Estevan Oriol: Don’t Sweat The Technique
“I wasn’t planning any of it. I was working the doors at clubs, doing the guest list and stuff,” Estevan Oriol reflects about his impressive photography, clothing, and film career. The man who’s taken photos of folks such as Robert DeNiro and Al Pachino, Method Man and Snoop Dogg, directed music videos for Blink 182 and Paul Wall, and birthed an army of followers with his vivid pictures of L.A. ganglife was once working construction by day, and clubs by night. It was an entrance meeting with Cypress Hill that forever changed his life, after they offerred him a spot as House of Pain’s road manager. Estevan left the clubs and traveled the country with Everlast and co. ensuring that the group was able to “Jump Around” while not missing any press or promo spots.
It is Estevan’s calm, yet strong demeanor that allows him to prosper amongst gang bangers, Hip Hop artists, and record executives alike. He explains, “They liked the way I carried myself cause I was nice and respectful to everybody, but at the same time I held my ground. I wouldn’t let anybody s**t on me, or punk me at the door.”. He also became a favorite of Mr. Cartoon and the two began a partnership that has brought forth Joker Brand Clothing, a branding company, and a feature film deal. Not too bad for a self-taught ex-bouncer from L.A. We caught up with Estevan for an exclusive interview to find out exactly how he did it .
In part 1 of the two part interview, Estevan talks about his start in the L.A. Club scene, his bond with Mr. Cartoon, and how he keeps cool under pressure. See the full interview below.
RubyHornet: I wanted to start the interview by talking a little bit about your start in photography. Your bio starts with you working as a bouncer, and I’m wondering if that was a job you took just to make money while pursuing photography, or was all of what you’re doing now just a distant thought back then?
Estevan Oriol: I wasn’t planning any of it. I was working the doors at clubs, doing the guest list and stuff. Sometimes I’d be in the VIP section, and I would DJ at some clubs afterwards, the illegal ones. So I was doing all that and I met different people while working the door, because everybody had to go through me. I met Cypress Hill, Boo Ya Tribe, Ice-T, Everlast, all of the L.A. Hip Hop scene to the DJ’s and all that. In meeting Cypress Hill, they liked the way I carried myself cause I was nice and respectful to everybody, but at the same time I held my ground. I wouldn’t let anybody s**t on me, or punk me at the door. They were like, ‘hey man, would you like to work for us?’ And I said, ‘yeah. Doing what?’ And they said, ‘as tour manager. All you have to do is take the guys to the shows and make sure they do their interviews.’ I thought they meant Cypress Hill, but they meant House of Pain. They told me, ‘it’s a new group coming out. One of the guys is a rapper you might know from before, his name’s Everlast. Meet us for dinner and we’ll see if it’s all good.’ I met them and Everlast said, ‘yeah, let’s do it.’ That summer we did a college tour, then we got on the Beastie Boys’ tour and did a set. At first I was just doing it for the expenses, they would pay my hotel room and food and things like that. As we started getting paid, they started paying me. I would do the club stuff at night and construction during the day. I started doing photos as a hobby just for fun and before you know it, people started hiring me and stuff like that.
RubyHornet: You said they liked you because of the way you handled yourself. I’m sure that anyone that wants to do what you do now has to garner a certain amount of respect. Are there times when you’ve been placed in rough situations, and how do you navigate those situations?
Estevan Oriol: You have to use your street smarts. You can’t be too pushy. At the end of the day, you’re in somebody else’s neighborhood and you’re in a danger zone. You just got a pass for what you’re there for and that’s it. You don’t have to be scared, but you have to be aware and always stay on your toes. You’re in somebody else’s hood, and if some s**t jumps off you got to be ready. Like Cypress Hill says, ‘when the s**t goes down, you better be ready.’
RubyHornet: Being that you’re documenting the culture as a participant and someone from the inside, do you feel that there are certain responsibilities that go along with that in terms of how you shoot people, and even mentoring others that you see in a similar place you were in during your younger days?
