Luis Trejo | Self portrait

Beyond the Square: Luis Trejo’s Photographic Journey by Daniel Makagon

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

Luis Trejo’s introduction to punk mirrors the discovery of the music by many punks after the early 1990s: something more present in the mainstream since alternative music had become more mainstream. As his music education and interests expanded, his photographic education began. Living in Estado de Mexico (State of Mexico), he quickly encountered more DIY approaches to punk. That interest and participation in DIY punk paralleled efforts to move beyond formal approaches to photography that were central to his early photography education. In recent years, his work has shifted away from primarily shooting punk shows to a range of place-based photography: portraits, street photography, and experimental photography.

Photo by Luis Trejo

Daniel: How did you get into punk?

Luis: I grew up in Mexico, Estado de Mexico—the state of Mexico. The suburbs of Mexico City. The first thing I started to listen to was ska. My cousins, who are older than me, they used to listen that that type of music. And then I just started to discover other underground music like punk rock and pop punk. During that moment, it was the most popular things in the underground—you can find the bands super easy because everybody was listening to that. Then, when I started to go to high school, I met people who were going to tough guy hardcore shows. My first hardcore show was in the other side of the city. So, I went to those shows and listened to all this stuff because it was super new to me.

After that I met these people who were living close to me. They were more open, because all those shows that I went to at first were all hardcore, only hardcore. No other types of punk rock. But this scene was smaller and they shared and made other types of music that included hardcore and punk rock. I joined with these people, started to be friends with them. It was comfortable to me, and it was closer to me to go the shows. So, it all started with ska.

Daniel: What years?

Luis: I want to say 2002 or 2003. A little bit before I started middle school. All of middle school I listened to ska, punk rock, pop punk. Then when I started high school, in 2006 maybe, I found hardcore.

Daniel: The hardcore shows you attended were in Estado de Mexico or in Mexico City?

Luis: Mostly at that time it was in Estado de Mexico. In Ecatepec. I grew up in the Northwest side and those shows were in the Northeast side. I was living there until I was twenty-four or twenty-five. Then I moved to Tijuana. I did my first U.S. tour with a band called Cadenaxo. After the tour, I stayed in Tijuana, just start to live this adventure that I’m living now.

Daniel: Let’s come back to making music and touring in a moment. First, I want to ask you about photography. When do you start making photographs?

Luis: It’s kind of funny because I started to photograph right before I started high school. So, when I started to go to hardcore shows, this was a good thing to me to practice my photographs. Basically, I started with hardcore shows. I’ve been taking photos for a bit and photographing shows until around 2017. I discovered that I didn’t really like it after many years. It’s cool, but there are other things that make me feel happy about photography.

Daniel: A lot of your first photographs were hardcore photographs, but were you photographing other stuff as well?

Luis: I was taking photos a lot of things, but mostly at the time I was going to a lot of hardcore shows. Also, when I started photography, I was doing analog, shooting film. It is expensive here in the U.S., too, but over there it is hard to afford it if you don’t have a good job. Or you are depending on your parents. So, I was not taking a lot of photos, because it was hard to afford it. But when I started to go to these hardcore shows my parents gave me a birthday present, a digital camera. My fears about paying for film were changed, so I just started to take a bunch of pictures of everything. Probably one year after I got my first flash, so I did more stuff. I discovered more types of photographs with flash and with no flash.

Luis Trejo | Self portrait

Daniel: Was that camera a point and shoot or was it a DSLR?

Luis: It was a DSLR.

Daniel: Did you study photography, or did you teach yourself?

Luis: I went to this workshop for black and white photography, the introduction to photography. I learned how to use the lab, develop, print my own photos, but that was only one year. After that I just go by myself—reading, YouTube videos, and all this stuff.

Daniel: Did you have a specific focus when you started shooting shows: the bands, the crowd, documenting punks being punks?

Luis: The first thing I was trying do was focus on the bands. Sometimes when there was a singalong or something like that I was trying to focus on people. At the beginning, I was super worried about all the techniques to take a picture. At the place I learned photography, it was super strict because mostly the people helping do these workshops were professionals donating their time, people working in journalism or editorial jobs. There was a lot of hype that everyone wanted to get digital cameras to take photos, so it was very popular during the time. Those photographers wanted to teach people the right way to take photos. How do you use your camera? You need to know your camera really well. You need to know how to take a picture. I was super hard with myself. To be honest, at that point of my life I didn’t really enjoy my first years doing photography because I was super focused on the square. Everything needs to be like this, this, this [uses his hands to show how images need to fit within a square frame]. Everything fits exactly and is gonna be like this other photograph.

