Las Fotos Project teaches girls how to use photography as a means of storytelling & expression
In addition to learning basic photography and photo editing skills, girls involved with Las Fotos Project learn how to use photography as a means of expression. (Photo used with permission from Las Fotos Project.)
Sarah Palermo, an ivoh.org freelancer, is a journalist based in New England IRL and online @SPalermoNews.
The picture shows a vibrant pink blossom, its vine wound around a metal fence. It could just be an artistic shot of a flower. It could be just a silent image. But it speaks volumes.
“The reason why I like this picture so much is because it has to do with nature and because I’m able to see myself in the picture,” the photographer’s statement reads. “The flower is me and the gray fence are my parents … For the viewer this image would just be a simple picture, but I’m able to see myself in the photo and I think I was able to capture my story.”
The photographer is a young Latina girl from Los Angeles, a participant in Las Fotos Project, which uses photography to give girls and young women a sense of their own voices.
Nearly 350 girls ages 11 to 17 have participated in Las Fotos Project since founder Eric Ibarra began it four years ago. More than 60 enrolled in the semester that began this past Saturday. Some of them are entering their fourth semester with the program, and in December will show their work in their fourth gallery exhibit. (Las Fotos Project has semesters that run September through December and February through May, along with an intensive four-week summer session.)
The students learn basic photography and photo editing skills, including Photoshop and Final Cut Pro, but they also get a place to talk about their community, their families, and themselves.
“The process of using photos to start conversations, photos that you have taken or that others have taken — it’s a very therapeutic process. There’s a lot to talk about and there’s a lot of ways into photographs,” Ibarra told ivoh. “In our day-to-day lives, it’s unfortunate we don’t get many places to share how we feel, and providing that is what this is about.”
In 2010, Ibarra was working as a business analyst in downtown Los Angeles when he started feeling like he was missing something, despite having followed what he always thought was “the right path.” He had worked hard in high school, gone to a good college, and gotten a good corporate job.
He started looking for volunteering opportunities that would enable him to rekindle a love for photography that started in high school when his mother gave him a point-and-shoot that he took everywhere for years. That summer, he facilitated a photography group for seven young women, left his corporate job the next spring, and hasn’t looked back.
“I saw the power of photography for young people. I saw how they learned about social issues, they learned about themselves, and I realized I wanted to do it again,” Ibarra said.
He began asking friends who work as professional photographers to visit as mentors. He now relies on 20 to 25 volunteer mentors who have donated more than 3,700 hours to the program.
As the students from those first few years have gotten more experienced, some of them have been asked to take on the role of mentors, too — like Dianna Martinez, who is now 20 and a student at California State University, Los Angeles.
Before taking part in Las Fotos Project, her photography experience “was self-taught in a way, just reading other photographers, and mostly experimenting,” Martinez said.
Las Fotos has “helped me to grow more as a person and think of projects for the future, but it’s more important because it’s a way for these girls to become leaders. … I hope most of all they learn that photography’s not just about taking selfies for Instagram but a way of visual expression, of telling a story and finding their identity.”
This semester, Las Fotos Project is starting to work with a small group of young women from a mental health center, and is continuing to run courses designed to help people think critically about how women, especially young women and Latinas, are represented in the media — from film to print advertisements to hyper-sexualized music videos. The film screenings and conversations that Las Fotos Project holds are open to the public, so the girls can bring their families, too.
“Life is saturated with so much media content [that] they don’t get the chance to break it down, to think about advertising and commercials — the things that shape who they think they are and how they feel about themselves,” Ibarra said. “I don’t know if too many people talk to them about this stuff and what it could mean to them — what influence it might be having that they don’t even recognize.”
Other courses this semester will continue conversations that began in past years about domestic violence and healthy relationships.
Boyle Heights, the Los Angeles neighborhood where Las Fotos Project’s headquarters is located, has been home over the decades to immigrant communities from Mexico, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Japan. It was a launchpad for Chicano activists in the 1960s, but by the 1980s was home to infamous gang violence and drug activity.
Today, the neighborhood is still one of the poorest in Los Angeles, with 33 percent of households living in poverty, compared to 22 percent in the city overall. Median income for Boyle Heights residents is $33,253 — about $20,000 less than the median in the city as a whole.
“A lot of young people don’t have access to this technology,” said Las Fotos program director Laura Gonzalez. “But we reach the students with this equipment and it pays off. They are able to learn about the technology, about communicating in email, professional development, public speaking, working in groups. Those are things that are real life skills they’ll need to know no matter what they go on to try to do,” she said.
Gonzalez was a professional photojournalist and started as a volunteer mentor with the program last year before being hired full time as program director last month.
At the end of last semester, she helped some students organize an outdoor public art exhibition. The area they chose was next to a freeway, filled with litter and trash. But these girls see their community in a way an outsider might not, Gonzalez said.
“They were so proud of their community, they wanted to really beautify their community and show whoever came to the exhibit that Boyle Heights might have some problems, but it’s still a community where art thrives and where youth thrives,” Gonzalez said.
Through their photographs, “they are able to express that pride, to show it to the world. There are some challenging aspects about the communities these girls live in. They see that and they try to look for the positive, and that’s what they highlight. They start by just being girls coming to an after-school program, and they end up being people who are advocating for positive aspects in their community.”
Having control over the images of their neighborhood is empowering, Gonzalez said.
“Instead of people telling you about your community,” she said, “having a camera gives you the opportunity to go out and photograph what you think is important in your community or your life, and you are able to represent yourself and your community as you see it.”
There are three levels of work the program offers, Ibarra said: the therapeutic, the research-based and community advocacy.
About 30 percent of the work the girls do is creative writing — explaining their choices of framing and subject matter. Some projects also include research, asking the students to learn about social issues through their photographs, and outside reading.
“The third is the advocacy piece, when they want to bring a positive social change in their communities,” Ibarra said.
One student photographed a busy street in her neighborhood where cars speed past a park, making the walk dangerous for pedestrians. She Photoshopped a speed bump into her shot, and sent it to a city councilor. The councilor wrote back, the two talked about the street and the dangers. Even though there is still no speed bump, Ibarra said the lesson was a success.
“It was more about, your voice can be heard even if you are a 13 year old girl. There are ways to be heard, and your voice is important and your ideas are needed.”