We talk to Estevan Oriol, the legendary photographer whose diverse range of photos gives us access to typically inaccessible L.A. cultures like lowriders and East L.A. gang members.



An Insider's Look Into The Electrifying Culture Of East L.A.

Photographer Estevan Oriol is somewhat of a Los Angeles legend. The son of fellow photographer Eriberto Oriol, Estevan got his start by documenting his life on the roadhe served as the longtime tour manager of hip-hop groups like Cypress Hill, and eventually transitioned into an extremely successful artistic career.

Oriol has the uncanny ability to easily travel through different, opposing worlds. His diverse range of photographs offer a glimpse into L.A. cultures that would otherwise be inaccessible to a huge majority of the population, including Hollywood celebrities, lowriders, and East L.A. gang members. Oriol has photographed everyone, from Robert De Niro to Ryan Gosling to Taraji P. Henson (Cookie!) to even Kim Kardashian. He’s also directed music videos for groups like Blink-182 and Linkin Park. But what is arguably his most impressive work to date is his chronicle of life in East L.A., featuring both the beautiful and the ordinary, warts (and tattoos) and all.

Oriol has the strange ability to seem intimidating and personable at the same time, which works in his favor. We met at Milk Studios in L.A. to talk about his upcoming exhibition, Estevan Oriol: California Love, which opens tonight at an invite-only event. The exhibition will only remain open to the public through the weekend, so run and see it. It’s going to be epic.

Some shots from Oriol’s exhibit, ‘Estevan Oriol: California Love,’ a collaboration between the legendary photographer and Milk LA.

What is your exhibition at Milk Studios about?

It’s 20 years of the culture here in L.A. that I like, and that I’ve been around. So there’s photos from the LA Portraits book, photos from the L.A. Woman book, and also a lot of lowriding stuff as well.

Did you and Milk work as a team to curate the selection?

Yeah. I gave them a bunch of pictures and they would go through and tone down the selects. So it became a collaboration, instead of me saying, here this is what we are doing or them saying, this is what we want. I gave them a group of photos and told them, tell me what you guys like, ’cause I like everything, and that’s why I shot it.

Oriol documented typically unseen areas of L.A. over the course of 20 years.

Everything you shoot is analog?

All these are on film. I have all the negatives categorized in alphabetical order by sections and then event and/or name. I’ve shot so much stuff I don’t remember every single thing, but when I see the picture I start remembering. I mean [this exhibit chronicles] just 20 years, but I’ve been doing this for over 25 years.

How do you approach your subjects usually?

Some of them are through work, through friends, some are just me going up and asking ‘em.


“I got to be close, because of the lenses that I use. I like to be closer to get the emotion.”

How do you approach, for example, a gang member?

I approach them all the same, I approach them all respectfully. I say, “Hey, how you doin’? What’s up? I do photography and I’d be interested in doing a photo of you if that’s cool… Is it cool if I take a picture of you?” Some say they are on parole or some don’t like their picture taken. Everybody is different. But I always ask. I see a lot of people take photos with a long lens, from a block away, which is like journalism/documentary style; but for me, I got to be close, because of the lenses that I use. I like to be closer to get the emotion.

They are looking at you and straight at the camera and it is a totally different emotion than if they were far away. It seems like an immersive type of photography instead of being on the sidelines.

Yeah I am right here, ten feet away.

Do you like to take pictures of people because of the individual stories they tell?

A lot of the times you don’t get everybody’s story, but yeah, hearing that story does help, especially if you can get that shot. Sometimes you don’t get the story but you can still take a great portrait. When you get the portrait, you start seeing the story.

I like shooting all types of people that pull you in. There are definitely faces that hold your interest when you take a photo.

With his photos, Oriol likes to create his own narratives, rather than relying on those of his subjects.

You are creating your own story by freezing a moment in that person’s life. Photographs are very powerful in that sense.

It’s crazy cause it’s only one second in time. You can tell a lot of shit that was happening just from one click of a person’s life.

That one moment in time is now captured for posterity. 

That is another thing I like too. My memory is not so good but because I have so many pictures, I remember a lot when I see them.

So, you started off taking photographs as a tour manager.

The time I started taking photos I was at a car club and was the tour manager of [Cypress Hill]. My dad would always hear my stories about the car club and living like a rockstar all over the world, and he mentioned that I lived in two really cool worlds, and I should take pictures of them.

Oriol first started taking photos while he was managing Cypress Hill’s tour.

Him and his wife had an extra camera and they gave it to me. They told me I should shoot that stuff. At first I wasn’t really into it. Even though my dad was a photographer I didn’t really like that industry ‘cause most of the time they are either fashion photographers, the paparazzi, [or] tourist photographers, and I didn’t want to be any of those three. I would just take shots here and there while traveling. I never thought of getting all this different stuff—things that I think of now. Now my work is a little more thought out. [The more] I know, [the harder] it gets.

Maybe you think a bit too much now?

Exactly. With planned photoshoots I know I have to kick ass, ’cause I am getting paid. So every shot has to look great because people are going to be looking at them with a microscope. When I am doing just my own photos—if they are not so hot, [it’s] no big deal because people are only gonna see the ones that I think are great anyway. I pretty much don’t shoot a photo unless I think [it’s] usable.

To wrest emotion from his subjects, Oriol likes to get as close to them as possible while shooting.

Would you consider yourself to be a fine art photographer?

Yeah. I see some of the stuff out there and it’s shit. I think I have a lot of great photos that capture L.A. and cultures that I had access to that nobody had. Everywhere I go I think I capture that specific place; I really show where I’m at, in a good light. I like every second of traveling and seeing the world. It’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. You only live once so why not see as much as you can, experience as much as you can, and live as much as you can.

“Estevan Oriol: California Love,” a new exhibit up at Milk LA, will be open to the public until June 27th. 

All photos by Estevan Oriol. 

Stay tuned to Milk for more trailblazing photographers.

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