Eric was introduced to photography at a young age by his mother, Sofia, who was an avid photographer that loved documenting family parties and travels, creating photo albums, and archiving the Ibarra family history. During his teenage years, Eric became more interested in photography and received his first 3-megapixel digital camera as a gift from his parents. Taking it everywhere - to soccer practice, parties, hanging out with friends - Eric quickly began to appreciate the process of documenting his own stories and adventures. After attaining his bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Cal State Fullerton, Eric learned about therapeutic photography, phototherapy, and photography for social change. This led to the development of a project that would put cameras in the hands of young people and teach them how to document their own stories. In the summer of 2010, Las Fotos Project was born.
We spoke on August 14 at the Las Fotos Project gallery in Lincoln Heights.
Paula: What is Las Fotos Project?
Eric: It’s a photography-based nonprofit mentoring organization for teenage girls. We use photography as a tool to inspire girls to learn about themselves and their communities, and to think about their future plans. We have three main programs: Esta Soy Yo, which is focused on identity. Another is called Digital Promotoras, which is focused on photojournalism and advocacy. Our third program is Hire Her, which is focused on becoming a professional photographer.
The goal is for students to become more self-aware through this programming. They begin to understand the connection to their communities and realize the impact that they can have. They see how their photos can be used for some sort of social change and also how photography can be used to advance a career. We're also a space where girls come to build relationships with other girls that are also interested in photography and to be mentored by women who are photographers and creatives. It’s a safe environment for them to come in and feel like they can share what they're thinking, share their ideas.
Paula: How does it work?
Eric: We do a semester model. Girls meet once a week for 12 weeks. Each class is two hours, and they have between two and three hours of take home photography assignments each week. They’re all working towards creating something, whether it be a photo essay, a 'zine, a photo book, an exhibition, a public art installation, a mural, a multimedia piece-- by the end of the 12 weeks, they've completed something. They've learned about photography. They've been supported. They've shared their ideas. Ideally they come back for the next semester.
Paula: Is there a limit to how many semesters they can participate?
Eric: No. If you start at the age of 12 or 13, you could go through 18, 19 years old. Metztli Garcia, whose work is exhibited in our current show, Thank You East Los, has been enrolled for three years. She was one of the first graduating groups of the Hire Her class. She’s talked about how photography has helped her appreciate her neighborhood, her culture, her ethnicity and her identity. She's exhibited her work multiple times, including at the Museum of Latin American Art.
Now she's off to college at UCLA where she has a skill set that she can use to get hired to photograph school meetings or events, or do professional head shots for her fellow students. She understands the business aspects of those things. She's not majoring in photography. She's majoring in political science or communications, but photography has played a role in her understanding more about her interests and what she’s good at.
Photography can be used for so many things that oftentimes people don't realize that they're even doing it. When someone shares a picture of their baby with the lady next to them at the bus stop, it creates a connection through the image. That's a powerful thing in itself, right? Or when someone takes a picture of an unsafe street with no crosswalk and kids crossing, that photo can be used to advocate for, "Hey, we need a crosswalk here."
Paula: Why focus on photography?
Eric: It came out of my interest in therapeutic photography. I wanted to do that type of programming where we photograph our families and our communities and share them to create connections. After doing that for a few years and working with a lot of social justice organizations, I came to realize the impact of the Photovoice methodology, which teaches people how to use cameras to share their own stories. That has always been the foundation of our programming; sharing photos and being critiqued on your work. It's a very intimate, personal experience. When you do that with the same group of people for 12 weeks, inevitably somebody's going to make a new friend. For this exhibition, Metztli had a couple of friends that she’s met in the program come in to help her set up, and one of them photographed her opening reception for her. It’s great to see the positive relationships that the girls are building with other creative girls at a young age.
Paula: You talk a lot about what participating in this work does for the person that's doing it. What about the people who are seeing it? What are the impacts of people seeing the work of young girls in this particular community?
Eric: Las Fotos Project is the only photography gallery focused on the work of teenage girls that exists in the world. Young people's voices are often overlooked. For a young person to get the chance to share their perspective on something is extremely important. Then you have the layer of it being young women of color who in the larger art scene generally don’t have a seat at the table.
