Vicious Velma | photo by Kevin Spaghetti

Finding Beauty in the Chaos of Vicious Velma’s Photographs by Daniel Makagon

Jun 14, 2022

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

Vera “Vicious Velma” Hernandez has been photographing punk shows and documenting the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) scene for nearly a decade. While it is clear that Vicious Velma is excited by the community connections that are central to the DFW scene, she remains equally drawn to various forms of punk because of the wild experience that make punk shows unique. The bodily response to punk and the embodied evidence of a show-going experience (bloody noses, dripping sweat) are often documented through Velma’s photos. The action that makes punk shows distinctive has also modeled a way of seeing that Velma transfers to other photography projects. It’s not surprising that Velma’s entry point into punk was skateboarding. Like a good punk show, skateboarding displays some combination of grace, concentration, and disorder.

Who Killed Spikey Jacket | photo by Vicious Velma

Daniel: How did you discover punk?

Velma: Skate videos when I was in middle school. Finding the songs I really loved off of the videos was really important. Also, learning more about my favorite skaters; they would talk about bands they were into. Then in high school everyone gets into different cliques, and I clicked with the punk crowd more than anything. I went to high school in Lewisville, Texas, which is a small city about twenty-five minutes outside of Dallas. I’m in Fort Worth now. I started seeing punk shows pop up around Lewisville, started going to those shows and haven’t stopped.

Daniel: Do you play music? Were you in bands after you found your crew in high school?

Velma: I play guitar, bass, and am teaching myself drums and keys right now. I started learning how to play guitar in high school, but I wasn’t in any bands then. I have a band now with a couple of my best friends. We’re called High Life—the Champagne of Bands. [laughs] Everyone else is in so many other bands that we never find time to practice. I think we’ve practiced a total of two times and have played two shows. [laughs]

Daniel: Can you talk about how you got into photography and then what led you to shooting punk shows?

Velma: I took a photojournalism class in high school, and we were learning film, how to develop film, all that really cool stuff. I absolutely loved it. I’m trying to get back into film photography, but it’s very expensive. I miss it; it’s definitely a different demon. Then, a friend, Jenni, had gotten me a job at a photography studio in a mall. It was just like cheesy portraits: people who would come in for Christmas photos, anniversary stuff, they wanted to have cute photos of their kids.

A different friend had invited me to this punk fest in Tulsa, Okla. called Fuck You We Rule OK. It was the second one. I want to say that this was 2014. A bunch of bands I really enjoy played. I was only there for the last two nights and used a camera that I borrowed from the friend who had hooked me up with this job. I had never shot a show before and I actually had to quit my job because they wouldn’t give me that weekend off. Then I got back into town and I saw that The Business was playing at Three Links (Dallas). I thought, “Yo, I love this band so much. I don’t know when I’m ever going to get to see them again. I don’t know if they’ll ever tour the U.S. again.” And they’re not going to play a venue like Three Links, a little club. As I said, I didn’t own a camera at that time. I asked my friend if I could borrow her camera again to shoot this show. She was like, “Yeah dude. I don’t use my camera.” She only used the work cameras because she’d gotten burnt out on photography from the job. It’s funny—my friend let me borrow her camera for about three years before I got my own. She was awesome.

I took photos at that show, had no idea what I was doing, and committed a huge error. When I was looking through the creative filters on the settings, I had kept it on black and white. You can’t revert black and white back to color, but you can turn color into black and white. I went through that whole show, shot, felt really stoked about it, and when I went to edit—which I didn’t even know how to begin editing a concert—that’s when I realized: “Oh, I fucked up.” Although I didn’t make that same mistake at the fest in Tulsa. After that Business show, I started learning how to make black and white work for me. Anyway, I posted a few of the photos and the club manager ended up hitting me up. He was like, “Hey, I didn’t know you’re a photographer. Can I use some of these?” I said, “Yeah sure.” Then I started getting asked to shoot more shows there.

Wyldlife | photo by Vicious Velma

Daniel: Is Three Links primarily a punk bar?

Velma: It’s a mix of different things every night. Mondays will have residencies or shows. Tuesdays we definitely have a residency: jazz fusion, hip hop, and funk. Punk and metal shows are scattered throughout the rest of the week.

Daniel: It sounds like the photos from The Business show came out well if the venue owner hit you up to use the photos.

Velma: Yeah, they came out well. Also, other friends were just like, “Dude, you do concert photography now?” I guess. I’m not advertising myself as a concert photographer because I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I just wanted to document how wild things get.