Because I had the chance to delete all the photos I didn’t like, I was like, “No, no, no, no” [uses his hands to perform looking at the camera screen]. At the end, I was having only five photos from two hundred photos I took during a show. I think that was the thing why I just stopped taking photos at shows. I was like, “I like it, but I don’t think I’m doing well with this.” Blah, blah, blah. “I’m going to move to another thing.” I started to photograph more portraits and more journalist photos. After that I started at the university in Estado de Mexico. I went for communication and journalism.

Sad Boys, Ciudad de México 2014 | photo by Luis Trejo

Daniel: Let’s jump back to music. I know you were also in bands, as you said earlier. Can you talk a bit about what you were doing on that front?

Luis: The first band was called Cadenaxo. That’s hardcore punk, and the band started in 2014 or 2015. Basically, it was a bunch of friends. All of them were older than me, so they’d been playing in bands for a minute. It was my first band. They asked me if I wanted to sing. Right now, I’m less shy. I used to be really shy, so I was like, “I don’t know if I can make it.” This is a big deal to me, to speak into a microphone. I tried and then I decided, “Fuck it. Let’s do it.” Probably the first five shows, I always was screaming with my back to the audience, looking at the band, like at practice. It was really hard for me but I’m really glad that I made it because, if not I probably at this time I’d be the same shy guy.

We recorded a demo and that got kind of hyped, because during the time there were YouTube channels from other countries that had the demo. My friend Pablo, who is the guitar player of Cadenaxo, before we started to play he went on a U.S. tour with another band from Guatemala to play bass for them.  A band called Volver. Pablo met a lot of people in the U.S. during that tour and made all those contacts. He sent the music to them: “Hey, listen to my new band.” And one of those guys was from the Olympia Hardcore Fest in Washington. This guy invited us to play the fest after one demo [laughs]. Okay, I think we’re going on tour now.

Pablo had those contacts only on the West Coast without knowing the rest of the U.S. We met a couple people in the U.S., some in Boston, another in Chicago. It was like, “How we can make this tour a real big experience, because we don’t know when we can come back to the U.S?” Fuck it, let’s plan a whole tour and we’ll see how this works. After we got the invitation for the hardcore fest, we played a festival in the State of Mexico. These people from New York organized this fest that was called Acheron D-fest. Those people really liked our band and they offered to help book some shows in the East Coast if we wanted to go.

So, it was like “now is perfect,” because we got the contacts on the West Coast and East Coast. I just started to send emails to a bunch of people who I didn’t know. I was looking on Facebook: “Oh, I think these people organized shows in this city and these people play in this band.” Me and Pablo booked the U.S. tour by ourselves, basically not knowing people at all. Also, during that time my English was really, really, really bad. Now, I can have this conversation with you but before [laughs]: “Hi. How are you? Nice to meet you.” Right now, I’m thinking, “How did people understand my English during that time?”

Daniel: Was it a good tour?

Luis: Yeah, it was really beyond our expectations. We met a lot of people and we made new friends. After that we came back to Mexico. I stayed in Tijuana and all the rest of the band went back to Mexico City. I started to make more music. We recorded another EP. I didn’t make it well in Tijuana because I was struggling with money. I didn’t have good jobs; they didn’t pay me well. I was staying in different friends’ houses.

So, I came back to Mexico and we finished the record. We got tour invites for two different festivals: one in L.A. and one in New York; it was the Latino punk fest. We started to book another U.S. tour. The first one was really successful. We came back with money. I was having a really bad time with money after I came back to Tijuana. All of them wanted to go on tour again, but I was like, “Dude, I don’t have any money. I can’t afford my flight even just to do one way.” And they said, “Oh, no worries, we can help you.” Okay, we did it again, everything was successful, and I got some money. We played in Santa Ana, California and I met this guy called Kevin Lopez, who plays in this band called Tozcos. He is the manager in a warehouse. During our talk, he offered me a job at the warehouse. He told me, “Hit me up when you are done with your tour. Come back.”

I’m missing some parts right before I was living in Tijuana to when I met my wife. When we were dating, she moved to Tijuana when I was there. She’s from L.A. We were living together for a bit, maybe two months. But we couldn’t make it living in Tijuana. She didn’t find a job in San Ysidro (Calif.), the city crossing the border in the U.S. The plan was to move to the U.S. to stay with her, be close to her.

Also, I met this guy who is a friend of Pablo called Ricardo. Pablo asked Ricardo if he can help us with the driving on the West Coast when we did our second tour. Ricardo is from Santa Ana. I explained to him the situation that this person in Santa Ana offered me a job and he said, “Dude, you can come stay in my house. Don’t worry about it. We’re homies now and you’re welcome in my house.” Damn. It was like something crazy in my head. He was blowing my mind. This is the really good thing that I love about punk. I met a bunch of people who now are my homies. I’m not really close to my family because things happened when I was younger, but punk is my other family. Damn, I never had expectations about this; I’m really thankful about punk for this thing. Crazy connections that you make in punk.

