What was I really doing?

This photograph, recently brought to my attention by Smogranch follower and long-time friend Eric Labastida, makes me wonder on several fronts. This was made in Tijuana WAY back in the day. I’m guessing 1996 or 1997.

You will often find me at the fringes, sitting with my journal and making notes. This part I get. But it appears like I’m wearing some kind of sportcoat, which really puzzles me. What was I doing? Why a sportcoat in TJ? I am wearing my favorite ALL TIME boots, Browning Featherweights, but back when the made them in dark, dark green Kangaroo hide. If they still made these boots I would buy piles of them. But alas, like most things I fall in love with…they went away.

Just looking at this image jarred something loose. I did a show in Tijuana. I did. All those years ago and I totally forgot about it. It was something like “Building Bridges.” A great space, great building but the show coincided with a huge soccer game. People still came. I can’t remember who else was in the show. I do remember I did HUGE prints, analog style. I can’t remember who printed them, poor bastard, it had to be Hell.

Well, whatever was going on it must have been okay. I’m still here.

I LOVE looking at old photographs.

Eric Labastida: Bordertown: 1992-2002

I actually don’t remember when I met Eric Labastida. I think it was during the 1996 political convention in downtown San Diego. Another young guy with a Leica trying to make sense of it all. We started hanging out and all these years later we are still friends. We go for long periods with no communication and then suddenly I get an email about a Special Forces flashlight, or a question about Xtol at 1:1 or 1:2? This is just how it works. The photo-life, you just play along.

Eric is from the Diego, and I have to say, from what I know about him all these years later, I can tell you he was influenced in great part by his parents. His mom, well, just good people is all I can say and she cooked or us which means I will forever have a small tattoo of her on my stomach. Eric’s dad is a legend. Eric’s dad is a man, the real kind. If I showed up at Eric’s and his dad was in the driveway gutting a moose it would seem completely normal. And if I asked him, “Nice Ernie, where did you bag that?” and he replied “the zoo,” this would also seem completely normal. If you were looking for someone to walk the length of Baja with only a juice box and plastic fork, Eric’s dad would be the guy but would probably say, “I don’t need the fork.” I think to be a photographer you have to pull from the foundation you were given and Eric seems to have done that.

Spending almost twenty years growing up in Texas meant I had crossed the Mexican border many times. Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, Juarez, etc, and my subsequent photographic life had taken me to other spots like Ciudad Acuna and Nogales. Eric had Tijuana. It was only natural that at some point he and I would go to “TJ” and we did. For me it was a break, something different, a challenge, a bit of action if you will, but for Eric it was far more, it was an obsession. From 1992-2002 Eric was consumed by Tijuana.

Recently, during a conversation about developers, photography, changes in our lives, etc, the topic of “TJ” once again came to the discussion. “Hey, send me some pics and I’ll do a post,” I said. Well, actually, I said “Send me your best five images.” A few days later I get an email, “Hey, is it okay if I send six pictures?” I said, “Sure, go ahead.” And then being the absolute twisted mess that he is Eric pings with me an email…“Okay, I SWEAR TO GOD, I’ve narrowed it to TEN IMAGES MAXIMUM.” Before I could even reply he said, “Okay, twelve.” I’ve added a few additional, but the guts are all his. I also sent him a few questions that should fill in the blanks of who he is, why he does what he does and what this Tijuana obsession was all about.

DM: In 1992 you were a very different person than you are today. Where were you, what were you and what was your photographic outlook?

EL: There’s something I didn’t realize as a young photographer, and that is the fact that you can photograph anywhere. But it takes practice to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Definitely something not learned overnight. I had the very rare opportunity to wander at my own pace with a camera for years. I did it for so long that it became an inseparable aspect of my life. Sam Abell used to call this “the shooting life”. That being said, I also believe that if you go to an environment that you’re not used to it’s easier to “see” things that you wouldn’t otherwise. At the time I was living in San Diego, literally right across the street from Tijuana. For a twenty year old in search of high adventure Tijuana fit the bill. At the time I wasn’t thinking project, story or book, I was just interested in life.

DM: Your father is quit the adventurist, which tells me your mom is too. What impact did they have on your pursuit of docentary photography?