Estevan Oriol: I don’t ever want my pictures to be evidence against somebody, or the reason why they get locked up. If they pull out straps and stuff like that, I never shoot so you can see the serial numbers to where the feds could zoom in on a picture to read the numbers or whatever. I’ve been shooting in neighborhoods before and the enemy neighborhood came and they had a shoot out, and the guys will be like, ‘hey, did you get all that? Did you get those flicks? That’s some real gangsta s**t. That’s some real hood s**t.’ And I said, ‘no.’ And they go, ‘why not homie? You wanted to get some gangsta s**t, and that’s as gangsta as it gets.’ I said, ‘If someone would have died and the cops came and I’m sitting here with my camera, they’ll take it as evidence and the reason why you’re getting life in prison is because of my pictures, what’s going to come back on me? I don’t want you to say, ‘I’m doing life cause this motherf**ker over here was taking pictures. He’s a rat.’ But if I don’t do that s**t, then everybody has a fair chance. I’m there as a guest. I’m not there as a cop or to get anybody in trouble.
RubyHornet: Going from shooting something like that, to shooting a calendar of beautiful women, to the work you do with music videos, you must have a real interesting view on reality and all the different worlds people are living in, from a Hollywood lifestyle to the streets of L.A. Do you ever just sit back and think about how wide the world is and how many kinds of lives people are living?
Estevan Oriol: It’s a trip. I do videos and I see them trying to simulate the neighborhood s**t, and I see right through it and how fake it is. You can tell when a real gangsta’s talking some real gangsta s**t. I know the real gangstas. When they do Hip Hop, they’re not real serious about it, it’s just something they do secondary. The gangsta s**t is first, and they do the Hip Hop thing whenever they can. Their first hustle in gang banging, and the music s**t comes after. And you can tell which dude that is. Some Hip Hop dudes, they may be in the hood and around that s**t, but they’re not the one doing all the work and you can tell that they’re telling someone else’s story. When they hold guns sideways in pictures, and they have their elbow up and they’re holding the gun sideways, I don’t know if those guys have ever been to a shooting range and have tried to hold their gun sideways or upside down, but that s**t don’t work. That’s the reason why the cops and the army guys hold their guns the right way, cause that’s effective. That’s why you see some gang fights where guys will shoot their whole mags, 13-20 bullets at a time and not hitting nobody, or hitting little kids, innocent people. It’s because they don’t even know how to shoot the f**king guns. They’re watching these movies and thinking that’s how you do it, and they got it twisted.
RubyHornet: Speaking of shooting technique, what type of camera do you like to use? Do you have an ace in the hole camera?
Estevan Oriol: I shoot with a variety of camera, but my baby is a Cannon A1. I have this little instamatic camera that I’ll take out to events cause it has a flash. I also have the Pentax 672 for when I want to impress somebody, or show off to a record label. They like to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, and if I just took my Cannon A1 they’d be like, ‘what the f**k?’ Terry Richardson could show up with a Yasika T4, and pop off shots like $70-$100,000 a day and they won’t say s**t in the fashion world. In the record industry they want to see a big camera, 100 lights to do the same shot I could do with my Cannon A1 with no lights.
RubyHornet: In terms of your growth, what has your growth been like, and what do you do to ensure you keep getting better? Is there any technique that you’ve picked up along the way that might be a little thing, but has made a big difference in the quality of your photos?
