(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.
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.
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.
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.
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!