EL: When my dad was about twenty-something he was in the army; he didn’t have a lot of extra money. So when he wanted to go on a hiking trip he just used army issue gear. He took many trips into places like the Olympic National Park and the Sierras. He also had with him his trusty Exacta with a 50mm lens. He shot Kodachrome, first 25 then 64. He would photograph and later have his slideshows. I loved looking at his slides. Because they were shot on Kodachrome they looked like they were taken yesterday. I don’t think you can say that about digital, the jury is still out. I’d like to think I had an original thought when it comes to documenting my life photographically but what I’m really doing is continuing a tradition.

DM: What kind of formal training, if any, do you have, and what is your opinion on the rather common, modern view that studying photography perhaps isn’t really necessary in the age of the internet?

EL: I literally took a small handful of beginning photo classes. But now that i’m thinking about it I’d have to say that my first class, photo 100, taught me skills I still use today. Elliot Erwitt says all you need to learn about photography is printed on the box that the camera came in. I totally believe that. Now mind you, he’s talking about cameras that you could buy between 1950 and 1990. The cameras sold today need an advanced degree from MIT to understand. There’s really only three things you need to know about your camera: one, what film you’re using; two, shutter speed; and three, aperture.I think once you learn the three basics I mentioned above, then taking further classes about how to operate your camera is about as important as taking a class on typesetting.

DM: This is a ten-year project, but did you have any idea when you started this that you would spend ten years of your life in Tijuana?

EL: No, certainly not.

DM:Do you recall the reason why you first went to TJ?

EL: It seemed safer than going to Bosnia or Mogadishu. Living in San Diego, it seemed the logical choice for high adventure on a budget. Actually, I have a buddy who lived very close to the border. He actually started going to Tijuana first, then I started going with him. Tijuana was interesting to me for many reasons. It was the smells, sights and sounds that made me go back year after year.

DM: In a given year, how often would you work on this project?

EL: I was very fortunate to have been able to make many trips during any given year. Typically I’d go down about 2-3 times a week.

DM: When did TJ become an obsession?

EL: I’d say about the second year in. I got caught up in the rhythm of the city and fell in love with the thrill of the pursuit. After I started seeing my results I was encouraged to continue.

DM:Your photographs depict mostly quiet, and some not so quiet daily life moments. Do you consider yourself primarily a street photographer or a chronicler of daily life?

EL: When I first started I considered myself a street shooter because that’s what I thought they called this genre of photography. But after a few years my work started to reflect more daily life situations, and less street shooter kind of pictures. At least in a Garry Winogrand/Lee Friedlander sense.

DM: I would classify this work as classic, black and white documentary work, but how do you view or describe it? And why do you work in this fashion when the world is working in digital?

EL: Too many times I have seen new versions of what was once classic and think “why?”. Why did they feel a need to change something that wasn’t broken to begin with? Film has a look, feel and soul that digital will never have, period. When I start to talk about digital and how it has infected photography I think, “digital photography– that’s really an oxymoron”. Whenever I pick up a digital camera I feel like I’m using a toy not a tool. If they stop making film in my lifetime I’ll just take up charcoal sketching or something. Digital photography is too easy, and when this technology was delivered to the masses it immensely dumbed-down the medium to the point where “a chimpanzee can use it”, as Elliot Erwitt would say. To answer your question, yes I categorize my work as classic B&W documentary work. I catch what is there without influencing the subject–I never ask for them to turn or tilt or smile. I shoot it, soup it and print it.

DM: Was there a particular part of Tijuana you focused on?

EL: When I first started shooting there everything was a wonder to me. However, I usually ended up in one of three sections, the 5y10, downtown or the linea. The “Linea” section or border secion of TJ was by far the most interesting and probably most dangerous to work in because of the drugs and crime that was happening all around. Being 6’2 and 230 is probably what kept me safe, but I’m most likely fooling myself into thinking that. The more I think about it the more I’ve come to the conclusion that I was just damn lucky I didn’t end up dead.

DM: Give me an idea about your mindset when you work? What are you thinking about? What are you looking for? Light? Layering?

EL: They say Cartier-Bresson preferred looking at people’s contact sheets because it showed how the person thought. Um, let’s see, my mindset, I’d say I’m more of a reactionary photographer. I try to make certain prerequisites are in place, like lighting and geometry. As long as lighting and geometry are set on stage all I have to do is be ready like a pouncing cat. Shooting in Tijuana was very often chaotic. I would start the day thinking ok today I wanna shoot street musicians and instead end up photographing prostitutes. You just never knew what you were gonna get. And that’s what I loved about it.

DM: Who was the first photographer who made you think about photography as more than a hobby?