Daniel: I know that eight years ago is long time. I can’t remember what I did a month ago, [laughs] but can you remember what you were trying to do with your photography when you first started?

Velma: I was just trying to shoot, not just the band, but the crowd. I wanted my point of view of a show but also to create personal memories that other people can enjoy. I would mosh, dance around with everyone. I would stage dive and stuff with friends and then catch my friends doing the same thing on camera.

Defiance | photo by Vicious Velma

Daniel: Can you reflect a bit on the evolution of your photography? And can you talk about your approach when you shoot a show?

Velma: It’s still the same way; I like to have as much fun as I can with it, but I am more diligent with capturing the good side of the bands. Everyone wants really amazing photos of themselves. But I’ve learned more about composition throughout the years. I’ve definitely learned more about how to work with lighting. I’m keener on my settings from shooting in different venues. But I still try to show the same energy.

I definitely move around. I try to go with the flow of the crowds. I don’t want to be in anyone’s way. Everyone is trying to enjoy the show, so I don’t want to be up at the front the whole time while there are other people who are super-enjoying the bands and they want to be up there dancing. The first few songs—well, often just the first song—I’ll try to get close-up shots up front. Then as the whole set progresses, I’m moving to the sides, moving back beyond the crowd to get overcrowd shots and full band stuff, just trying to catch everything from my different points of view.

Daniel: I’m most familiar with your photographs of bands and interacting with the crowd. Do you also have interest in broader documentary photography focused on your scene?

Velma: Yeah, every now and then friends will host dinners at their houses that usually just end up with everyone getting drunk and listening to records and stuff. I’ll bring my camera with me because we’re all having a good time, and these are moments everyone wants to relive.

I’m also trying to get back into photographing skating more. I definitely try to shoot a lot of things outside of shows because it helps me learn. The non-show photos I haven’t been posting as much as I should. Yesterday I shot one of my friends. His name is Justin Box and he’s an amazing chef. He’s been in the punk scene for years. Before I was in the scene. He cooks for bands. Last night he got to cook for The Pharcyde, a hip hop group that started in the ’90s. I didn’t shoot the show, but I shot before the show: him cooking, everyone just talking and hanging out, and having an amazing three-course meal that he whipped up for everyone. That was a fun one.

Daniel: How does shooting stuff like that affect your show photography and how does shooting shows impact the way you make documentary photographs?

Velma: Anything I shoot, I approach with a show mentality. I want to get the most action I can out of the situation. For example, while Justin was cooking, I really wanted to get the waves of food from the pan, weird little action shots, instead of making the photos look like pretty culinary stuff.

Daniel: The photos you post to Instagram are mostly black and white. Do you also shoot color photos?

Velma: Black and white just looks rawer and grittier to me. Punks puking, sweating, or their makeup running in black and white, it just looks gross. Real raw. Super in-your-face. But then I have homies who have neon hair and have the perfect charge at the beginning of the day. I’m like, “Yo, dude. Hold on. Do whatever you’re about to do, shotgun that beer, but I just want to get a photo of you before your hair starts wilting.” Stuff like that, I can’t bring myself to turn it to black and white. Dude, his hair is neon green and orange. That’s the coolest thing.

Daniel: You talked about shooting for the first time in Tulsa. Are you able to travel to shoot outside your local scene?

Amyl And The Sniffers | photo by Vicious Velma

Velma: Yeah, I go to Austin quite frequently. Next week I’m going to Austin to shoot Amyl And The Sniffers. I’ve been waiting two years for the show. When all the COVID mess happened, they had two shows in Austin that, of course, got canceled. The shows were pushed back until right now. I’m excited to go shoot that and then I try to tour with bands as much as I can. My best mates are in a goth/death rock band from Dallas, called Rose Garden Funeral Party. I toured with them the last three times they toured. I try to travel as much as I can, but I have to get off from work, which is also complicated because throughout the year other things come up that I have to ask off. In July I’m going out to Denver to shoot a fest called Punx Unite. Then in September I’m going back out to Denver to shoot the Rocky Mountain Ripper, which is a three-day festival with current power pop and rock’n’roll bands. I also have a couple dates planned in September in Oakland and San Francisco to go shoot a couple of bands out there.

Daniel: You know your local venues and DIY spaces. I’m sure they feel like second homes in a way. When you travel to a new city, there can be a learning curve. How does being in a new city affect the way you shoot? Also, you just mentioned touring with a goth band. Does the subgenre of the band alter how you shoot?

