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estevan oriol at hotel figueroa

In Conversation with Estevan Oriol

Hotel Figueroa’s Director of Experience Seulgi Burns sits down with Estevan Oriol, renowned L.A. photographer and director, to explore lowrider culture, life lessons, the one shot he missed, and his experience as Hotel Figueroa’s first Artist-in-Residence.

How old were you when you first picked up as camera?

I’d say it was, you know, back in the day everybody had cameras because there weren’t [cell] phones. Kids would play with cameras and stuff like that. I first picked it up, probably from what you see now, I’d say in my late 20’s. My dad gave me a camera to shoot with, and then I bought a Polaroid camera, a Polaroid land camera, like the old school fold-out kind and I had a little Instamatic camera and a panoramic camera. And that’s when I began documenting and traveling with House of Pain, being their tour manager, and my lowrider club in East LA. With those three cameras in the early 90’s, when I was in my mid to late 20’s. Like around ‘92 when I was 26, I started doing it regularly.

When did you decide that photography could become your profession?

When I started getting paid for it, which was kind of automatically right when I started, because I kind of got in these situations where people needed photos and I was there. One of them was in lowriding and there was a guy named Ono from Japan, he used to work at a magazine called Fine. The first beginnings of my lowriding photography paid right away because my friend Oishi that was in my car club, he was supposed to take pictures and send them back to Japan, and he decided he didn’t want to do it because he was a car builder, not a photographer. So he passed it on to me and Cartoon. So we started doing two pages in Fine magazine about lowriding, every month, and we kind of did an homage to Teen Angel. I would shoot a car and then Cartoon would draw around him. And we would get four hundred bucks a

page, eight hundred bucks for two pages, and we would split that. And that was every month. Then I started hustling work on the music magazines because I was the tour manager of Cypress Hill and House of Pain. I was able to take pictures of them on the side of the stage and backstage. So when magazines would come by to do the press, I would say, ‘Hey, if you need more pictures, I got ‘em.’ I would get them backstage and onstage, and I would see that [the press] wouldn’t get as many photos because they didn’t have the time. The interviewer would take up all the time, asking all of the questions, and the photographer would never get time to do the photos.

Most of the magazines bid on it, and I was making three to five hundred an image for the usage fee, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, if I did a couple of these a month, four of them to be exact, at the time my bills were two G’s a month, and it was easy. When it came time to doing bigger jobs, ten thousand to twenty-five thousand, and then it went up from there, then I was like, Man, I don’t need to tour manage no more! Because I’m making good money and those guys are touring anyway, so it’s kind of like I got pushed into quitting the tour managing thing and becoming a photographer.

From your first jobs in construction and security, where there any skills you learned there that were later valuable as a photographer?

Work hard, and be respectful to people. If I’m working the door at the club, I had to be respectful to people, because, you know, they were the customer, and I realized I had to respectful to them but also firm with them. When you’re working like a door situation, the person that comes into the club, all nice and friendly, isn’t the person that leaves the club, all drunk and like an idiot. So you have to learn to read people and treat them with respect when they’re acting nice to you, and stand up for yourself when they’re being disrespectful. ‘Cause if you don’t, they will walk all over you, treat you like shit.

And then my construction jobs taught me how to work hard, pretty

much taught me my work ethic. The whole ‘hard work pays off’ thing. Anybody that does construction knows about working hard. That’s one of the most grueling jobs a person can do. You’re always outside, you’re always in the sun, you’re always lifting heavy shit. It’s brutal. But if you get it in your mind that you’re made for it, then it’s no problem. At an early age, I put it in my mind that I was built for it and I was going to handle it. That’s how I structured my work ethics.

I think it’s really important that those things were instilled in you before you became a photographer, because a lot of people think it’s a really glamorous job. You just take pictures of pretty or famous people, but it’s really about hustling hard and doing it every day.

Yeah, the glamour part of it is maybe 5-10%.

Exactly.

Nobody knows that. They think you’re shooting pretty girls, you’re sleeping with every one of them, if you’re shooting a celebrity, you’re going to their house on the weekend or partying with them. And if you shot a musician, you can get in whoever you want at their concerts. Backstage VIP. Everyone who’s seen me shoot Eminem wants me to call him and say, Hey, you’re playing in this guy’s town tonight, can you get me ten free tickets for him and his family? So I have to shut a lot of that down. It’s pretty crazy how people think.

That’s the perception. It’s just a glamorous job and doesn’t require as much work and hustle as people realize.

Yeah. It’s a glamorous job with tons of benefits, and it’s not really a job. It’s just a fun thing you get paid tons of money for. That’s the perception.

Your work allows the person to become a voyeur – peering into lives that might be vastly different from their own. Was this intentional or simply an evolution of your work?

