press credentials I had created and camera gear I borrowed were just props in a last minute ruse to convince people I was suppose to be in their war. The truth is, until I was inside Sarajevo I had never even taken a picture with a 35mm camera, but the moment I did, I knew as quick as my camera shutter clicked, that I had just found my path, my purpose, and my identity.
I travelled back to Sarajevo during a college break the following year. I was a little better with a camera, but not much. Perhaps a little more savvy, but probably not. The war was still being fought furiously in and around Sarajevo that summer I returned back in 1993, but in some ways the city felt different. The shock of the war seemed to have worn off and people were focused on their daily routine of surviving. Men and women risked their lives and the lives of their families trying to gather bare essentials like water and firewood and you could tell that the people of Sarajevo had set their hearts on making the best of what was a horrific crisis.
On one of the days during my several week stay that summer, I ventured out into the city by myself (stupid thing to do never do that) and I came across a group of hardened soldiers manning a checkpoint in the old part of the city. With shooting and shelling happening, the only people on the streets were either soldiers or real journalists, of which I was not. These soldiers seized the opportunity to drag me down the proverbial & literal “dark alley” and demanded I give them my bulletproof vest. Clearly wanting to stack foolishness atop foolishness I thought I would be a smart-ass and try playing dumb to their escalating ‘requests’ for the vest up until one of the four or five soldiers surrounding me stopped asking and put his AK-47 to the side of my head. The highly expensive and desperately sought after vest flew off my person and I remember trying to calm the situation down by draping it over the shoulders of one of the now clearly irritated soldiers and began telling him and his buddies how well the jacket was going to fit him and how very good he looked in it and I was just so glad I could provide him with such a gift. Finally I shut up and with the AK still pointing at my head the soldiers began a conversation with themselves around me. While I couldn’t speak Serbian or Croatian or Bosnian for that matter, I felt pretty sure the discussion had to do with me, in particular, what should be done with me. After what seemed like forever, a decision was made and everyone started smiling and patting me on the back, as they not so gently began pushing me out of the alley, towards the main street they had caught me on. I still wasn’t 100% sure one of them wasn’t going to put a bullet in my skull, but they finally stopped escorting me and stood around smiling and waving at me as they shoed me down the street. I kept looking back, to see if this was all really happening and as I did one of them sarcastically smiled, waved his index finger and in broken English said, “Bill. Clinton. Number one!”
Not knowing what to do or where to go and feeling butt naked without my body-armour, I carefully moved from one end of the city to the other end and into the Holiday Inn Sarajevo, which housed the international press and a host of other characters. Once in the lobby, I sat in a chair replaying what had just happened, telling myself what a fool I had been, and sober from the realization that war was very real, that I was very killable, and making the promise to myself that if I got home from this trip alive I would not visit another war, conflict, or troubled country until I knew what the hell I was doing as a photographer. I knew I had the moxie to get into and maneuver inside conflict zones, but I didn’t know jack about how, when or what really made a powerful picture. If I thought I would just walk around wars waiting for a picture to jump into my camera I was going to end up extremely dead.
When I returned back to Northern California the summer of 1993 I kept that promise to myself and for two years I ate, drank, and smoked photography. It wasn’t until January 1996 that I felt ready to get on a plane to journey back into photographing conflict and it was that year that my career was launched like a rocket with high profile assignments, in high profile stories and I began winning high profile awards both nationally and internationally both professional and collegiate…because after all, I was still trying to finish my studies.
Image ©Thomas Hurst
Tell me more about how you came up with the COVR idea, was it originally thought of as a covert street photography project?
No, when I came up with the idea for the COVR Photo case, street photography was the farthest thing from my mind. A few years ago my wife Angela, 37-year-old mother of three and a model of health and fitness was expecting our fourth son, Samuel, and suddenly diagnosed with late stage Colon cancer. Not long after her diagnosis, our son Samuel was born prematurely, and doctors were unable to save him. The idea of COVR came out of our urgency to make sure that we captured real, natural, and timeless photos and videos of our loved ones and above all, our three little boys James, Dakota and Reilly. With a very uncertain future ahead of us as a family, we knew we needed to capture as many special moments as we could so our boys would always have a picture to look at or a video to watch when they wanted to hear or see their mom and how much she loved them if the cancer took her life.
The first thing we did was set out buying a new digital camera and a new digital video camera, but at the end of the day we realized the device we used almost exclusively was the device in our back pocket, our smartphones. This created a problem we weren’t expecting: our kids had become so accustomed to seeing us lift our smartphones in front of our faces to take their picture or to shoot a video, they would either stop what they were doing to awkwardly pose, or they’d suddenly become shy or stubborn and refuse to have their picture taken. While all our boys knew their mom was sick, they had no idea how important it was for us to capture the special moments right then and there. I was desperate to find a solution.
