Interview: Oginee ‘OG’ Viamontes Talks About Her Career and New Book ‘THE SEEN’

Whether it’s a punk show under a bridge, at a skatepark after hours, in a backyard, a garage, or any other illicit space in Los Angeles, Oginee “OG” Viamontes will be there to capture the moment in all its beautiful chaos. Her journey began in the early 2000s where she first started taking photos of bands in Long Beach, California.

What a pleasure it is to finally get to chat with you, Oginee. Thank you for your time. For those who don’t already know who are you? Where are you from? What do you hope to achieve with your work?

My name is, Oginee Viamontes, a.k.a. OG, a.k.a. I am originally from the Southeast Los Angeles area, known as South Gate/Downey California. I would love to see my work live longer than me!

How has the South Gate area inspired your journey to become a photographer?

South Gate is just where I grew up. So, I wouldn’t really say it inspired my journey.

I think I just loved pictures. I loved our family photo albums. I loved how photos preserved time.

I think I just wanted to be good at something. I was always observing. I had a lot of behavioral problems, and I was gonna fail high school, and a counselor asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want photo.” I think I just really needed a way to engage with life and people without needing to get close.

It is baffling that a piece of paper can forever encapsulate an image. Would you say that moment of your counselor asking what you want to do was the catalyst for wanting to be a photographer? Or was there a different moment in your life you knew, “I want to do this forever?

(Laughs) I’ll never forget when he slammed his hands on his desk and said, “You want photo? I’ll give you photo!” Yes, I believe if he hadn’t given me the choice to decide, I’d have failed or dropped out of high school. School bored me. So, I thought, “How hard can it be?” I think me and that counselor were both desperate to know what I was meant to do.

Tough love has its pros! Shout out to that counselor digging your passions out from you. Embarking on any journey is never easy. What would you say was the most difficult part about starting your photography career?

I think creating the Instagram page. Putting it out there. Once I managed to get over the anxiety and the over thinking it was game on. People were asking for my handle, and I was like …I don’t.” I didn’t know if what I was capturing was any good. But at this point in my life, I just didn’t care. I needed to finally follow through with it.

Putting yourself out there regarding your artistry for the public to view is anxiety inducing, so I totally understand that. Photography is like art in that it has many definitions, but what does photography personally mean to you?

I think I get so overwhelmed with emotions. Photography helps me get those feelings out! I guess I am in a way hoping to transmit those feeling through my work.

Definitely! You’re expressing yourself and telling stories through the lens rather than the pen, the song, or any other creative avenue. Photography is another medium of storytelling. What are some of the stories you’ve told with your photos that mean the most to you?

I think the candidness of my work will tell it better than me. All I want is to create memories for people. I think the shot that I took on top of a U-Haul truck underneath the Sixth Street Bridge could tell you a pretty good story of what went down that day.

Photo Courtesy of Oginee “OG” Viamontes 

That photo tells you that nothing was gonna stop that show from happening. Not the police. Not anything. The police were already lined up waiting to bust in when I took that photo! They already shut down the first spot. Nothing was gonna stop that show. It was gonna go down, and it did. 

The candid nature of your photography style illustrates such a raw human element that is extremely difficult to capture- from the emotions of the artists on stage, to the crowd surfing, to the attendees in general. What is it that drew you to photograph the L.A. punk scene?

It’s one of those stories of finding yourself at the right place at the right time type of thing. Things just had to happen the way they did in my life in order for me to be standing at Lafayette Park in 2021. You can’t leave out the part of the early 2000s where I first set off and started taking photos of bands in Long Beach, but I can’t leave out the 12 years of drug and alcohol abuse which led me down a dark path from 2003-2015, was when I was active.

The last gig I saw before I went to rehab was in 2015 at Perez Tire Shop. At the time I had a friend who was playing with Who Gives a Fuck and a band called Angst. I took photos then, but shortly after, I went and got sober. Left for Orange County for six years. So, if I can sum it all up, after years of living in a sober bubble, my world had changed. I was always in contact with this old friend, and when he posted a flyer that he was playing, I said fuck it, I’ll go check it out.

I packed my shitty Nikon D80 I did not know what I was going to expect. I thought I was just gonna see an old friend perform. I pulled up, and there was maybe 10 people there. Then suddenly there were 700-plus kids in this park, and it was pure chaos. I stopped thinking about what wasn’t working in my life at the time. I was overwhelmed with inspiration. I hadn’t felt that in years. This was what I wanted to do, and I just wanted to document what I was witnessing. I was hooked! After, and then it just became when it became.

What initially drew me in was what I had set out to do years before, I knew I loved documenting what was around me, but that all stopped, and the passion just wasn’t there. But something about that show in Lafayette Park was a life changer. I needed that. I just loved what the community was doing at that time. It was post-pandemic times, and the generation of music and artist that performed that night was so good. I just said, “Hey this your chance to try.”

And you’ve done exactly what you set out to do with your first ever photo book THE SEEN via Burn Barrel Press—congratulations! How did this collection filled with such high quality, chaotic, yet beautiful imagery come to fruition?

I think putting a zine out comes easy for some artists, not me! I tend to overthink a lot. Putting a zine out there was my plan; I wanted to do it this year. So, I’m really grateful I met Beau at Burn Barrel Press. He was introduced to me by a close friend, and he basically helped navigate, especially working on the layout. He encouraged me to push creatively as to what images I wanted in the book and then he also just added his favorites so I couldn’t thank him enough for also being the foot on the back of my neck and getting it all squared away so we can get the book out.

