Teenage years are precarious times for everyone. But for women of color, they’re particularly trying. As they deal with the confusing and frustrating emotions that occur between childhood and adolescence, WOC have additional – and often undue – burdens. For young Latinas, this means they struggle to see themselves represented in media, both because they are erased and portrayed in clichéd ways. They also have to push back against sexist, racist, and increasingly xenophobic stereotypes. And they have to make sense of the unsettlingly – and incomplete – history their schools teach them about themselves. In Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization is helping Latinas navigate these complex years with an unexpected device: a camera.
“It’s a very girl power, feminist vibe.”
Las Fotos Project is a community-based organization using photography to educate and inspire low-income girls of color. The group, founded in 2010, provides students – mostly Latinas between the ages of 11 and 18 – access to photography equipment and trains them to operate the devices. The young women learn technological skills through programs on therapeutic photography, phototherapy techniques, and photography for social change. But the organization also gives them a space to talk about body image, depression, stress, anxiety, women’s rights, inequality, and other issues impacting their daily lives.
“It’s a very girl power, feminist vibe,” Eric Ibarra, the founder and executive director of Las Fotos Project, tells Remezcla. “All the girls feel supported. It’s not competitive. We try to remove that and instead teach them to support one another.”
Each semester, Las Fotos Project enrolls 150 students – some new, though many returnees – into its program free of charge. The girls, grouped by age group and program type, meet after school for two hours at the Las Fotos Project Gallery every week. On weekends, the students spend time with mentors – many of whom are professional photographers – learning new skills through one-on-one trainings or working on field projects for their classes. At the end of the semester, the girls show their work at an exhibit that draws hundreds of attendees.
“They learn that what they do and think matters.”
Through the program, the girls learn practical skills: taking photos, styles of photography, interviewing, visual storytelling, and caption writing. According to the California Alliance for Arts Education, artistic skills like these help youth “develop the ability to innovate, communicate, and collaborate,” which can “close the achievement gap regardless of socioeconomic status.” Knowing this, Las Fotos Project uses photography to encourage five core values in their students: individuality, optimism, creativity, persistence, and learning.
“It takes persistence to complete a project. The girls have to go out and shoot, receive feedback, go back into the field to shoot better photos and then select the ones they want to exhibit,” says Laura González, the organization’s program manager.
She believes that encouraging the girls to express their artistic talents and explore their imagination will ultimately build self-confidence. “That’s one of the most important things. They learn that what they do and think matters,” González adds.
A healthy self-esteem is invaluable for young Latinas, especially these days. According to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, 41.4 percent of Latina teens suffer from depression – that’s more than their white (34.4 percent) and Black (31.4 percent) peers. Latinas are also most likely to fantasize about suicide and attempt to take their own lives.
González has witnessed the change in her students’ attitude firsthand. At the start of each cycle, parents often warn her that their child is timid or quiet. Over time, the same girls who walked into the classroom with their heads down become bolder; they laugh with new friends, speak assertively, and proudly discuss their work.
“The program taught me not to doubt myself, not to second-guess myself.”
Textli Gallegos, an 18-year-old alumna who participated between 2014 to 2017, had difficulty expressing herself for most of her life, but found a way to communicate through photography. “The program taught me not to doubt myself, not to second-guess myself. Because of that, I gained confidence in the message I wanted to put out into the world. I learned how to take risks, and I knew that if I wanted to do something different with my projects, they would support me. All of that boosted my confidence and self-esteem,” says Gallegos, who is now studying photography at Pasadena City College.
For 14-year-old Natalia Angeles, the organization has also made her less reserved. “I wasn’t outgoing,” she says. “I was really insecure, always afraid to go up to people and ask questions. But right now I’m so confident that I don’t care about my appearance when I’m shooting. I just want to know about them.”
As the girls’ confidence blossoms, so does their understanding of the issues occurring in their community. Each semester, the classes offered through the organization center on a different theme. This year alone, the girls have focused on the Women’s March, body image, women in the workplace and, most recently, gentrification.
Over the weekend, the group opened City Rising, an exhibition displaying photos the girls took that spotlight change and displacement in South Central and Boyle Heights – two LA neighborhoods experiencing rapid gentrification.
“This is a very powerful exhibit. Our girls are not scholars on the topic of gentrification or the policies that make it possible. They are normal teenagers who go to school, like to hang out with their friends and have a deep love for their community,” González says. “By going out to photograph assignments for the project, we were asking them to be more conscious about their surroundings, and many of the girls started to see things they hadn’t seen before.”
The exhibit includes an especially timely photo of a Latina street vendor who sells chips near a high school. Just a few weeks ago, an LA elotero saw an outpouring of support nationwide after an Argentine man viciously flipped over his cart. As activists continue to push the city to legalize street vending, 17-year-old Michelle Pérez’s portrait of “Chip Lady” – who can’t freely sell in the areas where she typically sets up – reminds us that the devaluing of street vendors is part of a larger, systemic issue rather than an isolated event. And though, as González, notes, the girls don’t necessarily have activist training, Michelle arrives at the same conclusion as those fighting this widespread gentrification. “This angers me,” Michelle says. “She has been here longer than the new complex, and she’s the one that gets kicked out of the community.”
The Mexican-Guatemalan teen hopes her photos will force new residents to see that her neighborhood – along with its people and traditions – are valuable.
15-year-old Jaquelin Rosas wanted to use her camera to show the beauty and hope that remains in her community, despite skyrocketing rents, job loss, and evictions. The Boyle Heights native photographed a woman selling clementines at a farmers market in South Central. The vendor, who discussed how corporate businesses replace local shops, was all smiles knowing Rosa was there to document and create change in her community.
“I couldn’t bring myself to highlight the negative aspects of the topic. I wanted to focus on community members and sites we see every day. I wanted to show that our traditions and culture are already beautiful,” Rosas says of her photo, “Clementinas y Una Sonrisa.”
At Las Fotos Project, young Latinas learn, sometimes for the first time, that they have a voice, and they’re empowered to use it to shape visual stories about themselves and their communities. Through photography, they zoom in on their identities, spot the unfair ways they’re being treated — both by themselves and society — and make these issues visible to the world.
Catch City Rising at the Las Fotos Project Gallery – 2658 Pasadena Ave., Lincoln Heights, 90031 in Los Angeles – until September 9. Those who are not in the area can dial 310-359-6017 and enter any number between 1 and 14 to hear the girls discuss gentrification and photography.