Photos courtesy of Las Fotos Project
Palos Verdes Peninsula High School

Las Fotos Project: Empowering young women through photography

The En Visión: Picturing the Self exhibition opened at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach on June 11. Described as a collaborative exhibition, En Visión features works from MOLAA’s Permanent Collection as well as ones from the Las Fotos Project, a non-profit photography program designed to generate positive change in teenage girls’ lives.

Since its inception in 2010, Las Fotos Project has mentored approximately 1,200 girls. After watching Born Into Brothels, a documentary film in which a photographer travels to India’s Red Light District and teaches photography to the children of sex workers, executive director Eric Ibarra was inspired to create a safe space where young women could learn photography and thrive.

With a team of around 50 volunteer mentors, Las Fotos Project strives to boost confidence and leadership in teenage girls facing adversity through photography. Through the art form, the girls can explore their own creativity and culture; in essence, the program grants them a powerful voice in their communities.

“When you hand [the Las Fotos Project girls] a camera, they will show you who they are, where they are from and you will see how they see this world; it’s pretty amazing,” mentor Yvonne Rodriguez said.

Though the program originally launched in Los Angeles, it has since expanded to other parts of the world, including Mexico and Venezuela.

I got the chance to chat with some of the Las Fotos Project artists as they shared the stories behind their featured photos and experience with the program.

“Contrast, Color, and Contradictions in the Room”

Liye Rivera-Melo, age 19

Tijuana, Mexico

“My mother works as a clown and my father as a magician, so I come from a family of characters. I am studying film and audiovisual production; at school, we are taught how to tell stories through images because the basis of cinema is photography. This image was very clear in my head.

“The character I created here is a gypsy girl who is selling and offering everything she has and is. I also wanted to explore the topic of identity and personal growth because when I took the picture, I was having a moment where I found myself with many questions and doubts about who I am and about what I wanted to do in my life.

“In this photo, I’m exposing myself to show who I really am: a girl who likes to wear skirts and sweats, tennis shoes and heels, stuffed animals and books. My city is full of contrasts because we are located on the border with the United States, so we have this attachment with both cultures, which confuses that feeling of belonging, but at the same time that enriches us as people. I’m embracing that.

“This was my way of representing me, my history, my culture, my city full of contrasts and contradictions, my country full of color, and all the above– all summed up in my room.

“Before entering the program, I wasn’t sure if my work was good or whether people would like it or if they identified with me, but the opposite happened. I realized that if I put my heart in whatever I do, I can succeed.

“Las Fotos Project gave me the guide to use photography as a visual weapon so I can express myself and show the world around me.”

“Discovering Myself”

Celeste Umaña, age 12

South Los Angeles

“[This photo was] taken during my first semester with Las Fotos Project. We were focusing on the theme self-love and what that meant to us. So I portrayed the theme as showing myself with all of the items that connected with me, which happened to be in my room. I have photos and keepsakes that show myself and show how I’ve grown.

“To me, photography means that photographers can show their point of view on the world. It’s a way to express themselves and to show a message visually in a way people can appreciate and can enjoy.”

“Where There Is Darkness, There Is Light”

Vanessa Clavel, age 18

Angelino Heights

“I always think it’s kind of funny because I love this photo but I didn’t think I would when I first took it. I put the self timer on the camera, put it on top of a trash can, and when I saw the photo I was surprised.

“I named it ‘Where There Is Darkness, There Is Light’ because my photo is black and white. Black being the darkness and white being the light.

“Also, in the photo I am looking forward into the sky which for me represented the future and my back [is facing toward] the past. My past wasn’t always great and my future is now only getting better.

“This picture, for me, is focused really on looking ahead and leaving the past behind.

“I’ve grown a lot from Las Fotos Project in so many ways. When I first started the program, I always had an interest in photography but didn’t think it could ever be something I love. I gained knowledge by focusing on different angles and lighting– something I never even knew of. I grew to explore.

“My photos have improved and I’ve seen the change. I learned that it is more than just taking a picture– you have to find a meaning and learn to see things differently.”

 En Visión: Picturing the Self is on view until Sept. 17.