That solution came to me as I was sitting on my couch watching two different baseball games on two different TV channels. During a commercial on one channel I would point my TV remote at the TV and press a button to jump to the other game. After doing this a few times, I thought, “why couldn’t we operate our smartphone cameras like we operate a TV remote? Why can’t we just point the smartphone towards our subject, look down at the screen to compose our picture, and press the shutter button?” It was exactly what Angela and I needed to help us capture real and lasting moments and it was then I began to wonder if there were other people out there who could capture beautiful pictures with an invention like COVR Photo.
Tell me who you think this product is aimed at.
The COVR Photo Camera-Lens case is really for anyone who wants to capture pictures and video of real moments and real people doing real things. As a photojournalist for almost 20 years I can tell you that the most powerful, influential, historical pictures are those that capture what was happening at any given moment in the lives of the people as they are impacted by, or reacting to the events or circumstance, however mundane or powerful those events are. The majority of people aren’t thinking about this in such a deep philosophical way, but regardless if you’re a photojournalist covering the tragedy in Nepal or a mom in Boston trying to capture that elusive smirk or laugh from their little boy or girl or you’re a teenager trying to capture a new sick trick at the skate park from a different angle, the COVR Photo case is a tool to help you do that. We’re all going to grow old with hard drives filled with electronic files of thousands upon thousands of pictures and videos. The ones you’re going to cherish, love and share that will make you laugh or weep are going to be the ones that capture and reveal something about the people you love. Those images aren’t going to be ‘selfies’ or ‘cheesy smile moments’ they are going to be REAL, NATURAL, CANDID moments that captured the essence of someone or some place that went from moment to memory. The COVR Photo Camera-Lens case helps everyone capture that moment because COVR helps you be less obvious when you’re shooting. COVR keeps the act of making a picture from disrupting, distracting, or interrupting people from just being beautiful as they naturally are. I believe this to the very depths of my soul, not because I invented COVR, but because I have 20 years of day in and day out experience that prove this as fact.
Image ©Michael Robinson Chavez, shot with COVRphoto lens
Please tell me more about the production process. Where is it produced, what are the raw and final materials?
The COVR Photo 6 case is constructed with two main materials. The inner “soft sleeve” is made from a soft thermoplastic rubber compound that cushions the phone and prevents scratches on the phone surface.The outer hard case made from a tough polycarbonate material that is both strong and durable.The soft sleeve and the outer hard case, gives the iPhone 6 dual protection from impacts resulting from accidental drops.The two case parts (soft sleeve & hard case) were designed in the US and are being manufactured in China. Our COVR Photo tooling engineer is managing the tool design and manufacturing process.
The COVR lens is a custom design that provides precision optics that merges with the iPhone 6 without degrading the image. We chose to make the lens from a high-grade optical plastic to make it more durable and to get more consistent quality.The COVR lens is more durable than a glass lens and provides some features that are extremely difficult to incorporate into a ground glass lens design. The lens is manufactured exclusively for COVR Photo in the US by one of the leading custom optics manufactures in the world.They have the expertise to build the tooling and manufacture a high quality lens that meets the requirements for the COVR Photo design.
The case parts and lens are assembled into the final product in the US and packaged for distribution.This allows us to maintain strict controls on the quality of the final product and insure every COVR Photo 6 case meets our requirements before it is shipped to the end user.Our quality control is incredibly strict as only parts that meet our aesthetic or technical specifications are assembled into the final device.
Image © Ron Haviv – ‘FB Post Photo8’ – Founding Member of VII Photo Agency
What do you hope to achieve with the new KS campaign?
Our goal for the COVR Photo 6 for the iPhone 6 Kickstarter campaign is much more modest than the $85k+ we raised last year for our first COVR case, the COVR Photo 5 for the iPhone 5/5s. Our goal for COVR Photo 6 is to raise at least $25k to help us take care of the final costs of manufacturing, which I’m excited to say is already under way.
The difference between last years successful COVR 5 Kickstarter campaign and this years COVR 6 Kickstarter campaign is incredibly different. Last year, we had absolutely no idea if there was a market for what we had created because putting a high-quality prism lens directly into a smartphone case had never been done before. As the inventor and founder of COVR Photo, raising the money was really secondary, my first priority was testing to see if we could create a new market in the already heavily saturated smartphone accessory market.
I was so committed to seeing our last Kickstarter make it on its own that in the final week of the campaign, when we were about $10k down from reaching our goal, I began to be bombarded by people who wanted to “back” the remaining portion needed to hit our $80k goal for chunks of equity in the COVR Photo company. I turned them all down without question. I didn’t want to cheat or influence the truth of what a crowd-funding campaign like Kickstarter can give you. If people really want your product the campaign will fund and if they don’t it won’t. The only way to truly know, at least for me was to let it all ride and see where it landed at the end of 30-days. In the end, we actually saw a surge in our campaign and raised $5k+ more than our $80k goal. So with great confidence in knowing that people see the value of our COVR Photo cases, I’ve fully committed to building the COVR company and brand.