Definitely an evolution. It was an evolution because the work that I was doing was the work that I was living. I was living the touring life, being with bands. And then with the lowriding and gangster scene, you know, I had my own lowrider that I had bought in 1989, and I started building in the early 90’s before I started taking pictures, so I was already in the lowriding world. And with the lowriders, there were gangsters, and girls, so I was photographing all that, documenting all that. I wasn’t do it so intentionally, I was just taking a photo here, taking a photo there. You’re only seeing a third of the photos that I could have taken, if I had approached it as a photographer. If I knew that I was going to be doing photography. There’s a lot of time I was in so much cool shit that I didn’t even feel like taking pictures, this is too cool. Like times we hung out with Eazy-E, and Tupac with Cypress Hill, I just hung out and never took the photos. Now I think in my head, What an idiot. But you never know who is going to be what, or how it’s going to end.

Do you just have to go off your gut instincts on things like that, as much as possible? Certain situations that just don’t seem right to pick up your camera and start documenting? Do you have to just be in that moment and experience it? As a photographer, is it a struggle, in those moments. where you want to shoot and document but sometimes you don’t want to disturb the moment with the presence of the camera? Is that something you go through still?

Yeah. Plus, all the stuff that you see, photographed and documented, like what if the guy decided, ‘Oh, this isn’t a cool time, I’ll just enjoy the moment and not take pictures,’ we would never see that shit. There wouldn’t be so many great classic photographic moments in history taken. If you make the decision to be a photographer, it’s kind of your duty, I think. If you’re good, then everyone is going to enjoy the pictures later, whether it’s a moment of pain or whatever. Sometimes people are like, ‘Yeah, we had a shootout and the photographer wasn’t helping the guy, and he was taking a picture instead. Like his leg got blasted off and the photographer is taking a picture of it instead of helping the guy.’ And I’m thinking, Well, what the fuck is he going to do? You’re in

the middle of a war zone and he’s a photographer, he’s not a medic. Do you want him to do a [tracheotomy] on you, and start fucking sewing your leg back on? He don’t know how to do that shit. He has a PhD. in photography. And PhD. stands for PUSH HERE, DUMMY.

[LAUGHTER]

Got that from the legendary Ricky Powell. Gotta give credit where credit is due. Shout-out to Ricky Powell!

All due respect to the Lazy Hustler!

You’ve photographed everyone from gang members to celebrities. Is it still important for you to document street culture, and why?

I was living in that world. Living downtown, living on Skid Row, lowriding and gangsters, and hot Latina girls – they went side-by-side. And then I was touring with the coolest rap bands in the world, House of Pain and Cypress Hill for 13 years, going around the world. I was just photographing my life.

Switching tracks for a minute, hotels and artists have always had a connection. Hotels can attract artists, and there are lots of artist residencies these days in hotels. The Savoy in London had Claude Monet in 1901. Can you explain the connection?

Well, as far as doing residencies in hotels, I didn’t really notice until I started doing one. But through all of my travels throughout the world, I always noticed when we went by a cool hotel. Like in Cuba or something, they would say, That’s where Ernest Hemingway wrote that one book. That’s where this guy did that. Now that I have the residency [at Hotel Figueroa], I look back and I say, Whoa, a lot of cool things were done by artists who stayed in hotel rooms. And for me, doing the hotel thing, it’s a great place to escape my regular life and get focused on the projects that I’m doing. I can’t focus at my house like that. I have kids and

grandkids, and I have the pool there, so it’s like the party pad. All the kids and everybody is watching TV, and then if you’re sitting at home, your wife wants to give you the Honey-Do list, and then you never get shit done. So the hotel experience is perfect. I can have my assistant come in and do all the computer stuff that I’m not good at and I can focus on the art part.

So for you, the residency and the hotel life, since you have 3 new books coming out, have helped your process. Is there any part that has hindered your process?

It’s just made it smoother for me, a smooth transition, being able to focus on my projects. It’s hard to explain, but the way I set it up, we print out a picture of every page in the book. Then we bought a blank book and started pulling them down, one by one, and putting them in the book. So you have to see it like that. I don’t think I could do that at my house. I don’t know. Some of the content might not be so good for the kids. Unless you want to keep it 100% real, show them every part of life so they know when they get there. I don’t really know because there’s no book on parenting. I probably wasn’t the best, so…

Would you say that your camera is your most treasured possession? Besides your camera, what would be your most treasured possession?

My ATM card, I think. Other than my camera, my ATM card, to help me get through life. When I want to be a weekend warrior, I take out my lowriders, my 1965 Impala or my 1947 Fleetline. Or if it’s nice out and the wind is blowing and I want to have my hair blow in the wind, I would take out my motorcycle, my Harley.

I was surprised you said you ATM before your rides, but I guess you’re practical, first and foremost?

Yeah, without the ATM [card], you can’t make the ‘64 go nowhere. You gotta have gas and money in case it breaks down and you gotta call a tow truck.

Would you say that you have a hidden talent that nobody knows about?

No, I’m kind of an open book. I pretty much put everything out there.

Really? I think your impersonations of other people are pretty spot on, definitely your hidden talent that not enough people know about.

I don’t really notice it.

Oh, I know! Because you do it so effortlessly. But I’ve noticed it, and talked about it with Chris [Folkerts from GPen], and you’re so funny because you can stop on a dime and slip right into an impression. I would say that’s definitely a hidden talent. People who can do that are great observers of human behavior, it’s how you make the impersonation authentic and convincing, all the little details.

