Truth in the Streets: the Photography of Estevan Oriol

Estevan Oriol happened upon photography at the suggestion of his father, who is also a celebrated photographer known for documenting the streets of Los Angeles in his own unique, raw and poetic manner. Estevan’s own artistic coming-of-age in the same city developed his keen eye which was fueled by his deep-rooted love for The City of Angels. That love emanates from his photographs of street culture during the mid-nineties and beyond.

Having started his photography career as a side hustle while tour-managing one of hip hop’s biggest selling acts of all time Cyprus Hill, his ‘slice-of-life’ photography struck a resounding nerve, giving viewers a detailed glimpse into the daily lives of Angelenos that often went overlooked by mainstream media. Oriol’s camera and the photos he produced became an ancillary voice for what was happening to the marginalized people in the streets of Los Angeles.

Oriol recently curated the first installment of the adidas Originals ‘NMD’ Immersive Photo Gallery Experience, where he was joined by fifteen up-and-coming street photographers for an urban exploration shoot, of which Estevan candidly chatted with us about afterwards, regaling on his journey from music to photography, and just how he manages to stay relevant in today’s highly-saturated and competitive photography industry.

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It’s interesting how brands are tapping into organic aspects of creative culture these days. How did this gallery project come about with adidas?
Basically, adidas reached out to me. I’ve done a few projects with them. I collaborated with them through Undefeated a couple of times. We did a “Top 10 Shoe” and came out with a photo book, and another photo book about basketball. Then I did a photoshoot and lookbook again for Undefeated with the James Bond brand and David Beckham. Then this one came up… I think I’ve been on their radar because I’ve done a few projects with them in the past, so they know I can deliver whatever they want.

They hit me up to do this project where I walked around with 16 or 17 street photographers that they handpicked to go to different locations of my choosing. Everybody then shoots in their vision at the same locations.

As you were curating this exhibition, what cues guided you in developing the visual message for what would eventually be on display?
As I was looking at all of the work, I had to pick 16 completely different looks. I didn’t want to pick all shots of the low riders… or of the shoes. Being the curator of it all, I had to pick 16 shots that were different. I did however select some shots of the low riders being that that’s my background.

It was a great experience. I never really curated a bunch of photography that wasn’t mine. It was a lot of work with a short deadline–basically overnight. At first I thought I bit off more than I could chew with this one, ya know [laughs]. Once I started I was like “f$ck it. I gotta finish it,” and it came out really sick. The presentation blew me away. They turned the prints around really quick. The framing! The projections! adidas really smashed.

All I needed was one album cover a month and I could be balling outta control.

How did you end up running with Cypress Hill and becoming tour manager for them and Soul Assassins?
Back in those days I was doing security, working as a doorman, and that’s how I met all the bands. And because I got to meet all of those people, they saw how I worked and the guys from Cypress Hill liked how I carried myself. I had respect for everybody and treated everybody good, but I didn’t let nobody push over on me. They liked that and said “hey you wanna do a job with us? It’s called tour managing.” It just evolved into this huge job, but the way it evolved was at an okay pace to where I could handle it, and I wasn’t overwhelmed. ‘Cuz if you would have said hey we need you to be tour manager and just threw all of this shit at me at once, I wouldn’t know what the hell… wouldn’t have known where to start.

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How much of being able to work in-the-moment as a tour manager did you take into your photography?
Every bit of it. Every bit of everything I learned with Cypress I applied to my photography career. Ya know… here I am doing interviews, which I was in charge of back then, setting up the interviews [with Cypress Hill]. Making sure everybody was on point, on schedule.

“All I needed was one album cover a month and I could be balling outta control.”

I would see these photographers struggling with no time to do these shoots [at the shows]. The pressure was on them. I would tell the people from the magazine, “hey, if you guys need anymore photos I have backstage stuff and live shots.” I had these albums from the 1-hour photo place, and I would show them the photos. They asked if they could use them and I said “yeah, here’s the book,” and they would look through the photos and offer me a $500 usage fee for one shot.

Is that the point when you realized that you could make a career out of it?
Yeah. When I figured out how much money they were paying… And then we started doing album covers for 25 grand! All I needed was one album cover a month and I could be balling outta control. And I thought I because I was linked to Cypress and their side projects, it wouldn’t be a problem. The same with videos, but then once I got out there on my own, I realized it ain’t so easy. Not every budget’s the same.

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Your father is an extraordinary photographer too. He captures the environment and humanity around him with great sensitivity. What are some things that he may have told you to help you make a great photo?
When you ask him about camera shit, like “hey dad how’d you get that shot?” He goes, “I dunno man, I just took the picture. I just put the things to here and set the camera to here…” And back then it was film cameras, so the only thing you had to control was the ISO or the ASA where you set the film to either 100, 200, 400, 800. And then you needed to set the camera to the depth of field, like 2.8 to 22, and you needed to set the speed. He just said, “line this thing up. Turn this. Turn this and when both pins on the inside line up together, you’re ready take the picture, you just focus and push the button.” That was my photo school in five minutes.

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What has changed for you in terms of your process being that a lot of things are now digitally captured?
I think it’s like cookie cutter and fast food shit. We were able to take a whole photo shoot with 17 people and make an art show of it the next day. That’s like fast food of art for me. Our industry used to be where you’d go to a gallery, show your portfolio and they say that they would have a show for you in six months to a year. That was the traditional way of doing it. If you had an art show, you had six months to a year to plan the show, do the prints, do the framing, and you know it’s stress free.

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Whereas now they’ll tell you to get eighteen people tomorrow and do a shoot. Pick all of the photos over night. Take them to printer the next day and the next night you’re gonna have a full art show with hundreds of people and everyone thinks it’s the coolest shit. There’s nothing you can’t do now. There are no excuses.

“I was trying to do everything the old-school way, but if you don’t move with the times then you get left out, and that’s what keeps it fresh for me.”

Tell us about a moment where you felt that your life was threatened, but you were determined to get the right picture.
I would say when I was doing this editorial shoot for The Source magazine’s story on Crips and Bloods in LA. They asked me if I was down to go shoot [images of] the gangs for a ten-page editorial. I said, “sure. It’s nothing for me.” I went out there and sure enough they had a shootout. And the guys that I was with that were shooting at the other gang were like, “aw man you got that gangsta shit on that one! I know you got some good shots of that! Did you get that shot of me blasting that m&therf&cker?! With the bullet coming out and sparks at the end of the barrel?!” I said, “nope.” They asked why and I said, “homie, I put the camera down.” They replied “you can’t get no more gangsta than that! Source Magazine woulda flipped their wig if you came with that shot.”

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I told them there was no way that I was gonna shoot that because then I would have incriminating footage. Even though it’s all in the name of gangbanging–everybody signed up for that shit–I woulda been the a**hole who took the picture.

As a photographer, what is it about LA that consistently gives you a fresh look on what’s happening here?
What keeps it fresh for me is the way that humanity grows. You have to go with the times or get left behind. I was trying to be hard-headed and say, “f*ck digital. I’m not shooting that.” I started doing everything late and I had to catch up. I was trying to do everything the old-school way, but if you don’t move with the times then you get left out, and that’s what keeps it fresh for me. If you can’t go do a shoot for a show in one night and have the show up and ready within the next couple days then you need to quit the game. That’s the kind of shit that inspires me.

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