We’ve gone on to deliver what we promised to our COVR 5 backers and we’ve shipped some 2,500+ COVR Photo 5 cases worldwide in the last six months. The pace we’re moving at as a company is good, not too fast and not too slow. We’re on the verge of launching our second Camera-Lens case, the COVR Photo 6 for iPhone 6, and we’ve begun designing our COVR Photo 6Plus case, for which we’ve already secured several hundred pre-orders for. Once we have the COVR 6Plus in the manufacturing pipeline we’ll begin developing our Android & Windows models. At this early stage the sky is the limit and I have a fantastic vision for ways that we can continue innovating for other devices like iPads and Tablets, but the truth is, my vision for COVR Photo as a company is way bigger than innovative smartphone cases! My passion, what wakes me up in the morning excited to do what I do at COVR, is the vision I have to build a company that will use it’s financial resources to make a lasting impact in people’s lives and in the photographic community. If the team I’m building at COVR Photo does this right then we’ll have the resources to help younger photographers with free grant money get through school without a huge debt on the other side. We’ll search out established photographers who need funding to start or finish important photographic projects. I’d love for the COVR Photo Company to be a key financial sponsor behind an existing photo agency. I want to help national and international contests provide more or better awards. I’d love for us to be the silent partner when it comes to helping individuals or organizations publish powerful stories. I want COVR Photo to be the company someone could call in the middle of the night to ask for help and no one would ever know it was us. I see COVR Photo as an opportunity to help others and help a community. I believe if we can build a small successful company, that is focused on giving, not consuming, I think COVR will become what I’ve always wanted my life to be about, helping others and making an impact in people’s lives.
With regards to our next big step, the launch of our COVR Photo 6 Kickstarter campaign today, May 20th, we’re hoping people in the photographic community can see the vision we have for COVR Photo and will help support us in this next endeavor. If people visit our Kickstarter page they can back us at several different levels, but for those wanting the COVR Photo 6 case they’ll get it for a steal at just $55 USD, which is an estimated $14.95 off our future retail price, and which includes free shipping inside the United States! For those who want to support the COVR project because they love photography and or innovation, there will be other rewards that they can support us for, such as personally signed prints from one of my many assignments overseas.
©Benjamin Lowy – ‘Lowy_1’- Getty
Where do you envisage your product will be used? For news journalists, citizen journalism etc?
I think most anyone who brings an idea to market goes through a stage where they convince themselves that everyone will want there ‘amazing’ product, I know I certainly did. I do have a multi-market vision crafted, but I knew early on I needed to get COVR Photo buy-in from the market I know the best, from the community I’m already apart of, and from the users who will put the COVR Photo Camera-Lens case through very real paces and give their brutally honest feedback in very public forums and that’s the documentary photography community. My feeling was from the start that if we could build a quality product that met or surpassed the expectations of pro photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers, iPhoneographers, mobile photographers then we’d have buy in and support from the most important community in existence for a product like ours. For now we want to continue to build trust and respect with photography community and in this next season we’re going to be working hard to see COVR Photo on the issued iPhones of news photographers and reporters in newspapers across the country. We believe COVR is a great tool for newspaper photographers to have not just in their bag, but on their iPhones and so we’ll be partnering with a large respected daily to outfit their staff. In due time others outside of this specific community will learn of its value, quality and worth and our market will expand. We are already seeing this happen with moms who are buying COVR cases because getting real, candid, natural pictures of their kids, infant to teen, is frustrating because every time they put the camera-phone to their face their kids cry, scream and run away. Moms are beginning to realize that they can grab the wonderful pictures they want without out all the headache and drama from the kids.
Above all my greatest joy in all this is searching #covrphoto and seeing the amazing images people are shooting with COVR. In the last six months we have over 1,000 images posted and shared on Instagram that have been shot with a COVR Photo Camera-Lens Case! Add to that seeing amazing photographers like Emmy Award Winner Richard Koci Hernandez, Founding member of VII Photo Agency Ron Haviv, CEO of the #JJ Community on Instagram Kevin Kuster, Benjamin Lowy with Getty Images, Michael Robinson Chavez at the Los Angeles Times, and David Guttenfelder at National Geographic, shoot with COVR Photo and publicly support it. A few weeks ago I received a call from Matt Black, Time magazine’s Instagram Photographer of the Year, asking if I could ship him a COVR case for a project. The mobile photography community blog reviews on COVR have been exactly as I could have hoped, thorough, factual, and honest in reporting what COVR cases do well and areas we need to continue to grow and develop.
How have you worked with Apple on this product? Would you like to see this product in all their stores?
We haven’t worked with Apple on the COVR project, however, during last years COVR Photo 5 Kickstarter Campaign a large newspaper in India published that Apple was on the verge of purchasing our company, which was definitely new to us! We had a lot of fun with that article on our social media pages.
As far as seeing the COVR Photo cases being sold in the Apple Store…absolutely! The entire COVR Team has worked hard to build a product that is extremely high quality in look, function and results. We want COVR to be a compliment to what iPhone users expect, quality, style and attention to detail and I think with each new case we bring to the market or for each version of case we go on to innovate you’ll only continue to see the COVR Photo case series exemplify those core standards.