Velma: Photographing in a new place doesn’t really change things, to be honest. I always end up having a really rad time: make friends with new people, the bands are bands that I want to shoot. Sometimes I’ve shot the bands before, or I’ll get a chance to hang out with them before their set. I’m there to have a rad time and document it.

The only thing that affects shooting goth bands is the fog machines. [laughs] I love it, though. I love shooting goth and post-punk bands. Every band of that genre and every person in that scene I’ve met, they’re all fantastic people, as well. It’s funny because there’s always been that weird unspoken quarrel between punks and goths. Being so involved in the goth and post-punk scene within the past few years, it’s really cool seeing all of my punk friends come out to goth shows and see the band that I tour with all the time. Finding out about the crossover: “Dude, you’re into Sisters Of Mercy? I thought you only listen to punk stuff.”

Rose Garden Funeral Party| photo by Vicious Velma

Daniel: My sense is that there’s a nice scene going in DFW, but I’m not there to see how often mixed bills are booked. Obviously, punks in smaller towns experience mixed bills more regularly because all of the weirdos have no choice but to get together if they want to make a scene.

Velma: At Three Links, they try to mix a little bit. I’ve seen some goth bands play with street punk bands on the same bill. It’s really cool because the same crowd comes out for both types of bands.

Daniel: What kind of stuff do you try to shoot when you tour with a band? Obviously, if the tour is long then you spend a lot of time crammed into a van.

Velma: Everyone tries to give each other as much privacy as they can. But I do like to document as much as I can. You’re capturing sides of bands that people normally don’t get to see. There’s some standard stuff: we’ve got to head to the next venue, get to the next city, find out the hotel or motel situation if we’re staying in a hotel, or make sure we’re in contact with a friend if we’re staying there, scope out a safe spot to park the van. I am obviously shooting shows, but what I like to do when we’re cruising around is scope out spots: “Yo, guys. Let’s do to a little photo shoot over there real quick. I saw this one spot we drove past ten minutes away from here. If we have time, let’s go back.” I will drop the pin on my phone. Maybe a cemetery or something.

Daniel: Do you shoot a lot of photos at a show? And what’s the general ratio of keeping to deleting?

Velma: I’ve gotten so much better about the amount I shoot versus what I actually keep. I have a better sense of what I want now. I’m not just blindly shooting. I’ll see out of the corner of my eye something like a dude about to fall [makes motion of holding camera up and shooting]. I’ve also learned recently to use time between sets to narrow down what I keep on my camera. The real throwaway ones that I know are not salvageable I will erase those: someone’s head got into the frame, something that may have been overexposed to the point where I can’t bring it back down. “Alright, I guess that one’s going, too.” On average I probably have about 350 to four hundred images taken on a night and I’ll stick with about 175 out of those. By the time I get home, I’ll know that I have a solid 175: three or four bands, crowds, partying going on in the back. Sometimes someone will convince me to go to an after party or something: “Yo, my friend’s having a kick back over at their place. Come have beers with us, let’s go.” I’ll catch more stuff there, too.

Daniel: Of course, photography is always about some combination of timing, skill, and gear. To get techy for a moment, what did you do once you stopped using your friend’s camera?

Nick Cave | photo by Vicious Velma

Velma: Last year I upgraded to a full frame finally. The sensor size is bigger; it’s got more focus points, which is amazing. I definitely look back at older photos and I’m just like, “Man, I’ve progressed a lot.” This newer camera is weather sealed as well, so I don’t have to worry about taking it every couple of months to get cleaned because beer splashes on it. During the last year I had my old camera I had a UV filter on my lens that had gotten stuck on there. The glass had cracked and I couldn’t take it off. So much beer splashing on it combined with someone’s boot coming down on it bent the threading and it just wouldn’t come off. I had to knock out the glass. Now I feel like my stuff is pretty nice.

I’ve always just stuck with the kit lenses. That’s something that surprises a lot of people: “How do you get that shot? You had to have a really nice lens or something.” I use an 18-135mm kit lens; the one that comes with the camera. My friend, the same one who let me borrow her camera, she let me borrow a 50mm lens. She kind of gave it to me. “I don’t really use it, so it’s yours.” Every so often I’ll switch over to the 50mm if I want to get really artsy [uses air quotes] with it.

Daniel: What is your editing process in terms of timeline and how you work?

