Adrian Mejia's job as a metal-concert photographer is never easy. There usually isn't even a barricade separating him from rabid fans and rib-cracking mosh pits on sticky, beer-soaked floors. He has learned how to not flinch as spittle and sweat rain down on his lens and psychotic front men scream in his face. He loves this chaotic scene so much that he'd do it for free. And most of the time, he does.
A reliable fixture over the past three years in the local metal scene, Mejia has shot Xanthochroid, Necroticus, Arachingod and other bands while gaining a reputation for intense, quality shots. But most of the equipment he uses is borrowed from friends or various people in the OC and LA metal communities. He's usually flat-broke, jobless, yet he manages to get back and forth to gigs without a car. He has even slept on the street after gigs because he had no ride home.
Metal is fraught with lyrics about pain and hardship, and as a metalhead who came to America from Mexico 10 years ago, Mejia knows a lot about both. Even his first experience in the local scene came about because of an injury he suffered three years ago.
"I got in an accident, injured my leg, and was very depressed," the photographer says. "My dad gave me some money and told me to go out to a concert. I ended up at this backyard gig and had to go with a walker." While there, he saw some potential stars in the lineup of bands that he wanted to document, even if it was just as a fan. "I knew that photographing them was what I wanted to do."
Though it may seem foolish, Mejia's reasoning for not being paid for his art comes from a mixture of pride and passion. "I don't ask for money from any of the bands, even when they offer. I don't want to take their money because, for me, it seems like I would be trying to buy their talent," he says. "Like when my friend gave me her lens to use, it was just to help me. I want to do the same with other people. A band or promoter believing in me is the best payment."
Although primed with a background in graphic design from a school in Mexico, Mejia has had no formal photography training; he has developed his skills via self-teaching and trial and error. He has also become a journalistic jack-of-all-trades, photographing musician profiles, videotaping interviews, and creating album-cover photos in the SoCal music scene.
It is his commitment to the scene that has earned Mejia respect from companies such as metal show promoters Arrogant Behavior, as well as venues that often cater to metalheads, including Anaheim's Mirror Image Studios.
"Adrian is very humble and treats all bands the same," says Jesse Goytia, founder of Arrogant Behavior. "His humble heart is what gets him invited back to many events at no charge from many promoters in LA and OC."
On a warm Saturday night in the middle of January, the Airliner Bar in LA is packed to capacity, with heavy metal fans crowding toward the first-floor stage as they await the next band at a show presented by local metal promoters Metal Invictus. Squashed between fans is Mejia, raising his Canon over his head in an effort to escape the shoving and to capture the snarled hair, sweat and growls of "menstrual metal" maidens Harlequin. He blends in with his metal T-shirt and black pants.
Though he has shot plenty of nationally recognized bands at upscale venues, he prefers the thrill of covering packed dive-bar shows and backyard gigs.
Mejia has begun utilizing GoPro cameras to capture the blast beat speed of drummers' feet and their coordinated hands. Running multiple cameras during one song, let alone a full concert, can be time-consuming enough, so in his editing, he sticks to an ethos of simplicity.
"The video footage I publish from any of the instrumental cameras is always raw; I never touch the sound or the lighting," Mejia says. "The professional grade is cool and can work, but my work is all about expressions. [I aim] to offer the viewer the real thing and the most natural presence. I love the raw sound."
Despite Mejia's economic hardships, he has persevered. "A lot of people, fans and bands alike, do not see the troubles that most of us go through," says Goytia. "They assume [those] involved in the metal scene–whether being a promoter, photographer or even a larger band–are raking in the money. However, most of us have to have full-time jobs and suffer hardships and stresses just to do what we love."
Mejia's goal is to shoot metal concerts and bands around the country. But for now, he's focusing on his technical skills, perfecting his knack for videoing band interviews. Even though the business of music journalism is as brutal as some of the metal he listens to, Mejia knows the need for photographers will grow, as the underground bands of today become the major headliners of tomorrow.
"Covering bands and musicians at the beginning was really for passion. It's developed into an inspiration to feel my spiritual side," Mejia says. "Going to a gig is sharing their passion, but also capturing their energy and filling my spirit with that. That's why I do it."