At Las Fotos Project, teenage girls of Los Angeles explore their identities—their challenges, histories, and cultures—with one-on-one mentorship, weekly arts programming, and a free DSLR camera. Established in 2010, the nonprofit organization provides girls from low- to middle-income households from communities of color in South, Central, and East Los Angeles with photography equipment and arts-based programs.
Founder and photographer Eric V. Ibarra uses therapeutic photography as a means to engage Los Angeles youth and to develop the leadership skills and confidence of teenage girls. In Las Fotos Project’s programs, volunteer mentors and paid teaching artists encourage participants to recognize their own unique experiences and share their voices through photography.
“The accessibility of the art form is something that draws the students in,” Eric says. “It’s something that teenagers are already familiar with and comfortable with, but with Las Fotos Project they get to perfect it better.”
In 2010, Eric’s initiative started as a workshop serving a dozen girls in Boyle Heights, a community near Downtown Los Angeles. Today, Las Fotos Project’s headquarters in Lincoln Heights includes a gallery space and photography studios; it’s a vital gathering place for arts in the neighborhood, whose residents are predominantly of Mexican and Central American descent. Over the span of nearly a decade, 430 teaching artists and volunteer mentors and 1,275 students have taken photos and found community through Las Fotos Project’s doors.
It’s a safe space,” says Lucia Torres, development director of Las Fotos Project. “In the process of learning photography and using a camera to showcase their work, participants are also telling us what’s on their mind and expressing themselves.”
In 2018, the Vilcek Foundation sponsored the fall semester of Esta Soy Yo, Las Fotos Project’s flagship photography and mentorship program. Under the direction of a teaching artist, eleven girls ages 12 through 18 attended ten weekly meetings, coupled with one-on-one photography excursions between participants and their mentors. A different humanities theme helps guide their artistic projects each year, and in 2018–19 participants reflected on “Inspirational Migrant Women.”
The semester culminated in a public mixed-media installation featuring student portraits of the migrant women in their lives. At workshops, students discussed the ability of migrant women to build power, heal, uplift, and create intergenerational impact. The mural is currently on view along the Pico Aliso Gold Line, a public transportation station for Boyle Heights locals, including many of the student photographers and their families.
On May 25, 2019, Las Fotos Project continued celebrating migrant women by honoring Migrant Mamas at its fifth annual music and arts festival fundraiser, ¡Viva La Muxer!
The annual benefit raised over $30,000 to support Las Fotos Project’s programs and brought together 20 women-owned businesses and food vendors. It featured an art exhibition with over 100 artists, family-friendly art workshops, and live performances for over 2,200 attendees.
“We expanded this idea of migrant mamas to include all women or women-identified folks in our community who are migrants and who, in some way, shape, or form, nurtured their community, or nurtured people and their families,” Lucia explains. “Many times, our students consider their aunts their mothers as well.”
As their ten-year anniversary approaches, Las Fotos Project has much to look forward to in its second decade. Thanks to a successful crowdsourcing campaign, in January 2020 Las Fotos Project will move its headquarters to a larger building in Boyle Heights with more exhibition space in addition to film and digital studios.
“What I think is really beautiful about this work is that it’s naturally evolved over time to really meet the needs of the students and the community where we work,” Eric says.
You can learn more about Las Fotos Project and apply to be a teaching artist, student, or volunteer mentor on their website. The Migrant Mamas public mural will be on view through December 2019. Currently on view at the Las Fotos Project gallery is Imprints, a youth photo exhibition chronicling young sisterhood and the dynamic trust established between the photographers and their young role models. Imprints will be open from May 4 to July 13, 2019.