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Q+A: Estevan Oriol

February 08, 2008

Adidas and Undefeated recently released 1979, a limited edition collaborative book with photographer Estevan Oriol, emphasizing the deep relationship of basketball to street wear and culture. The book comes with the purchase of the reissued 1979 Top Ten sneaker. We hit up Estevan in LA and talked to him about the book and some of the stories behind the photos. Check the interview after the jump.

Your photography often zooms in on Latino street culture but this project is really different. Here, you capture the intensity of basketball culture, how’d you get involved?

I think Adidas was thinking, who’s capturing street culture out there a lot? James from Undefeated came up with me. In this job, you have to be a documentarian, you have to know how to shoot people you don’t know, which is hard in itself, just walking up to a bunch of people and being like Hey can I take a picture of you? Out here in LA, nobody trips on that, they’re like What are you a cop? Why you want my picture? That’s why I started with taking pictures of people I knew. But when you go down to Venice Beach or even some courts where people are playing at night, people are not that into getting there picture taken, they’re like How you gonna take a picture of me and there’s no money? Trying to explain that is really hard.

Where do you start?

Well, I went to New York to do a job and then I told my assistant, Hey let's take tomorrow and go shoot some street ball. This is New York, the home of street ball and Ruckers. So we start off down there on 6th Avenue where they have all the games on the outside court, and there wasn’t one person on the courts playing basketball. And then I was like damn that’s just crazy this is the most famous basketball court in New York, like that’s wild. I was tripping out. So we ended up going to like fifteen basketball courts and not one of them had one person on them. So I was like, this is kind of cool, cause it’s like we didn’t plan for this shit to happen it just came out this way. So we went and took pictures of all these different basketball courts with nobody in them.

I went to New Orleans to shoot C Murder’s video, cause I direct videos. I went to do that, and I was driving around in all the places where Katrina hit hard, and over there, there are really no people on the basketball courts, I was shooting that too. It was a trip because I’d go up to the house and at the bottom of the steps there’s a pile of wood from the houses being destroyed and there’d be a basketball right there.

Then I went to LA. I know the spots in LA where I can find people, like Venice Beach, and I went down in the LA River one day, and there had just been a rain and there were all these Styrofoam cups, and in the middle of all those cups was a basketball, and I was like, man this is a trip, everywhere I go I’m seeing basketballs and empty courts. I was like, I need some people in there. I wanted to get different kinds of people, so I found these guys called the LA Breakers, I used one of the guys in a video in 1997. It turns out this guy is the team captain of this little people team called LA Breakers. I went and shot one of their games and that shot went well because everyone felt comfortable that I knew him. Then a friend of mine—he’s a writer—I asked him, what’s your day job? He says Well, I work with kids. I said What kind of kids? And he was like, Well they’re mentally challenged. So I ended up shooting him and his homies at night, and then he took me to his other friend who coaches teenage girls and then I went and shot the mentally challenged kids.

So did you ever jump in and play ball yourself?

In the last shot of the book I’m playing my assistant. He’s like 4’11” and I’m 6’2.” What had happened was that I was having my friend play, he’s 6’6”, and I was doing a shoot of them two. We always play with my assistant ‘cause he’s like a little guy and we mess with him all the time. So I was like, I’m gonna have you play Alan (the big guy) and then I’ll bet on you. It was raining and they were slipping and falling. Chavita the little guy won, so I ended up playing him, and Alan took a shot of us playing. It’s one of the last shots in the book.

Do you think Adidas had a big part in propelling street wear culture?

All these companies did. They all take from the culture but they also blow it up. The reason I started doing clothing companies was because people weren’t making clothes I liked. They weren’t for me. There was nothing for the Latino. That’s when me and my friends started because we didn’t wear all these wild colors, we were more into navy blue, black, white, and gray. We were more into simple, low profile classic pieces. By these companies putting street culture out there, it opened doors for people to do their own thing. A lot of people have become entrepreneurs out of street culture because they know the culture and they’re able to use the information that they know in the business.

The Adidas 1979 book uses quotes from Homer’s The Illiad, highlighting ideas about heroes and warriors. I often see this theme in your photography. Heroes and warriors are found in the most unsuspecting places, especially the street. What do you think is the story of basketball and street culture?

Basketball is a street sport. Its one of the sports that’s played in the hood, or the streets, along with stickball, boxing, and even soccer. Some sports are in the hood and some aren’t. The majority of people don’t come from rich successful families, most come from lower, middle-lower class families, so when there is a positive story of somebody coming from that, a lot more people respond to that and relate to that. That’s why I try to show those type of stories, to uplift the community with hope, because there are so many people who think there is no hope, and I made it out of all that shit, so I try to show all those people that there is hope and that you can do whatever you want to do. You don’t have to settle for the least, you don’t have to settle for a dead end job or take somebody’s bullshit all the time. There is light at the end of the tunnel if you keep fighting.

Posted: February 08, 2008
Q+A: Estevan Oriol