Test Of Time, Colima, México 2013 | photo by Luis Trejo

Daniel: Punk community can be very powerful. Did you make photographs while you toured?

Luis: The first time I brought my camera, but I forgot the battery. [laughs] It was really bad. But the second one I brought everything. I documented mostly the first part of the tour, the West Coast. I was taking a bunch of portraits of my bandmates and documenting everything. But when we went to the East Coast, and I don’t know why, but I just was not taking a lot of pictures. We were touring in small cars and little vans. No room for anything. Like sardines, everything was compact. I was not feeling comfortable; I was struggling with the space in the car. Yeah, I just stopped but I don’t remember why.

Daniel: Once you moved to the U.S., did you stay with Cadenaxo or did you form another band?

Luis: After we came to the U.S. for the second tour, Pablo and I stayed with Ricardo and we started this band called Sin Ritmo. We were jamming and we recorded a couple songs. Cadenaxo was taking a break because I was living in the U.S. and everybody was taking a break. But right now we only do that at a distance, with Pablo in Mexico City.

A couple years later these people from Santa Ana asked me if I want to sing in a hardcore band. At the beginning, I was like, “I don’t know; I sing in two bands already.” They’re not really active, but at the same time, yeah, it’s my voice in the two bands already. But they kept asking me and I just said, “Okay, I’m gonna try. I’m not sure if I am gonna stay. But if you guys like it and I like it, let’s do it.” The name of that band is Fuga. We did a couple dates on the West Coast: Oakland, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Diego. After that we went on tour to the East Coast, from Richmond to Boston.

And that was it, since after that I moved to Chicago. We tried to keep the band alive. I met this person who wanted Fuga to play in Northwest Indiana and he’s like, “I can pay the flights for you guys and you can come over.” “Yo, of course, we’re super down.” That was exactly the day when COVID starts, when the government was telling them “this is the shutdown,” and everything changed. We went to Chicago first, because it was cheaper to get there. My friend George, who lives in Chicago, helped me to book another show. We made it possible to run the show, but a lot of bands dropped from the show. And the show in Northwest Indiana got cancelled because all the bands dropped. We made it to play that Chicago show, with only two bands. There was nobody at the show, only ten people or twenty people. “Okay, we got it. This is a serious thing. This is nothing easy.” They came back to Santa Ana, and I stayed in Chicago for a little bit more, and then I came I came back L.A.

Daniel: Yeah, the first few days were crazy. It took some time before Chicago locked down. Were you living in Chicago for a long time or were you just here for a little bit?

Luis: The last months of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. I’ve been doing a bunch of moves in the last few years.

Daniel: Earlier you said that you stopped photographing punk shows. By the time you moved to Chicago, were you still photographing punk shows?

Luis: No punk shows. Well, just a couple of them, because my wife plays in a band called Futura. When she was playing, I was taking pictures sometimes. When I was living in L.A., I tried to come back to take more pictures, but, “Nah, I don’t like it.” When I moved to the U.S. I can afford different things. I went back to film and I started to take a bunch of pictures with film, but I never had a medium format camera before nor ever shot with medium format. I got a medium format Pentax 645 and I started to take photographs with that, to learn again. Always I’m learning about photography, but I learned a bunch of things I didn’t know about color film.

Okay, when I started to do photography, since my first school, it was just black and white. I was really into black and white even though it was digital. I didn’t have a really good experience with color because I was not trying. When I moved to the U.S., I started to do a bunch of film, but in color. I just stopped the black and white. I did a lot of portraits and pictures of the city. I decided to make this photozine, Mayoría Equivocada. And I was learning how to do a zine. I have these friends in Guatemala. One of them is a photographer called Andrés Vargas. The other friend is the graphic designer, Luiso Ponce. Andres, I was following his steps like as inspiration, because he started with hardcore shows in Guatemala. Then he moved to do something more journalistic. Then he moved to portraits, to fashion and fine art. I was watching his stuff for a long time. When I decided to move to take portraits and more editorial things, I asked him, “Can you check my zine. Can you give me some advice?” He helped me with that, told me some things I can move. My friend Luiso, also gave me advice: “You can do this,” or blah, blah, blah. It was good, too, because I got professional help from these people.

Malastare, Guadalajara 2013 | photo by Luis Trejo

Daniel: From graphic design standpoint, are you talking about sequencing and layout? And what year was the zine?

