Reflections on Tijuana by Eric Labastida

bullfight 2 copy

(Editor’s note: The following are words and photographs of Eric Labastida. These are his thoughts and reflections during his time photographing Tijuana from 1992 to 2002)

When I started this project and photographing in general, I found inspiration in the library.  This was before the internet, before we had the ability of riding the flood of information as we do now.  I checked out photo books.  My first visual and poetic guides were Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Mary Ellen Mark, and of course, Gene Smith.  I was on a diet of strong composition, strong content and a feeling of pure joy in trying to catch that moment in the blink of an eye.  It all had to be there: geometry,  timing and magic.  A very elusive beast indeed,  but the hunt was pure living, and I got hooked.

white hat coybow

It was the early 90’s, I had lived my whole life in San Diego, and it was lovely. It was too lovely, I started to realize by age 18.
Tijuana was a loud, scary, smelly, yet visually incredible place to visit. It took some prodding from my best buddy to venture forth into the belly of the beast that was, as I learned later, a wonderful place to cut our photographic baby teeth.
I bought a Leica M2,the camera I used for this project, in a used camera shop for $400. With it I bought a 35mm Summicron. JD, the person who sold it to me, called it a “good starter Leica”. I still have this camera; it is my favorite camera to this day. I shot 99% of this project with this one camera and lens.

Tijuana was an exotic mix of hustlers and shoe shine boys, prostitutes and crazy-eyed cops, of roaming mariachi bands and Mixtec chicle sellers.  All swirling in a stew of beautifully aromatic street food vendors and the faint stank of dog shit and burning tires. Tijuana was THE place and we were just young enough and crazy enough to think we were safe. Looking back, I’d say now that we were damn lucky we didn’t end up in a ditch somewhere near the border.

Photographing in the 90’s in Tijuana was fun, exhilarating, dangerous (at times) and challenging.  I wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I only knew the basics, “I’m thirsty, I’m hungry, please & thank you”.  I would start the day with preconceived ideas of what I was going to see.  Every single time I would be wrong. It took me years to just go with the flow.

I’ve always edited my own work from the beginning.  I see editing your own work as a part of the whole process.
The Tijuana body of work took 10 years to complete, so I’ve lived with these pictures for years. I see them as old friends.
Whenever I got a new photograph that I thought had potential of becoming a “portfolio shot”, I would make a print of it and put it on my cork board. If I still loved it after a month or so, it was a keeper.

angelic conejo

I’d do the same thing when I’d make my own prints in the darkroom. I’d live with the print on the cork board for a period of time and ask, is it too light or dark? Does it require additional dodging or burning? That sort of thing.
It was a slow process but I think a very crucial one to get the body of work i’d be proud of.

Whenever I’m asked about what advice to give to street photographers, I think of these things: Keep your equipment simple, and know it like you know the back of your hand. People in sports talk about “the zone”, where everything is crystal clear and you can anticipate what’s going to happen.  The camera has to be an extension of your arm.

Buick baby copy
As far as equipment goes,  you can have 10,000 pounds of photographic equipment at home, but I recommend ONE camera and ONE lens.  I like prime lenses, but that’s up to you.  I read once that when Henri Cartier Bresson was photographing Ghandi’s funeral, he had one camera, one lens and 3 or 4 rolls of film, that’s it! For Ghandi’s funeral.

Laying downsleeping

Without getting into the whole film vs. digital debate, I feel if you want to make better pictures you need to slow down and really look at what you’re looking at.  Shooting film makes me think about the shot more. I think that when you shoot digitally there is a greater chance you’re going to “machine gun” your way through a situation.

My last piece of advice would be, for God’s sake, HAVE FUN!

three guyszona bar 2fight 1 in front of the church bus stop snackTJ10 copy kidschildren fly a kite in Colonia Esperanza, Tijuana    Man takes a break from shopping while bird looks on. TJ4 copy drunk copy   Patrons at the Kin-Kle bar white shoes2

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  • Giovanni Pascarella

    Very soulful body of work, Eric. Some pictures are stronger than others and I’ve found them very inspiring, but they all seem to work very well as a whole and I’d love to see a book out of this. Your darkroom skills look great, too! My best regards.

  • Eric Labastida

    Thank you for your kind words, I am currently designing a book for the Tijuana work. I want to get it right , it takes a while.

  • Arik

    Amazing- these have a powerful aroma of awesome.

  • Brandon Ballweg

    Really exciting collection of images here – will definitely be checking out more of Eric’s work. While it’s true that you don’t have to travel far from your hometown to take great photos, I still find the most compelling ones come from places like this.

  • Nuno Silva

    Awesome work, Eric, very inspiring. I hope you can make a book out of this folio, it would be a great reward for a 10 year project! Best of luck!

  • Tim Miller

    Powerful images, Eric. Are you still in San Diego?

    • Eric Labastida

      I’ve been in Las Vegas for the past 12 years. Although I still consider myself a Southern Californian.

  • Giovanni Maggiora

    I’m hooked! Where can I buy a book of yours, Eric (L)?
    Absolutely majestic work. Just goes to show that a body of work has to be earned, liven in like an old pair of shoes. Like a camera, really.
    Congrats, really.

    • Eric Labastida

      When the book is ready Ill spread the word.

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