Estevan Oriol at MILK Studios

by Hastings Wilson

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A one night show, shot by the legendary Brad Elterman
Estevan Oriol is the Diana Arbus of Los Angeles street life and culture. His father, Eriberto Oriol, also a renowned photographer, was a primary influence on his career. When Oriol began in the early 90's as tour manager for House of Pain and Cypress Hill, his father sensed an artistic opportunity and gave to him a camera. It was at that moment his career forever changed as he would become the ‘low key’ inside persona able to photograph lowriding, hip hop, and gang culture.

In traveling to 44 countries amidst the world of hip hop, Oriol's journey of documentation began with the desire to relate his life on the road with his life at home. Immersed with these bands from 1992 to 2005, he built his reputation as a sought out documentarian of hip hop, gang life, lowriding, and beautiful women - all inclusive of his continuous inspiration.

I first discovered Oriol's work when I was studying Chicano culture at Loyola Marymount University. At the same time, ironically, I was in a very heavy 90's rap phase with my friends. In moving to Los Angeles, it was only appropriate to cruise the 405 bumping to Fuck Tha Police or Ambitionz Az a Ridah. I started to pay attention to photography that documented this culture. That's when I discovered Esteven Oriol and it was more than a pleasure to be involved with his highly-anticipated one night solo exhibition at Milk Studios this past weekend.

We caught up with Oriol on his process and being a voice of LA culture.

How exactly did your dad inspire your career?

My dad and his wife gave me my first camera it was a Minolta with a 50mm lens, gave me a 5 minute tutorial and I was on my way. He saw at that time in my life I was the tour manager of House of Pain and building my Lowrider with my car club in East L.A and thought it would be great to document.

What was your first camera? Do you ever shoot with film?

My first cameras I bought were a Polaroid land camera, a point and shoot panoramic, and a Canon AE1. Pretty much around the same time too , I got all the looks that I liked capturing with those three. For the first 10 years I only shot film that's all there was. I still shoot film to this day and won't stop until they stop making it. The only time I shoot digital is when it's for clients that are too cheap to pay for film or are too big of a hurry to wait for the development process which is pretty much all the time so I just shoot film for myself they can have the digital files.

Is there a specific photograph you believe defines your career?

The L.A. Fingers Photo is my most famous world wide and was the first photo of it . It's been often imitated but never duplicated. But I never thought it would be what it is. I have others that I like just as much.

Do you ever position your subjects? Are they posed or candid? Or both?

When it's for me, sometimes I do portraits and the other times I just document. If it's for a job, some clients want stuff to be seen a certain way so  I'll set it up or let them set it up the way they think they want to see it and then I do my thing.

And the streets of LA: Did you grow up amongst gang violence or were you on the outside? Was there gang violence with the Chicano culture?

There's Chicano gangs everywhere in L.A. Except Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood. I was never in a gang myself but I have a few friends that are.

Does photographing ever alter the situation?

It depends on the person and the situation. Sometimes people get caught up in a moment and forget about a camera being there and some people don't give a fuck, and then there's the ones that are overly conscious of the camera.

You say you are pretty neutral with all of the subjects you've met. How often did you find yourself in trouble?

As long as you respect yourself and respect others you can maintain a neutral position, every once in awhile someone will want to test you and you have to stand for something or fall for everything.

When exactly did you begin to get hired for magazine shoots? Did this change your work at all?

I got hired from the beginning of it around 1994 and as far as shooting, it changed my business mind and forced me to learn more about technical skill and how to treat it as a business,  but I still shot everything the same way, and it probably made me better faster.

There's an old belief that the camera takes the soul of the subject. Do you believe the camera steals your soul? 

I never looked the camera as a weapon, but more as a work tool. No, I don't believe in superstitions. I try to be the most realistic in my head as possible. They have sold me on that one yet. If the souls are being stolen, where are they now? Who has them? The photographer? I have shot 100,000's of people, do I have all those souls? The answer: nope.

Do you ever shoot yourself?

I try not to shoot myself — there's way better looking and cooler looking people out there than me.

Why do you photograph? What are you trying to get out of the viewer?

 I could never figure out why I did photography before, now it's to feed my family. I want the viewer to get something from my photos, some kind of reaction. I'm like most artist I want people to see, like my stuff and pat me on the back and say good photo but don't tell me they don't like them, it might hurt my feelings.

What are your beliefs on gun laws?

 I have a few guns to protect me and my family, I've had the since I was young, they are there if I need them. If they took them all we would just have to go old school on the before they made  them, like warriors.