Serving as OC Weekly’s last art director, Federico Medina designed covers and layouts while adding hints of his own photographic talents to the late, great alternative newspaper. When the company folded last year a day before Thanksgiving, the future seemed as wide open as it did uncertain. All Medina knew for sure is that he didn’t want to put his camera down.
“I always have ideas in the back of my mind brewing on studio-based art projects,” he says. “After leaving the Weekly, I thought I was going to do more of that.”
A Santa Ana native, the photographer cut his teeth in the local graffiti scene before learning graphic design from a trade school. He captured portraits of his hometown over the years that turned into “Life and Culture in the Golden City,” a 2017 exhibit at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.
But it didn’t take long for Medina to feel the pull of current events in between independent contract jobs with automotive and cannabis companies, especially with a pandemic raging. Michigan erupted in protests over stay-at-home orders but Orange County seemed calm enough for the time being. For a series of photographs entitled “White Face,” he photographed a Black artist who adorned the cosplay costume of a Michigan militiaman, complete with a red MAGA hat and, perhaps most provocatively, white face paint.
“I need people to engage in my work,” says Medina. “I can’t just photograph a pretty sunset or a model in a bikini by a car. I respect that but as artists it’s our job to have people thinking and questioning.”
Soon, art and life began to blur much closer to home. The coronavirus pandemic, an anti-racist revolt against police and a clashing of all sides loomed near. It all began with an anti-quarantine protest in Huntington Beach on a May Day unlike any other. Medina grabbed his gear and headed to the scene.
“Huntington Beach has a history of being a rogue right-wing city,” says Medina. “It compelled me to capture those moments. Photographs last forever.”
A cluster of people largely without masks proved shocking enough to those faithfully sheltering at home. But Medina never abandoned his artistic senses when switching over to street photography, which he sees as a real-time study of human behavior. Rather than focusing on easy crowd shots or wacky protests signs, the seasoned professional wanted to capture the faces of the anti-quarantine protesters up close with his camera and the story they left open for interpretation.
“You see their wrinkles, their color tones,” says Medina. “You can somewhat identify what that person’s about. It’s important to put a face behind their motive.”
He uploaded the images to his Stoopdown Photography page on Instagram with minimal commentary. The portraits did well enough on their own in sparking an online conversation about the moment.
A much more dramatic scene awaited at the end of the month. “Black Lives Matter” protests swept the nation after the videotaped killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis policemen. America faced a racial reckoning once more; a protest in Santa Ana on May 31 called people out to the intersection of Bristol Street and McFadden Avenue in solidarity.
“Whenever I’ve covered protests in that intersection, Santa Ana comes out,” says Medina. “It’s Bristol, one of the most famous streets in the city.”
Medina grew up within walking distance from that intersection. He headed back out for another round of protests amid the pandemic, gearing up with a surgical face mask and a press badge, which he thought would offer him a modicum of protection, especially with plans of heading out to the frontlines.
That night, fireworks tossed at police exploded in all their multicolored allure. Santa Ana police and Orange County Sheriff deputies brandished their non-lethal weaponry. “I knew it was a dangerous moment,” says Medina, “but I wanted people to see that it was youth out there speaking with their voice.”
He also wanted people to see a close up glimpse at the faces of officers clad in riot gear and what they might reveal. Many expressions could barely hide a loosely concealed rage.
“I saw a lot of cops and sheriffs who should not be in uniform,” says Medina. “There’s no dialogue. What speaks is a baton, a shove, tear gas or a rubber bullet.”
In past chaotic scenes, Medina’s faced a push and shove here or there. But nothing prepared him for what happened next.
A policemen exchanged looks with Medina, who then focused his camera’s lens on him. The officer had pointed his rubber bullet gun at youthful protesters near the skirmish line. “Hopefully, I thought, he won’t shoot at the kids if he knows he’s being watched,” says Medina. “That’s my weapon.”
He watched the policeman back off the skirmish line to converse with another officer. They appeared to be taking glances back at Medina, who took his eyes off the line for a brief moment to chat with a fellow photographer on scene. Just then, something harsh struck his head like a swift swing of a hammer.
A rubber bullet claimed Medina as another casualty of police violence against the press. He felt a bit disoriented before stepping to the side and taking off his cap. Streams of blood started trickling down his face. “At that moment, without knowing the severity of the injury, I couldn’t count on anybody,” he says.
Or so Medina thought.
A protester saw him bleeding and called out for an activist medic who emerged from the crowd. “She had me sit down and applied gauze to my head,” says Medina. “She bandaged me up within three minutes.”
After that, he took some final photographs before calling it a night.
Medina awoke the following morning to a throbbing headache. He immediately bought a helmet and a pair of goggles for the next photojournalist outing. Within a week, the lump left by the rubber bullet subsided. All that’s left is a scar—and not one big enough to keep him away from the action.
The head wound healed just in time for the next wave of Black Lives Matter protests in OC, including a demonstration in Huntington Beach. It brought out much of the anti-quarantine crew, this time to counter-protest in supposed “defense” of the city.
Medina headed out with new safety equipment in tow just in case the scene took any turns for the chaotic. He didn’t end up needing the added protection, despite the protest’s testy moments. “It was about Black Lives Matter versus the Trump supporters,” says Medina. “It was a clear divide.” A chronicler of both sides, his photographs reveal a nation deeply at odds with itself. The Black Lives Matter protesters were younger, more diverse and held anti-racism signs. Opposite them, blue Trump flags held by largely White hands flapped in the ocean’s breeze.
If the Weekly still existed, Medina’s fearless photography would’ve graced the newspaper’s covers, defining a first draft of history. But he’s not too concerned about what might’ve been.
“I’m already working on a photography book,” says Medina. “It’s primarily based on the protests and documenting the movement here in OC.”
He expects history to keep unfolding as 2020 rages on; as it does, he’ll be there.
“Photojournalism is vital,” says Medina. “It’s a necessity and people want it.”
For more information or to support artist Federico Medina, please visit his website: www.stoopdown.com
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.