This is the second installment of Latinas empowering other Latinas to succeed in honor of Women’s History Month.
For ten high school girls enrolled in the photography program Las Fotos Project, the summer of 2012 was a lesson in disguise.
Rather then a host of drowsy days spent on the sidewalks of Los Angeles, they traipsed through the San Gabriel Mountains and snapped photos of rocky cliffs and lazy rivers, lilies in full bloom and vistas of the California landscape.
The group then used the same film to capture scenes in their community, edited the double exposure photographs and wrote poems to accompany the art. Finally, the girls published a book featuring the photographs and presented it at a public exhibition which they personally marketed.
Founded by freelance photographer Eric Ibarra, Las Fotos Project helps its young Latina members build their photography skills and their confidence.
“The program is such a unique setup,” says the 28-year-old Ibarra, who launched the club three years ago after he noticed a lack of extracurricular opportunities in the area for young girls. “They learn all these life skills almost without realizing it.”
Ibarra partners with Los Angeles organizations to find Latinas aged 11-17 who could most benefit from the experience. The girls, who often come from low-income or middle-income communities, then enroll in ten-week classes where they’re quickly taught the basics and given a personal point-and-shoot camera.
Las Fotos mentors help the students brainstorm possible field projects, with the freedom to choose any theme or landscape near the Boyle Heights headquarters. Every project ends with a community exhibit, photo book or mini-documentary.
Lizbeth Rojas, now a student at Loyola Marymount University, joined the group at 17 and suggested the San Gabriel trip for their summer project. She says it gave her a different perspective on her East Los Angeles neighborhood.
“We feel like we have to live in a place where it has to be busy but being in the mountains is different,” says Rojas, who ultimately led the trip. “I was able to notice things. It gave me another view of the world.”
Another member of the group, Ana Cortes, created a photograph of a craggy mountain scape over the facade of the East Los Angeles Municipal Courts. She captioned the photo: “We owe nature justice!”
“I took a picture of the courts because I’ve always been into law and law enforcement,” says Ana, now a freshman studying criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles.
Cortes joined the group at 17, never having handled a film camera. She says the group made her feel more confident and stood in marked contrast to her experience at her high school.
“At school, everyone’s judging everyone ,” says Cortes. But the project, she says, was “totally different. I was shy at first but it was fun and you just felt welcome.”
The various field projects offer the students a chance to explore their community but, more often, they wind up exploring their inner selves. For one assignment, the girls were told to take photos of the most inspiring person in their life. They then fashioned the photo series into a revealing video documentary.
Las Fotos Project maintains a roster of around sixteen girls at a time, in several California locations as well as a project in Guatemala. According to Ibarra, the girls can remain in the program once they pass the 17-year-old age limit, but many go on to attend college or find work elsewhere.
Though she has aged out of the program, Ana Cortes says she still retains a love of photography. She said she plans to take photos and create a scrapbook of her family, friends and memorable events.
“It was my own idea, something to keep all the nice memories I’ve had,” says Cortes. “I’ll do it just for fun, just for me.”