When people see this work, it helps to change the perspective that people have about teenage girls, or teenage girls from East L.A. If you ask somebody from some other community, "What do you think about when you think of a 16 year old girl from East L.A.?" their perception is often based on what they've seen on the news or in movies. You don't picture 18-year-old Metztli, who got accepted into 14 universities and chose UCLA. To help change the narrative about this population is very important. All of these pictures are about how beautiful East L.A is, how beautiful the people are, how beautiful their stories are. That's not what you typically hear from East L.A.
Paula: She's made a love note to East L.A. in this exhibition.
Eric: It’s important, I think, to be portrayed in a realistic yet positive light, and for people to see these stories. The fact that they're created by people from those neighborhoods is meaningful too. An outsider can take some really beautiful photos and connect with the community, but when a person from the community's able to do that for themselves and for their neighborhood, to me it makes it a little bit more powerful and personal and genuine, because it's truly that person's insider view on what their neighborhood is about.
Paula: Why just girls?
Eric: The first project that I did was with a group of seven middle school girls. There were a few days that I shared the space with a boys’ youth program, and it just completely changed the tone. It changes the vibe of everything for both the boys and the girls. After working with this group I was approached by a lot of women who were interested in being mentors for the girls. And so I thought, okay, let's just focus on girls and find women photographers who can mentor them. That was the extent of my sophisticated thought process.
As time went on I heard from people, specifically women, who would say, "Wow, that's so beautiful that this space exists just for girls." I had never experienced that before and never saw the need, but it came up over and over again and reinforced that this should be just for girls. I had another experience working with the East L.A Women's Center which was doing a youth leadership program with a group of girls. I would come in to teach the photo classes, and I would hear them talk about walking to school and being catcalled, or about someone at school saying something that was misogynist. I learned about the concept of patriarchy. I didn't know what those things were. As I learned these things, I realized that there was a lot of additional power that can come with this type of work. There’s so much that can be done here.
Paula: Do you have an interest in a program for boys?
Eric: I think that there's a need for it and I think somebody should do it, but I just don’t have the bandwidth. I realized several years back that the only way this work was going to grow and spread was if more people are involved and passionate about it. Now that mentors are involved and relationships have formed there’s a community being built that’s beyond me. There should be a Las Fotos Project in South L.A and the San Gabriel Valley and there should be one in small towns in Texas. The concept can move geographically or demographically. You can do this work with little kids, with young men, with senior citizens. I think it'd be great for LGBT youth to also have the same opportunity, and for transition-age homeless youth to also have a space where they can come together. It's about finding some sort of commonality amongst the group of people and something that you all agree is special about you and makes you different in a positive way. Creating something together is always beautiful.
The work that's being done here is really about growing as an individual, and if the most comfortable environment for the girls is to do that only with other girls, then I think we should all be supportive and okay with it. I've had people comment on it, "Oh, this is sexist and it's wrong that it's only for girls." I have to wonder why when you see a project for teenage girls, your first thoughts are to say, "Oh, that's wrong.” If the organization had been founded by a woman that question may not be asked as often.
Check out this picture from the opening reception. In this photo, you have 12- year-old Celeste, who's been in the organization for a little over a year. She's looking at a photo of a teenage girl that says Rape Culture Ends With Me, so the message that she's getting is something very powerful in itself. The photo displayed on the wall was taken by an 18-year-old girl named Metztli, who's been with the organization for three and a half years. The photo of this interaction was created by a 16-year-old girl named Fabiola who's been with the organization for three years. I believe this image represents what Las Fotos Project is about; these girls being with other girls, being inspired by other girls and creating and absorbing positive content.
Paula: How does your mentorship program work?
Eric: Mentors are part of the 12-week semester programs with the students. Mentors apply online. Once we accept the application, we do a Live Scan background check, then they are invited to an in-person two-hour orientation and we look for a fit between a mentor and a project.
Paula: Are the mentors all women?
Eric: Mostly, yes. We have one male mentor this semester.
Paula: Are they all working photographers?
