Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Everyday Style in Argentina: My Conversation with Javi Obando of OnTheCorner

OnTheCorner is perhaps the premier street style blog of Latin America, and it is among my very favorite street style blogs anywhere. Started in 2007 by Javi Obando and Flora Grzetic, it has become something like Buenos Aires’ answer to Hel Looks, a daily dose of edgy, Latin-infused styles that couldn’t have come from anywhere else. By 2010, it had a large following in Argentina and well beyond, and Javi and Flora began to be inundated with requests from advertisers and modeling agencies to be put in touch with the unique and intriguing subjects they feature in their posts. So Javi and Flora started Crudo, their own modeling agency, and turned their passion for street style into a career in the fashion industry. I spoke to Javi Obando, the photographer behind OnTheCorner, by Skype two weeks back. Here is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: What’s the story behind OnTheCorner?

Javi: It was kind of a natural thing. Flora (Grzetic) and myself met at Palermo University. I am from Ecuador, and she is from a place called Rio Gallegos in the extreme south of Argentinian Patagonia. We both came to Buenos Aires for our studies, and as foreigners — or at least people who did not grow up in the city — people caught our attention, the way they dressed, the costumes that they wore. We were finishing our studies, and neither of us wanted to work at an agency. I was working already with Internet stuff. She was working with fashion, and we were working together at [Buenos Aires] Fashion Week, and we thought, “Ok, we can take pictures of these people and maybe sell them to some magazines or something.” Eventually, we started posting our own blog. There wasn’t anybody doing this in Buenos Aires back in 2007. There were [, in fact,] few other street style blogs [anywhere]. So we thought it was a good idea.

Brent: What street style blogs were you seeing at that time? Were there any that were particularly inspirational?

Javi: Of course everyone saw The Sartorialist. Then there was Facehunter also. I remember that from the very beginning I always liked Hel Looks. I always thought it was very nice, and Stil in Berlin. There was another from Tallinn, Estonia. I don’t remember the name of the blog, but I remember their pictures were very colorful, like no other blog. At the very beginning, we were also contacted by this Korean magazine Cracker YourWardrobe. We’ve been publishing pictures with them from the very first issue, so that put us in contact with other street style blogs.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: Had you had a background in photography before starting to take pictures for OnTheCorner?

Javi: Yeah, kind of. My father gave me this Canon camera when I was 16, and I started taking pictures with film, going to the lab to make copies of it. But it was very amateur. When I was in university, during my last year, I bought this digital camera and I found a lot more opportunities for taking pictures. And I didn’t have to pay for film and (developing) the film and all that, which was expensive for me as a student.

Brent: Do both you and Flora take pictures, or is it just you?

Javi: No, I am the photographer. Flora is always with me, though. Since she studied fashion, she’s more qualified to assess what we see in the garments we come across. So we work together. We go on our bikes, riding around the city. When we see someone, she goes up to them and says that she wants to take a picture of him or her because of their style. That’s it.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: What do you look for in the people that you stop?

Javi: It’s kind of a tricky question, because we are not looking for something specific. Flora always says that it’s like love at first sight, like a kind of romantic thing. And it’s true, because you can see this skinny guy with jeans and a white T-shirt, and it’s nothing fancy, but it fits OK. And that’s it.

We try not to take pictures of trendy people, you know, people who follow the trends and labels. We don’t like that. We just look for someone who claims our sight, who commands our attention. If we like it, we take a picture, and that’s it.

Brent: And is it a fairly instantaneous thing? Do you know right away? Or do you have to kind of watch people for a little while to know if you’re interested?

Javi: No. Usually it’s right away. If we take time thinking and all that, people go on. They are always walking. It’s a fast style of living here. Everyone’s in a hurry. There’s a lot of noise. If we’re not fast, the picture is lost.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: So earlier you were talking about the fact that coming from Ecuador you noticed things about Buenos Aires street fashion that stuck out to you. So I’m curious if you could explain what some of those things are. What is it that makes Buenos Aires fashion unique?

Javi: At some point in the middle of the last century, Buenos Aires was a rich and kind of important city. But now it’s not anymore. It’s like an old lady, who once was a millionaire, but now that her husband died, tries to be in high society, but can’t. So I believe that there is a kind of heritage from that time that lives on in porteños (in Buenos Aires, local people are called porteños, because this is a port city), something that their grandfathers and grandmothers once had, and now they try to keep alive. Young people have to be very creative to do so. They don’t have Chanel stores. The only kinds of luxury brands that we find on the streets are ones our grandmothers bought back from a trip, or which we found at the Salvation Army. I always like the creativity of porteños, the way they mix old luxury garments with bad quality, new stuff from China or somewhere.