Velma: It depends on the week, really. Things can pile up. I’m about three shows behind right now. I had intended to shoot one show and then two other shows popped up and friends were like, “Yo, dude come shoot this.” Also, I’m working two jobs right now: a full-time day job and then three nights out of the week I do security at Three Links. Then, trying to shoot as many shows as I can leaves me at a weird spot where I really have to choose when to sleep if I want to be productive during the rest of the week. [laughs]

But my editing process is pretty simple. I throw them into folder, and I’ve gotten way better at labeling the photos. That was something I definitely had trouble with. [laughs] I like to throw on a record and go through the images. I pretty much already know if the majority of them are going to be black and white. Then I make sure the whites aren’t overexposed and that the blacks aren’t too crushed. Minor cropping here and there. Just simple stuff.

A Giant Dog | photo by Vicious Velma

Daniel: Are there a lot of photographers in DFW? Do you have to fight for space?

Velma: There are definitely a lot of photographers out here. They’re all amazing, too. Everyone has their own style. As far as competing for space, I move around so much during shows that I don’t really notice it, to be honest. Sometimes I’ll catch a photographer in the shot, and I think, “They’re gonna love this photo of them taking a photo.” I am happy to be contributing to the punk scene that I love so much.

Daniel: We’ll talk a little bit later about future projects, but what are some of your immediate goals for your photography?

Velma: I’m kind of doing a DIY studio sort of thing. I rent a climate controlled commercial storage unit. I’ve set up a backdrop, brought in lights to do more album artwork photos. Instead of people hitting me up to shoot their shows, they can be like: “Dude, we have this interview for this magazine” and they want a professional shot that’s not just outside against a brick wall sort of thing. Or, “Yo, we’re recording an album and we want these really cool artistic shots” that can only be done with studio lighting. I’m starting to figure out how I’m gonna do that, which will help me learn more about photography and improve how to interact with people during a shoot. At shows, it’s quick interactions: “Yo dude, sick set. Thanks for asking me to do this, let’s get a beer real quick.”

I’m also starting to look more into video stuff as well. I have done a couple music videos here and there. I stopped because I got too busy with shows. But I definitely want to start making videos again: Take clips from shows and then start making video flyers for the next shows.

Daniel: Oh yeah, that would be cool. I see what you’re saying about wanting to mix up the work. There’s a certain amount of repetitive chaos at a show. In other words, the more you go to shows, and the more you see the same bands, you know what those bands are going to do and how the crowd is likely to respond. In a studio setting, you’re directing the aesthetic environment. This type of photography can require a different skill set.

Velma: For sure. It’s funny how my friends describe how they see me whenever they see me taking photos: “You’ll be watching everyone having fun behind you and you’re laughing or smiling at that. Then you’ll just stick your arm out at the time the guitarist jumps and get that shot while not even looking.” I know it sounds cheesy, but I’ve had friends describe things like my camera is my third eye. “You’ll be having a conversation and then your arm will stick out and just take a shot. What were you doing?” And I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, the singer just bent over backwards.” They will be surprised. “But you weren’t looking.” I was watching their patterns earlier. And this is back to the technology we talked about. I’m so comfortable with the kit lens. If I already have it zoomed all the way out, I know how much it’ll catch. And if it is zoomed all the way in, which I almost never do, I know how much that will catch. I’ve gotten a couple of super close ups of people with bloody noses. It’s pretty great like capturing blood or if they had just dyed their hair. You can see all that dye run down them, all the sweat and maybe the beer poured all over them. And hyper focusing on certain individuals is also really great.

Turnstile | photo by Vicious Velma

Daniel: What’s the DFW scene like now?

Velma: It’s pretty cross-sectioned, I guess. As more of the punks keep getting older, they’re getting the younger siblings into it. And they’re getting younger brothers or sisters of friends into it. There’s a really good mix of younger punk and hardcore scene kids. Seeing kids and older punks who have been here for years, it’s really cool seeing that. Every city has its own drama and stuff. I’ve been noticing a lot of the younger punks are pissed off when shows are twenty-one plus. Beef starts happening off of that, but there’s no problems with that here.

Daniel: Are there all-ages venues in DFW or do most all-ages shows happen at houses?

Velma: There are quite a few houses. And there’s this really cool spot on the outskirts of Dallas called the Fabrication Yard. A lot of people have been throwing shows there. It’s a bunch of abandoned warehouses. People bring in generators and lights; it’s just like a free-for-all sort of thing. They’ll get three prominent punk bands from Dallas. “Everyone come out. Party with us or don’t party if you don’t party, but have fun.” I really dig the shows there; it’s always fun.