EL: It would have to be my photo 100 instructor Paul Stahalek. One day he showed us his pictures he had done on migrant workers. They were the coolest pictures I had ever seen. Then he pulled out what he used to make these pictures. It was a Leica M6. I remember thinking to myself, really, THIS little camera took THOSE pictures!!!! I was blown away. Later Sam Abell whom I’d met at a workshop introduced me to what I’d like to call a philosophy called the shooting life. It basically meant that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing take a camera with you. I’m going on 22 years of having a camera on me 90% of the time and it’s great.

DM: There is an image I’ve included of myself printing in your darkroom. You made this image, but tell me about the darkroom itself?

EL: Oh man, I loved that darkroom. My Dad, who is the kind of man who builds and fixes EVERYTHING, decided to hollow out the dirt under his house so he could have a basement. He started construction i think sometime in 1982 and finished, gosh, i wanna say 3-4 years later? Anyhow, when he was done he used concrete reinforced cinderblock for the walls. You’d need to use C4 to change anything about the basement now. At the deepest section of the basement he designed my darkroom. It is a fully functional darkroom with stainless steel sinks and plumbing. I wish I had one like that here In Vegas.

DM: As far as I know, you have never worked full time as a photographer. Tell me why and what made you do this? Also, do you see this as being a positive thing or do you feel you missed out in any way?

EL: Again, I was very fortunate to be able to work this way, it’s almost like I had a trust fund. The bottom line is this: If you’re shooting for a client then you are responsible to the client. You can’t do whatever you want, unless of course the client gives you complete free range. I had opportunities to work for newspapers in the early years, but I wanted to shoot my own way too often. Much later I showed my work to a friend of mine, Paul Gero, who is a fine photographer who I very much admire. He said “Boy this sure doesn’t look like newspaper stuff” I took that to be a positive thing. Look, I’m not degrading the work of newspaper photographers. Some are VERY VERY good photographers whom I look up to, but it just wasn’t a path I was willing to put myself on. I came to the conclusion pretty early on that if you were the only one you had to please you were much better off.

DM: This project ended in 2002, so what have you been doing with yourself, and what is photography to you today?

EL: In 2002 I shifted gears in a major and good way, I got married and two years later had kids. Now, I’m on the eighth year of a several decade (I hope) project on my life as dad & husband. The process of shooting, souping and printing hasn’t changed very much. As long as Kodak makes film I’ll be happy.

DM:Tijuana now is a very different place than it was back then. I had a problem there a few years back(Got jumped and had to deal with Grupo Alpha). Do you still go and what do you think about the city now?

EL:I wouldn’t work in Tijuana if you paid me. It’s gotten WAY more dangerous to just bum around with a camera. I think it’s the same for any border town: since about 2006 the drug war has made Tijuana a much more dangerous place. I imagine it’s worse than Bogota in the 80’s. In Bogota, you had two main drug cartels controlling everything. In Mexico you have 200 cartels all fighting amongst each other and the government. Way too messy for me!

DM:Did you ever have any strange or scary moments?

EL:Working near the border during the night was always more hair raising than any other area of Tijuana; I saw more arrests, fights and drug activity at night than at any other time. One time we were was chased out of the red light district (the Cahuila, as it was called by the locals) by a knife-wielding lunatic. That was fun. It’s wise to just run like hell toward the touristy section when folks like that are after you. Another time that comes to mind was the time we were stopped and questioned by members of the Grupo Beta or Federal police. That actually was pretty scary because the commandante in charge literally looked like the head of the death squad. Picture this: A man in his mid 40’s with full beard and mustache, mirror sunglasses and dressed in black military fatigues from head to toe. He sat in the front seat of the tinted-window Ford Bronco and only gestured to his lieutenant while holding our ID’s in between his index and middle finger. He let us go after awhile when he realized we weren’t a threat. Unlike the city cops, you absolutely can’t bribe the Federal cops, they will just throw you in jail.

DM:What have you done with this work? Published? Exhibited? What about books?

EL:In 1997 I had a one man show in Tijuana. I was really proud because it seemed really well received by the people. What i kept hearing about the work was ” I can’t believe this is my neighborhood”. My work was also part of a group show in Los Angeles in 2000.

DM:I know you have experimented with Blurb. Tell me about that? And why did you do this? Ego? Curiosity? Or was it to make you think about this work with serious intent?