A couple of years ago, Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist, came here to Buenos Aires with his girlfriend Garance Doré, and we met, and we were chatting, and they were like “I don’t know how you do this here. We’ve been out all morning and we haven’t found anyone.” And they were kind of afraid of taking their cameras out. They were like, “Oh maybe someone will rob us here,” or something like that.

So, it’s a complicated city in that way for doing this. A lot people say to us, “You’re crazy. You cannot be with that $2,000 camera on the streets.” But I must say that we have never had any kind of problems. Everything’s been ok thus far.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: So, how the reception been of the people you stop on the streets? Do people already know the blog? Do they understand what you’re doing? And how often do you get rejected?

Javi: In the beginning there were people who didn’t understand. They were very shy or something. But now we have become very well-known here in town. All the universities, in the majors related to fashion, highly recommend viewing our blog to their students. I don’t even remember the last time someone said “no.” It’s maybe once a week. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite these days. We’ve been at places or events where other people know we are going to be there in advance, and they pass in front of us with their best garments, and act like “Oh, take a picture of me!” So right now I would say it’s like the opposite. In the beginning, there were some people who didn’t want (their picture taken), but only 1 in 10 maybe. Now it’s significantly less.

Brent: Do you have much competition from other bloggers in Buenos Aires?

Javi: No. There are a lot of magazines or newspapers that include a street style section, but I don’t think we compete actually, because what we do is very different. We take the time to go out looking for someone special. The other people who do this here do something more basic: go to a theatre, take some pictures. I think no one takes this as serious as we take it.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: How long do you and Flora usually spend out looking for people? And how often do you go out?

Javi: It depends. We try to make it out every day, but Crudo, our modeling agency, takes a lot of our time. Over the last couple of years, we have also been doing ad campaigns, me as photographer, Flora as stylist and producer. We have this team of make up assistants, the whole bit. So we’ve been working a lot, and it depends on our time. We try to go out every day at least two hours, but it doesn’t happen every day.

Brent: Are you able to find people every time you go out?

Javi: No. No. No. It’s very difficult. There are times when you come back with no photos. And we, Flora and I, believe that when there is a change of season, it’s more difficult to find people to shoot. I don’t know why, maybe because people don’t know if it’s going to be raining or dry, hot or cold. A lot of the time we go out and we come back with nothing. On a lucky day we take 3 photos. I remember one day taking 6 pictures, but that was only once. If we take one picture, it’s ok. Two, I’m very satisfied.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: Do you go back to the same places all the time?

Javi: Yeah. We go to around five neighborhoods that are near Buenos Aires’ downtown. It’s a big city. I think there are around six million people, and there are neighborhoods to which we’ve never been, because they are economically disadvantaged and might not be as safe to shoot in. It also depends on what we have to do that day. Maybe we get downtown to get paid a check or something, so we go out with a camera. If I have to go to pay for electricity, I take my camera, because you can find someone anywhere. I just have my camera with me all the time.

Brent: So what kind of camera are you using these days?

Javi: I’m using a Canon 5D, the old one, not the Mark II, which I also have. In the streets I take the old 5D, which I love. These days it’s kind of a cheap camera, but very good quality. I like the colors with daylight more than the Mark II or Mark III. If the light conditions are not good, though, I’ll take the Mark II.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: What kind of lens do you use?

Javi: I use a 50mm 1.4 Carl Zeiss, which is amazing.

Brent: Do you prefer the 50mm over, like, an 85 or 100?

Javi: Yeah, I’m very comfortable working with a 50mm, because I like the distance. I have it in my mind. When we stop someone in the streets we have very little time, so I see a spot and a location, and I know where I need to stand [in relation to] that person. Flora takes the name, age, and occupation of the subject, while I’m looking for a spot, then I tell the person, “Stand here like this,” and I take my picture. With an 85mm it’s different. The perspective is different. Everything is different. And I have to be at a greater distance from my subject. I have to scream, “No, stand like this! ¾ profile,” or whatever. I have an 85mm, and sometimes I take it out. But, it’s a lot more expensive of a lens, and I don’t want to be with that on the street. I prefer to take my 50mm, and that’s it.

Brent: Yeah, I can understand. So you and Flora always ask name, age, and occupation. How did you settle on those things being what you wanted to know?