Estevan Oriol: Basically, I always just shot by myself and I really didn’t use assistants. I was always forced to do everything myself, on my own. Doing everything on my own, I was under the pressure and I didn’t have anyone else to fall back on, or to blame for a f**k up. I just had to bust it out, do everything, be fast, and be efficient. That was the best thing I’ve learned doing the whole photo thing. I didn’t go to photo school or anything like that. When you’re in photo school, you go there, you got the teacher to help you and you have classmates to help you. ‘How do you do this, and how do you do that? Teacher, teacher, can you help me?’ and all that s**t. But when you’re on the street in the middle of 20 homeboys and they all have AK’s and 9mm and you’re in the park and there’s helicopters flying around, you don’t have time for none of that s**t. You’re there with Robert DeNiro and Al Pachino and they say, ‘Ok, you got 15 minutes.’ And you shoot one roll of ten things and they thank you, and you’re like, ‘wait, that’s only two minutes. Can I shoot another roll?’ And you shoot another half a roll, and they’re like, ‘Ok, thank you very much,’ and they walk away. You’re under pressure and you don’t have time to fiddle with a bunch of crap. The best thing for me was just learning how to do everything myself with no help. Sometimes on jobs when I have a budget and I can have assistants come around, that helps, but I’m so used to doing everything on my own that I don’t need anybody or nothing. I can just take my Cannon A1, take the 20, 35, and 50 mm lens, ten rolls of color, ten rolls of black & white, and that’s my crew. I’ll do jobs like Snoop Dogg and they’re paying a lot of money, they want a lighting truck, I have a first assistant, a second assistant, and third assistant, I can do all that the same. When you’re working by yourself, you’re in complete control and you know what you need to do and what not to do. When you have assistants you have to do what you’re doing and direct them and watch what they do. You have to be the crew leader. It’s the same amount of work cause now you have more people and more s**t going on. You got the grip truck, the craft services, the publicist, the record label and all these people you got to keep happy. So it’s almost bad not having to hold all this s**t myself, change the cameras and lenses myself, but now I got to make sure these 3 executive are happy, and make sure these 5 guys are doing what they’re supposed to do, put the mics where they’re supposed to be…it’s pretty much the same amount of work.
RubyHornet: Being in the situations you’ve been in, you must have nerves of steel. How did it compare shooting Robert DeNiro vs. the street stuff? Do you ever get nervous or star struck?
Estevan Oriol: No. I just told him, ‘look over here and don’t move. Let me get my shot and then you can go along and handle your business. The more f**king around you do, the more you’re going to waste both of our time. If you just get in there, stand on your mark, and do what I tell you to do, everything’s going to be OK.’ I’m a photographer, but at that point I’m the director. I got to take control and show him who’s boss…But, I’m just kidding…f**k yeah I was nervous! They’re my idols. I’ve been watching their movies for 30 something years, and I’ve seen pretty much every movie that both of them have done. To have them in front of my camera…The day that I shot them it was cold outside, I had my two Cannon A1’s in one bag, and my two Pentax cameras in another bag. I picked up my one Cannon A1 and tried to fire it off and nothing happened. I pushed the other one and nothing happened. I got the Pentax 67 and that finally worked. I was in a panic zone right there.
RubyHornet: You just talked about teaching yourself and learning on your own. Coming up in the early 90’s, were you familiar with some of your counterparts on the East Coast like Joe Conzo Jr. or Ricky Powell or other street photographers?
Estevan Oriol: I’ve seen all their work. They’re all dope, but I always keep my stuff as my stuff. I stay original and doing my thing cause I know what it’s like to have people biting your s**t, and it’s not a good feeling. They say imitation is a form of flattery, but I don’t see it like that. I see it as ripping you off and claiming the fame. People copy a lot of my s**t. The first 100 times I saw it I thought, ‘oh this is real flattering, and real cool.’ I got real spiritual about it. But after the 100th time it started burning me out like, ‘can’t these motherf**kers take any other kind of picture?’ There’s 100 people on Myspace on the internet trying to do what I do. It’s cute when you’re little brother tries to wear your clothes and dress up like you. It’s kind of funny, but then you get to a point like, ‘f**k.’ The clothing industry starts ripping off your designs, and starting jewelry lines…when is enough enough?
RubyHornet: I know you work closely with Mr. Cartoon. Is there a common approach that you both take with your craft that ties you guys together or has made you guys bond so well?
Estevan Oriol: I think it’s just that we both grew up in L.A. around the same type of stuff that we know it from the inside. It’s authentic. What I do and what he does is art, and completely different forms of art, so my approach is different than his approach.
RubyHornet: Is there a way you guys feel about art in general that you guys share?
Estevan Oriol: We’re both real proud of being original, and being able to work the old school craft. There’s a million guys that can get on a computer and design something. They can take people’s art off the internet, but how many of these guys are really artists? How many can get a pen and a piece of paper, a tattoo machine, or an air brush, or a spray paint can and really put it down like that? Cartoon’s one of those guys that can do that. For me, I really work the camera. I can shoot film or digital, I can do 16mm or 8mm or an HD camera. I can handle it all, and I know how to load the film and all that s**t. I know how to do the craft the old school way. We both feel real strong about that.