Yeah, some people say [I’m good at] storytelling, maybe that’s what helps the storytelling, the vision of what’s taking place.

People are so inspired by your friendship/partnership with Mr. Cartoon. Can you speak a bit on that?

Yeah, we met in 1992, at a record release party, we had a friend named Donnie Charles, who has [since] passed away. What we had in common was him and we were two of his best friends, we were Mexicans and lowriders. We were at a party and he introduced us. At that time, when you went to a hip-hop event, there weren’t that many Latinos or white people. It was in the early 90’s, and there was a Penthouse Players release party at the Hollywood Athletic Club. When we went in, me and Donnie, there was couple of white guys that were probably managers or record label guys on one side, and to the other side, there was Cartoon. And Donnie said, ‘Oh, there’s one of my Mexican homies. Come here. You gotta meet this guy. He’s really cool.’ When I met him, I had just got back from Japan with House of Pain, and [Cartoon]

was going to Japan to mural some lowriders, so [Donnie] was like, ‘You guys should talk, you got a lot in common.’ And we did and the rest was history.

So like I said, in the beginning, it was just lowriding and musical type functions, We started doing that magazine, in the lowriding section, it was called ‘Low-life’, about the lowrider lifestyle. After we saw the cool stuff we had done with that, we took it to the next one, the next one, the next one, and then the Cypress Hill album cover, and then it just took off from there. And we figured if we just do a couple of these album covers every month, we’ll be straight. And then it went on to doing clothing together and other projects, take him on tour with us, you know, just as a homie, he could tattoo everybody. And he would do that on the tour bus or in our room, because I was the tour manager so I would just order a room with two beds in it. We both had flexible careers so I would ask him, ‘Yo, Cartoon, you want to go to Europe with us for a month and a half?’ And he would say ‘Let’s do that,’ and that was that.

I’ve noticed how both of you are always not just supportive of each other, but shout each other out at every opportunity. When I went to go see Cartoon at the Stretch & Bobbito podcast, it was as if you were up there with him. It’s inspiring to see how much credit you give each other and how humble you both are and always hold each other down and support your friends and fellow artists at every opportunity.

Everyone who is successful has a team, no one can do all that shit themself.

You have a very deep connection to downtown LA. What’s the best thing about it, and what’s the worst thing about it?

The best thing about it is all the life that’s going through there, it’s the heart of LA. You can feel the blood flowing and pumping through to the other parts of the city. All the commotion, and just this life down there. When you’re down there with all the people, the traffic, the sirens, the homeless people talking to themselves and yelling – to me, I just feel so alive down there. There is a whole

different energy than in any other part of the city.

The worst part of it is the traffic. Rush hour.

Is there any other profession you think you could have been good at?

Well, I did a couple ride alongs with the firemen, and I thought it was one of the coolest jobs that any man could ever do. A man’s man type of job. Like when they say that everyone is running away, but you’re running into it. 100% adrenaline. It’s so cool, and the camaraderie that they have, they all eat together and sleep in the same room, fight fires and save people’s lives, it’s just a cool experience. But like that construction type of job, you have to be cut from a different cloth.

If you could re-visit your younger self, what advice would you give yourself?

Take more pictures. Jump at every opportunity, don’t be lackadaisical. You only live once so why not go for it?

When you look back over your career up to now, is there any one moment that you have regrets that you didn’t take the picture at that time? I’m sure there’s many, but is there one that continues to haunt you?

Yeah, there’s so many times I didn’t take the photo, and I’m like, ‘You idiot!’ But there’s probably this one, we’re with Cypress Hill and we’re going to a show, and the security guards were outside and Tupac started yelling at them because they had us waiting outside. He was flipping out on them, telling them to let us go in. “How you have Cypress Hill standing outside in front? You guys are idiots!’ It could have been the coolest picture, because the security guards had these long dreads and they were about seven feet tall each, and they just looked huge. And then Tupac, at that time, was young and in shape, but on the skinnier side, and he was yelling at them, and Cypress Hill was standing there next to him. It would have been like the sickest picture. And then there’s other

ones. But that’s one of them.

The way you’re describing it, I can see the composition and the perspective. Would have been a great shot.

Yeah, it was during the day at one of those conventions, like Jack the Rapper or whatever, but in New York, I forget what it was called. It was at a club during the day, and the two guys were standing behind the velvet ropes, and we were all in the streets outside. On the sidewalk. And no one else was on the sidewalk except Tupac, Cypress and those huge guys. And we probably got there too late or shit was at capacity or something like that.

Estevan, I have one last question: What’s the one question you wish someone would ask you in an interview?

Um… [long pause]. Yeah, that’s a good one. Let’s see. Kind of like what we got into talking about. About the job, what’s the biggest misconception or perception of photographers, what they do and how they live. But we talked about it off another question. If you had just went straight to that, you would get a lot of good answers. A lot of people think it’s so easy, I’ll just go finance a camera at Best Buy, and I’ll make music videos and do photography, which they can, but it’s not that easy.

Estevan, thank you so much for taking the time. I’m so glad I came up with the question you had always wanted to be asked. Safe travels to Thailand and Japan and I will see you when you’re back.

Thank you. See you soon.