By Gabriel San Román
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.”