Javi: I don’t know actually why. I thought it might be interesting to know the occupation of the person because of the way they are dressed. A lawyer will not have the same liberty to dress as a creative person, because of the environment they work in. So we thought it was important. Age, I don’t know, really. We could not do the age, I suppose. It wouldn’t make any difference. And the name means something arbitrary. It’s just a way of knowing who that person is.
Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: So how do you and Flora feel about ads, sponsored content, paid content on your blog? What are your policies about that?

Javi: We feel ok [about it]. I mean, that’s money, and it’s good. But, at the same time, we don’t want to have any massive advertising on our blog. We don’t have a lot of sponsors also. Campari has been sponsoring us for the last three years, because here they are associated with trends and nightlife, so in a way, we are kind of in the same field. So we make content for them.

If we didn’t have Crudo, the modeling agency, we might have closed OnTheCorner, because at some point we have to get to work and get a salary. As we see it, Crudo came from OnTheCorner, so I am most worried about keeping on working. I believe that if you keep working, things come. So I don’t focus on get[ting] money, or anything like that. I prefer to keep on doing my thing, and other things will come.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: So what is the readership of OnTheCorner like? Do you know who’s reading it?

Javi: I think mainly people who study or work in the Argentinian fashion [world]. As I told you before, we know that in the fashion departments of universities our site is highly recommended. We also know that marketing agencies, those who are investigating all the markets and trends and stuff, use a lot of our work to make their work. We know a lot of people in advertising agencies also use our photos for presentations and things like that. There was a time, like one or two years ago, that street style exploded in Argentina. Everybody finally started to know what it was about. So, like major advertising companies were contacting us for making campaigns and stuff like that. Yeah, I don’t know who else reads it. I believe that fashionistas, people who look for inspiration for getting dressed, do. I think that is the main readership.

Brent: Do you think it’s mostly Argentinian?

Javi: Mostly Argentinian, and a lot of Brazil, Spain, and Mexico. There is no other serious street style blog in Latin America. There have been a lot of blogs, but they never last. In the region we are the only one who is [still] here. So we have a lot of visits from the region: Chile, Peru, Colombia.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner

Brent: So what advice would you give to someone who is looking to start a street style blog?

Javi: Sometime we get emails like, “Hello, I’m starting my street style blog here in Sofia, Bulgaria, and I wanted to ask…” I believe that you should be patient and keep doing it. I believe that with anything in life you should keep doing it, and there will be a time when you get something good out of it. And if not maybe you should be thinking of doing something else. I would say “be patient and keep doing it.”

Brent: Have you seen street style blogging change much since you started? You’ve been doing this since 2007. A lot’s happened since then. Is street style blogging similar now to how it was then, or is it different these days?

Javi: I think that the main idea is the same: show anonymous people the way they dress, not just celebrities. And I believe we keep with that same idea. But Stil in Berlin, that Berlin blog, actually makes more posts about food, restaurants, and lifestyle, than streetstyle these days, and I think that’s ok. I always found many similarities between them and us, because they are also one guy, one girl. Berlin is a lot more modern than Buenos Aires, but because we share something with them, a lot of times we try to follow their lead and take our blog to something more like lifestyle. But we’ve been very busy with Crudo, so we are trying to keep it the way it is. Because we love it. It’s a passion for us. And it has brought us a lot of good things. So we don’t know what else is to come.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner
Brent: Sure. It seems to me too that a lot of the street style blogs that are out there now have switched to something more like street fashion. They take pictures outside runway shows. They do a lot of style icons. OnTheCorner doesn’t have that quality about it. Is that intentional? Are you not interested in the fashion world per se? Are you trying to keep it about the streets?

Javi: We’ve always wanted to believe that we are on the opposite side of the world of fashion. Even though we are part of the fashion scene here, we are trying to rescue style from fashion. Style, individuality, trying to be original, trying to be yourself, instead of following this trend we all know. So that’s one side. On the other hand, I believe that the blogs who are in the runway and fashion shows are there because they have someone behind them, some sponsor, Vogue, Condé Nast, or something like that, who is paying for them to be there. We do not. So maybe if we get some sponsor who says we want you to be in fashion week, we would go. But we don’t have any, so…

Brent: Fair enough.

Javi: But we do go to Buenos Aires Fashion Week. That is this fashion week that happens two times a year here. But every time we go, it’s more boring for us. It’s the same people. They are all very dressed up for the occasion. And that’s another thing, we don’t want to get people dressed up for a special occasion. That’s why we don’t go to bars or parties or places like that. We try to get people in their quotidian life. We try to get you going to buy bread.

Photo by Javi Obando. Originally posted at OnTheCorner


  1. Such a great interview. Love how you are interviewing such an international array of style photographers!


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