EL: I’m currently working on a book project through Blurb. I really like doing books using Blurb because I like the control it affords the photographer and the final product you get is just gorgeous. It’s just really nice to have your work in book form because it can’t be wiped away in the blink of an eye. And it’s about a billion times better than a photo album.

DM:You sent a photo the other day of rows and rows of film drying in your office with your son hiding behind it. Tell me about your process and how you work? I’m guessing you use TRI-X and Leica, but give me(and the rabid mass of techies)a little more information.

EL: Happy to oblige. The pictures that are on this post were made with a Leica M2 and a 35mm Summicron. With the exception of two or three. The film I used hands down was Kodak TRI-X Today, I use the same Leica M2 with 35mm. Summicron. Ive added a Leica M4 with 50mm and my Leica R6’s each with a 60mm macro and a 28mm. Summicron respectively. I still use TRI-X but now I rate it at an EI of 250 and soup it in XTOL 1:1. For the Tijuana work I used Rodinal 1:50 and shot the Tri-x normal.

DM:You said to me a few days ago that images you thought were the shit back in 1998 you no longer consider that strong and you also said your style had changed. What do you mean by this? Do you think your vision has changed? Are you a better photographer now or then? Does it matter?

EL:I think the sole act of living on planet Earth for 40 years now has changed my vision. I chalk it up to being such a pain in the ass stickler about composition and overall quality. The food I eat, the music I listen to, the movies I like, have all for the most part evolved. Wine, cheese and humans (usually) get better with age. Am I a better photographer? Hell, I don’t think I care if I am or not. I think I’m good enough for my 40th year on Earth–that’s all that really matters; I’m having fun, I’m documenting my life and my family, and folks seem to really dig my work.

DM:Personally, I’m finding less and less inspiration from the professional photography world and more and more inspiration from other creative world genres like art and sculpture. What about you? Where does your inspiration come from?

EL: The professional photography world has been, in effect, run over by the binary steamroller that is digital technology. What inspires me? Right now there are three things that are not photo related in my Domke: 1. Colman Barks The Soul Of Rumi; A New collection Of Ecstatic Poems. 2. My iPod, with 15,000 songs and 3. my two and a half ounce flask filled with Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old scotch.
So, that’s ancient poetry, music and booze (not necessarily in that order).

Eric’s son amid the rolls of drying film.

The author printing in Eric’s underground darkroom circa 1998.
He was being modest people, it was a FRICKING CAVE. There was a door in the darkroom. I’d printed in there for a long time but had never opened the door. One day I did. A SOLID WALL OF DIRT.

You can follow Eric on his blog.