When I held the test copy, I got chills. I couldn’t believe I was holding just a fraction of what three years had accumulated to. I was super proud of it.

Shout out to Beau! You mentioned how putting out a zine comes easy to some, but not to you. Putting out any piece of work comes with its set of challenges. What were some challenges that you faced when curating THE SEEN?

I think there was so much creative freedom in all of this. So, the challenge for me was to narrow it down to what images I wanted. I sent the first batch off. Once he thought we were set, I went back and wanted to add or replace a few. It’s not exactly what you want to do when you’re meeting a deadline, but Beau was on a 30-day motorcycle excursion and is just an all-around amazing person. I think after an hour and 45 minutes on the phone, we made some last-minute adjustments, and the final version was done!

The name of it was another mini-challenge, but it just eventually clicked one day when I was driving. I thought because most of my work in the book reflects on the punk scene, that’s what a lot of people call whatever scene they’re in—THE SCENE. Not sure if you’ve ever heard anyone refer to it in that way. I have. The scene is this; the scene is that. So why not call it THE SEEN so I can show you the cool bands and people I’ve seen in it?

Looks like we might need to have another book down the line to showcase all the OG archives! It’s interesting you mention that about the title because I noticed the play on words with “the scene” being “seen” through your lens- fitting title. The cover to any piece is an important decision. How did you decide on the cover image for THE SEEN?

It was taken at Circus of Disgust Two, and I stumbled upon some kids that were lighting up cans in the back of this abandoned warehouse.

Lighting up paint cans, was one of the first things I noticed a lot when I was out there in the pits. I got lucky if I was able to get one going off depending on where you’re standing. Sometimes you could never get close enough. This was more personal because I got close. There’s no other way to explain it when I looked through the camera to take the photo, I knew that this was gonna be the cover.

You’ve captured many memorable moments in time just like the cover for THE SEEN. What would you say is one of your most memorable photos to date, and what’s the story behind it?

Most memorable? Mmmmm…

First, I have to say that’s a tough one! I feel so connected with all my photos. if I had to pick one, it would have to be…And this based off when and how this photo made me feel when I took it…

The photo on the back of the book of Cancer Christ. It was taken at Troma Fest.

Photo Courtesy of Oginee “OG” Viamontes

I think for me, this photo was probably the best shot I took that night. I had struggled a few times learning how to bounce light with fog. The garage was so packed that it felt like every shot I was taking was getting blocked or just wasn’t clear enough. It was frustrating. If you’ve ever seen Cancer Christ, they’re an incredible band to watch and just an all-around ball of energy and they project that onto the crowd, so it was a madhouse in there. I braced myself, angled the flash differently and caught this unique photo. It came out so clean. I love everything about this photo. It’s not like any other I’d seen of him out there.

It was a challenge I overcame. I showed up for that one shot. That’s what I keep showing up for. I feel like my photos have evolved tremendously since I first started. I’m emotionally attached to my work. Went to Troma a few handful of times before that and had trouble with framing and lighting, so when I captured this particular shot, it not only highlights how crazy Anthony is as a singer, but it was a pivotal moment for me as a photographer.

Cancer Christ are fucking legendary and put on some chaotic shows. I can imagine trying to snap a shot with all that action going on was damn-near impossible. When you say, “I am a firm believer that sometimes if I show up somewhere, I’m just hoping to get that one shot,” have you ever had a time where you didn’t get the shot?

Yes, when my battery dies (laughs). That happened to me a few times. Gotta get a backup. I think no matter where I show up, I always leave with something. Whatever I get and how I feel about it are two separate things. Sometimes I won’t look at photos for a couple of weeks.

Why is that?

I’ve just learned that however I feel about something one day can change overtime. So, if I feel like I didn’t get anything, I’ll give it a couple of weeks and then I’ll go back and look at it and have a completely different perspective on it.

Sometimes that’s what pieces need is to marinade for a while. Do you find that you do that more or less?

Only when I think I’m shooting blanks. It’s not often. I’m not really out there trying to post right away.

You’re also part of the L.A. Six collective. What is it for those who don’t know and how did your paths cross?

The L.A. six are a group of serious and dedicated photographers and documentarians who have come together to show the lesser-known neighborhoods and people of Los Angeles. We all have our own style and unique access to different subcultures here in L.A. Our goal is to create a body of work together that we can take around the world and show at a higher level of museums and bigger galleries as well as documentaries and books. We’ve come together to fuck shit up.

Well here’s what happened, one day Suitcase Joe (@suitcase_joe) and Frankie Orozco (@losangelesdeftone) got on one knee—just kidding. They tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey we love your work; would you be interested in being a member of the L.A. SIX?” It was an opportunity of a lifetime knocking at my door; of course I’m gonna say hell yeah!

So, there it is.

Well, Oginee, I have no doubts that this is only the beginning of a fruitful and prosperous journey ahead for you. As we conclude here, what would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your journey as a photographer so far?

I thought long and hard about this, and the only thing that comes to mind is, “Don’t ever try to copy anyone else. Don’t compare my work to anyone else’s work.” Influence is the key, ‘cause I’m heavily influenced by others, but I have to remind myself that I do this for myself. To have fun. To cherish every moment of this experience. Time flies, so I live to preserve as much of it as I can and share it with the world!

To support OG, shoot her a follow on Instagram, and purchase a copy of her photo book THE SEEN here

Featured photo Courtesy of Jimmy Bonks

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