Daniel Peña is in search of sight and sound

Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Daniel Peña doesn’t have a smart phone. It’s one of the things that make him seem immune to the rest of the world’s jittery, digitally driven speed. Peña moves at his own unhurried pace. Often with is Nikon FE in hand, he’s economical with his shots, only clicking his vintage film camera when he thinks there’s something special. A roll of film will sometimes spend weeks in his camera before it’s ready to be developed. 

The tactic is worlds away from digital photography, where a hundred shots are fired off in just a few seconds. It’s not that Peña knocks digital photography; he’s just not into it. Still, he thinks the massive uploading of digital photos to social sites like Instagram and Facebook is a good thing.

Photo by Daniel Peña

“It makes photographers like me work a little harder, you know?” he quietly mumbles, strolling down a dusty Tijuana alleyway toward his home. “Everybody has access to a camera now. That’s why I’m trying to do things a little differently.”

The 25-year-old lives alone in an apartment in Mariposa, a live-work artist enclave literally steps away from the United States-Mexico border fence. Across the street is Casa del Túnel: Centro de Arte y Cultura en Tijuana, the site of a former drug tunnel transformed into an art gallery and event space that’s currently operated by the Balboa Park-based WorldBeat Cultural Center. Like countless photographers before him, Peña’s photographed the nearby white car riddled with bullets—a permanent art installation that sits in front of Casa del Túnel. But because of his use of film, his skill for capturing the right kind of light and his penchant for leaving in unexpected surprises like flecks of dust on his negative, the result is unique. In Peña’s photo, the car looks like it’s floating in thin air and the white specks on the print add to the ghostly effect.

“I don’t like to edit too much,” he says. “I like to keep it what it is. I don’t like to turn it into a completely different image.”

Photo by Daniel Peña

 The fuzzy, gritty, raw quality of film serves Peña well, especially for his shots of Tijuana, which are increasing now that he lives there. Five months ago, the young photographer finally mustered the courage to move out of his parents’ home in Chula Vista. When his parents, who are natives of Mexico, found out he was moving south of the border, they were shocked.

“They were like, ‘What? Why would you go to Tijuana?'” he laughs.

But the work that’s been appearing on his website and more frequently on his Tumblr blog since his move answers his parents’ question. The chaotic and colorful city inspires him. Before the move, he used to cross regularly and wander around Tijuana with a camera as his only companion.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Peña ventured out to add a few shots to his Sight & Sound series, which features photos of street musicians that he shoots with film, develops into prints then scans and posts to his website. Under each photo, he includes a digital audio recording of the music being played while he’s shooting the photos. The added layer of audio has a unique effect that’s somehow more compelling and moving than if he were to simply combine the two elements in video form.

“See, I think there’s a guy by the bridge, but I can’t tell,” Peña says, walking toward the border crossing and squinting into the bright afternoon sun as he points at an underpass near the Sentri lane, where people with cards and clearance line up for faster entry into the United States. “Usually, street musicians are here when there’s a long line of cars. It’s not too busy today, so we’ll see.”

Photo by Daniel Peña

Sure enough, in the shadow of the underpass sits a white-haired man with a beautiful handmade guitar. Peña uses his workable Spanish and timidly asks the man for his permission to take his photo and record some of his music using a small handheld digital device. After Peña drops some money into the guitar case, the man happily starts strumming. The introverted photographer hangs back and starts by shooting from a distance. He slowly works his way closer to his subject and, after a handful of clicks, is eventually satisfied with his shots. He thanks the man and moves on.

The soulful singing of an old woman spills out from the center of Parque Teniente Guerrero, a small community park in downtown Tijuana. People fill the benches surrounding the gazebo in the middle of the park where the woman performs. Again, Peña snaps a few shots from afar and eventually works his way in and shoots a few more before the old woman wraps up her set and hands the microphone to the famed “El Muerto de Tijuana” street performer, an old goth man whose original rock music laid over electronic keyboard beats is clearly a crowd favorite. After a few songs, Peña gets his shot and then sits back to take in the show.

“Things are always changing, you know?” he says later as he navigates Tijuana’s bustling streets, trying hard to put the motivation behind his analog-photography obsession into a few simple words. “Everything is just a moment in history and then it’s gone… I’m making it stand still.”

Photo by Daniel Peña

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