Daniel: Obviously, the state officials in Texas took a different approach to quarantine during COVID. As cities open up around the country and live music is happening again, what’s the state of things in DFW?

Velma: It’s been pretty booming, I guess. The mask mandate ended quite a while ago. It was a strange time because everyone was ready to go to shows again, but we were still worried about it as well. It took a little bit for people to fully get riled up and wild at shows again. It’s definitely at that point now.

Daniel: Do you pay attention to other types of documentary photography? If so, how does that photography influence the work you do?

The Hives | photo by Vicious Velma

Velma: I’m learning based off my own experiences. I’ve learned a lot since I first started, but I still approach photography in the same way. Anyone who goes through the photos of whatever show I shot, I want to make them feel like the next show they’re not going to miss out. “Oh, man, I should have fuckin’ been there. Who’s that guy puking out in the back? Which band is that?”

As far as other styles of photography that inspire me, it might sound cheesy, but fashion photography really inspires me—late ’70s to early ’90s. Especially really gritty and risqué, almost. Helmut Newton’s photography is absolutely amazing. The campaigns that he did with Thierry Mugler are so sick. It’s just like models in thousand-dollar outfits but they’re running through a construction site. Or handcuffed to each other running through dirt and grass in fifteen hundred dollar heels. Newton also did a lot of black and white work and I love that. Old ’70s ads for watches, especially, I really dig that stuff as well. It’s a completely different style of shooting. You have to completely control everything, style it yourself. But there’s a certain beauty to that photography. I’ve done a lot of product photography for a lot of the day jobs I’ve had, so I think about these other types of photography a lot.

I also love shooting in abandoned buildings. If there’s a cool factory I drive by, I need to go see how safe it is because I already have a few bands in mind. I want to bring them out there to do a shoot. Before I ever bring anyone anywhere with me, I like to go in myself and photograph just how much it’s deteriorating on the inside.

Daniel: Do you do anything with those photos or are you shooting for the purposes of location scouting?

Velma: It’s mainly for scouting. If I get hit up by bands that are like, “We’re looking for this sort of aesthetic” then I can go back through my computer. “Wait, I think I shot something similar to what you’re looking for. Let’s go.”

Daniel: That makes sense. Jumping back to your interest in fashion photography, does this kind of photography influence your work, whether that’s portrait photography or shooting bands?

Velma: It’s definitely inspiring when I’m shooting portraits. I’ve started to use more color with portraiture. It’s definitely helped me out when it comes to posing people. But I also want to say that I’m huge fan of ’80s music and that also inspires me a lot. I like to look at old photos from those amazing photographers, people like Mick Rock. How can I make a small club show look as amazing as a stadium concert? It doesn’t matter how big the space is; it just depends on how you capture the emotion of everyone.

Daniel: Absolutely. Your earlier comment resonates with me: you want people to see the photos and think, “Ah, how did I miss that show? I am not gonna miss that again.” I think great music photography of any genre inspires a feeling of “I wish I could hang out with that artist” or “I wish I could have been at that show.” For me, I also feel that with great street photography: “I need to experience that city or that section of the city.”

Velma: A couple months ago I flew out to New York to shoot this Australian artist called Donny Benét. He’s so suave and makes a kind of disco music. He dons a white suit, white loafers. And he was dancing. It was so great. I was excited to be in New York. I arrived really early because the cheapest flight was very early. I put my 50mm lens on the camera and took a hike walking through New York and shot what I thought was really neat and gross.

Daniel: Let’s end by talking a bit about some future goals that might be more long-term, since we already talked about immediate goals. Do you have plans for some larger projects?

Puking punks | photo by Vicious Velma

Velma: I’ve toyed around with the idea of making a three-part kind of thing. I want to do blood, puke, and fighting. For blood, it would mainly be portraits of people who had been bloodied up in a pit. For puke, I take a lot of puke shots. I love getting photos of people throwing up. Personally, I think it’s gross; I hate throwing up. Puking is one of the things that irks me most and it’s not a great feeling. When someone else looks like they’re gonna puke [laughs], I’m like, “Hey man, I hope you don’t mind but thank you for throwing up.” A fighting one, I want to do pits, stage dives, hardcore dancing. I like stuff like that. I’m just trying to figure out the logistics: cost, who to print with, that sort of thing. I’m hoping that next year I’ll have something published.