Tijuana Photo Trouble

So in honor of yesterday’s cartel shootout on the streets of Tijuana, I thought I would explain what happened to me the last time I visited this city while working on a project.
I love Mexico, and for the most part, I have had great experiences while working there.
Border cities are major transition zones, not just in Mexico, and you know when you visit these places you are, chances are, going to run into the best and worst of humanity in need and in transition.
I drove to Tijuana to continue a project called, “Dogs Can’t Read,” a look at dogs and graffiti in four cities around the world.
I had been to TJ many times before, but it had been a while since I had walked the streets.
Driving down early I parked near the border on the San Diego side and walked over, my normal procedure when I work along the border.
I try to keep a low profile, working with one small camera and lens, a second, strictly as backup in my non-photo backpack. I look no different than a tourist down for the day looking for a ceramic Bart Simpson.
I realize immediately that something had changed in TJ. The dogs were gone. During my research I read about aid groups who had started foundations in the city to save the wild dogs, and it was apparent that they had been making a significant impact, a bummer for my story, but more importantly, great for the dogs.
I had my walking shoes on and headed due South, toward the mountains, figured I would just have to walk much further to get what I needed.
Tijuana, like most other cities in the world, is covered with graffiti. The spray in TJ is unique to the border world, and very unlike what you would find in New York or Paris. The messages here are political, but based on the most basic of human needs and rights. There are gang signs, but they are weaker and are simply there as ways of telling the viewer where the taggers are looking for inspiration.
I hit the mountains, headed East, and slowly began picking up more and more dogs. After a few hours I found myself in West TJ, and decided to head back toward the border crossing.
Shortly after making the turn I began to feel a little more on my guard, you know the feeling when you can just feel the energy in the air and know you are in a place where you need to be more alert.
The streets were broad, wide and gated, and there were NO people on the street. I ducked into a store, which ironically had a dog out front, and asked the owner, “Hey, what is up with this neighborhood?” “You need to watch out gringo,” he said and shook his head.
I stood inside the store for a minute, just scanning the street, watching, waiting. Nobody. Zero. Dead quiet.
I walked out, photographed the dog, then headed East, walking on the sidewalk.
About twenty yards up the street there was a gap in the fence to my right, and the moment I passed I notice motion and three guys came through the hole.
I knew right away this was bad news.
They walked passed me, much closer and faster than they should have, and kept going.
I took the camera in my right hand and wrapped the strap tighter and tighter around my right wrist and held the camera in my right hand like I was holding a hammer.
The guys got about ten feet in front of me, scanned the street and turned around to face me.
I stopped.
“What are you doing gringo?” they asked.
“Working on a project about dogs,” I said, in Spanish, and then immediately asked them about World Cup soccer, thinking I could change the subject and move on.
It didn’t work.
They came closer, a large guy, a medium guy and a small guy.
Okay, at this point, I knew this was not going to work out verbally. I made a quick assessment. The large guy looked fat and slow and was already sweating like crazy. The small guy was, well, small, but the middle guy was the real issue. He was the one doing the talking and he was wired.
I made the mental decision that if and when this little “event” went South, he was going to get my Contax mashed in his face. I can’t tell you what a horrible feeling this was, and I DETEST violence and fighting. I figure if it comes to this, both parties have failed in basic human relations. But, within a few seconds I knew I was going to have to do something drastic.
The idea of my project, getting images, etc, was gone, and all I could think about now was what to do first, where to run and how to get out of this. Nobody knew where I was, other than that I was in TJ. If something happened to me here, it would be a long while before things were settled.
The guy in the middle started to make his move, just beginning the move to grab me. My right arm began to cock back, and suddenly there was an odd noise.
Screeching brakes, metal doors sliding and trigger mechanisms, or what sounded like trigger mechanisms sliding into place.
My three new friends had their hands in the air and their faces did not look as happy as they did moments before.
I froze.
To my left was a full-size van, the sliding passenger door was open and the driver and passenger, both wearing black ski masks, were standing in the street with automatic weapons pointed at me, and at the three amigos.
It was, I think, Grupo Alpha, the anti-drug police that call TJ home. Now typically, you want to avoid these boys. I’ve had friends who have had issues with them in the past, and GA basically does what they want. These are the guys that wear the ski-masks, ropes and hang off the back of the assault trucks as they drive through TJ. Unless you are working with them, it’s best to just get out of the way.
The passenger began stuffing the three guys into a tiny, metal cage in the back of the van, and the driver, with one arm on his rifle and the other hand stretched out to me kept saying, “Okay gringo, get in the van.”
I knew that if I got in that cage it would be a LONG day and probably NIGHT and DAY and NIGHT, etc.
“Sorry, I’m not getting in the van,” I said. I explained what I was doing, started rambling about dogs and graffiti, in Spanish mind you, and thought if I just kept talking he would get frustrated with my horrible Spanish and let me go.
His hand kept slowly, really slowly waving, and all I could see was his eyes through the slit in his mask.
“What were you doing with those guys?” he asked.
And then it dawned on me. He thought I was buying dope.
I said, “I don’t know them.” “I’m working on a project about dogs,” while I pulled a business card out of my back pocket.
I handed him the card, kept talking, as he studied my card and kept slowly waving that hand.
Frankly, I was scared. I have no problem admitting that. I’m no thrill seeker, action junkie, risk taker, etc, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Get the f%$# out of here gringo,” he said and lowered his weapon.
“No problemo,” I said and lit out for Zona Norte, the shady area just to the East of where I was standing.
Now normally Zona Norte is sketchy at best, but after my little close call, it felt like lobby at The Four Seasons.
As I walked away I glanced back as the cage door shut on the three guys, and I actually felt bad for what they had to be going through.
For the rest of the day I kept to the Zone, Central TJ and actually made most of the better pictures.
This experience has not altered my view of Tijuana, Mexico or the border areas. I wa
s an outsider on foreign soil. Nobody asked me to be there, and there are many people in the border area who are really hurting. When you are hurting you do what you have to do.
This wasn’t the worst situation I’ve been in, not by a longshot, and I don’t suppose it will be my last.
The cartel war will ultimately punish the locals more than anyone else, those civilians caught in the middle.
This cartel war is three years old and I have seen virtually NOTHING in terms of coverage.
Let’s hope there are photographers out there covering this time in history.