Luis: Yeah, I didn’t have the experience with that. The zine was probably thirty photos and everything was in film: medium format and 35 millimeter. It was 2019. I’m starting a new one, but I have been moving a bunch of times and I was having a crazy time during the last two years. I got separated for the first time from my wife. We came back together and then again we’re separated, so I’ve been moving a lot. And right now I’m starting to create something with pictures of the city in all the places I’ve been living. When I was in Chicago, I was doing a lot of portraits of random people. Right now, I’m trying to do something a little different.

Daniel: I obviously see what you post on Instagram, and that work tends to be a lot of street photography. I would even call it a bit more abstract, like you’re playing with shapes and light and the design of the city.

Luis: Yeah, you explain it really well. Lately, I’m doing something more abstract. I’m doing this because after many years I discovered my art side. Ever since I was younger, I was rejecting my art side. After that zine, I was telling myself: “I think this is art for me and I can do it. Why not? You don’t need to only take pictures documenting everything.” I have been watching a lot of photos on the internet and creating my visual education

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. You were expanding your visual repertoire.

Luis: Exactly. I really liked this. I started to fill in my art side. Just go, go, go with more stuff like this. When I was in Mexico, the last time in January, I got this first assistant job with Carlos Álvarez-Montero. I met him one year before. I emailed him: “I have this photozine I recently made. I’m visiting Mexico City and I would like to give you a copy. You can check it out.” I know Carlos from a long time ago, since he used to have a photo school and all the portraits with rock bands and stuff. But during that time, he was doing more documenting for Vice. I wanted to show this work because it’s another stage in my photographer’s life.

He replied right away: “Of course. Let’s meet up on this day, and this time.” I was super, super, super nervous when I met him. I was like, “Yeah, yeah. This is my…”—freaking out. For me, Carlos is real deal [lifts his hand up high to signal a tall measurement]. It was like, “Damn, I’m showing my work to a real photographer with a lot of years of experience.” He checked it out and he told me, “This is really good. But what do you want from me?” And I told him that I would like to be his assistant to learn more and get experience in this industry. He told me: “Of course, I can help you. Just let me know when you are here again and we can figure out if I have something to do. I am sure there is something. You can come to help me.” It was the best news I ever had. As humans, I think some of us are expecting the appreciation from other people, especially when you are young. This person approved my zine, and I was feeling really happy about it.

Daniel: Absolutely.

Luis: To come back to the part when I was in Mexico in January, 2020, I sent an email to Carlos: “I’m moving to Mexico City. If I can help with anything, let me know. I’m available.” Two days after that he confirmed a job. I was doing second assistant and I was helping with all the stuff like getting the gear, helping with whatever he needs. It was my first assistant job, ever. I was super happy about it. To be honest, I was not thinking about the money. This is my first time. I don’t have experience. I don’t deserve the pay, because I don’t know anything about this job. And I never asked him for money. After we finished the shoot, he told me: “We never talked about money. Usually, we pay this and this.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, of course. I wouldn’t even expect money.” He said, “This is a job.” Right now, I’m in California and I’m looking for the same job. I sent an email to a bunch of photographers, but not many people respond. I’m still trying because someone can at some point reply to my messages.

Photo by Luis Trejo

Daniel: What are you working on now, in terms of your own work?

Luis: I’m working with abstract photographs. I’m trying to do another zine and I want to have a show with that. With the last zine, I was trying to make an art show. I couldn’t make it because I was moving. But I made two small exhibitions, one when I was in Chicago with another artist from Chicago and Los Angeles. And another one in Mexico City in a record store. It was like a zine fair, swap meet or something like that. People were doing different stuff: some of them art, others photography.

Recently I got an invitation for a first show in Los Angeles with a bunch of photographers from the L.A. area. I just have one picture in that show, a picture from my old zine. And I’ve been printing in big formats, but not on photograph paper, but like a blueprint. I want to do something with big things, like when you bring a bunch of posters together, putting them together to make a bigger one. This big piece. And I’m looking to do something like that with my art show. More artsy, something different than we see with photos.

Lately, I’ve been doing more digital, since I have been moving a lot. I didn’t have the time to develop film. That’s cool for me. I was working a lot with film and I was not paying attention to digital. I’m learning a lot of new things right now. I’m learning color but in digital. It’s really helpful to me doing this stuff in digital because I’m adding to my visual education. It’s kind of hard; there are a bunch of colors you need to work on, another world.

Daniel: Absolutely. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, Luis. I really enjoyed learning about your photography and about your experiences touring. And the work you do blends really well with this series given your focus on punk and street photography.

Luis: Perfect. I’m really thankful that you took time to do this interview. I’m really happy about it.

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