Eric: No. A lot of them photograph on their own for personal projects. They're creative writers, they're artists in some other way. Securing working photographers to come in to volunteer regularly two to three hours a week has proven pretty impossible. We found more success with people who are into photography and what they're able to then do is mentor the girl and bring in their network of photographers, but we definitely have a mix. It’s a misconception that only professional photographers are mentors here. At the end of the day, it's mentoring through photography, so the mentoring piece is extremely important to me, and then the photography piece is next.
Paula: What do you think they're getting out of it?
Eric: I think, originally, they have this idea that they're going to help somebody. That is why most people come in, because they want to give back and they want to support a young person in that capacity. What keeps them here, I think, is the culture of the organization, which is the community of other women that are also looking to give back and support a teenage girl through photography. They’re meeting other creative and passionate women. A lot of the mentors will also then build a strong relationship with their students. It's not realistic that every adult will bond with all of their girls and build lifelong relationships, but it's beautiful when a mentor bonds with someone and follows them to their next program. Sometimes mentors follow their student from program to program, semester after semester. So I think that is another piece of what they get out of it. You learn so much about yourself through the mentoring process.
Paula: What are your biggest challenges?
Eric: I used to be uncomfortable saying this, but our biggest challenge is money. Like any nonprofit organization, we can’t do our programming if we don't have the money to do it. I often wish I had a rich aunt who would just say, "Sure, honey. Here's another $10,000 for what you need."
Paula: Where do you get your funding?
Eric: We’re 55-60% grant funded through foundations, including a generous gift from PAC·LA. Unfortunately we’re starting to see changes in foundations' priorities. Arts education was once a big thing, but some funders have moved towards immigration rights and housing or other things. Sometimes we’re able to argue that our work can be viewed through these different lenses but not always. Seeing that change is scary. We don't have a strong individual donor base. We don't have major donors. We’re now preparing to hire a development and communications manager and recently brought on a community engagement manager and an education and programs manager. So for the first time in eight years we will have four full-time staff, but we have to have the money to pay that staff. Fundraising is constant. That’s our biggest challenge. Second is space, having a space where we can plan for the five or 10 years, versus our current situation, where we’re not sure if our lease will be renewed. The third thing is around capacities and organization. At the moment I have to focus on creating infrastructure and stability in order to make the organization sustainable for years to come.
Student interest is not a challenge for us. There are organizations that have a hard time recruiting students for their programs. We have a long line of students on a wait list who are just waiting for that email that goes out twice a year that says it’s time to apply. I feel very fortunate that's not an issue.
Paula: How many girls do you work with now?
Eric: 75 through our core programming and about 150 through community engagement.
Paula: What are some of the themes that the girls have explored?
Eric: This fall we’ll be working on self-portraits and portraits of inspirational women. In the past we’ve done projects and exhibitions on Mayan Women in LA, which documented the experiences of Maya-identifying women from Guatemala who live in Los Angeles. We did one called Kindred, where we created books about families that included investigations, migration stories, and old family photos, one about the cultural significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe, one about gentrification, one called A Woman’s Work, which documented women in their workplaces. If you come to our exhibition space these are the kinds of shows that you’ll see.
The Hire Her work will continue as well for girls that have done at least a year of programming at Las Fotos Project. They participate in a professional development training series, and then get hired to go out and shoot events or manage a photo booth or do head shots. They get paid per hour. Our organization coordinates the job and works with them to deliver the images within five days. You can hire a student and give them an opportunity to get some real life photo job skills.
Paula: What's the biggest lesson you've learned through doing this work?
Eric: I’ve really learned how important it is to support young people. There's a lot of pressure on them. They're at school for eight hours a day Monday through Friday and then they come home and they do two to three hours of homework. Then they also want to get involved in extracurricular stuff. We also need to understand that not every young person has the same trajectory. For every girl going to UCLA, there are three or four girls going to a community college and that is just as important. Sometimes just surviving your teenage years is a very strong accomplishment. If you leave Las Fotos Project at 18 and you are more self-aware, you're ahead of a lot of adults that you'll meet later on in life. So I think the importance of supporting young people is something that a lot of people don't value as much as we should.
Metztli Garcia is an 18-year-old student and recent graduate from Mendez High School. Metzli will be attending UCLA in the fall to pursue a degree in either Sociology or Communications with a minor in Photography. She was born and raised in East Los Angeles, where Metztli established herself as a portrait and lifestyle photographer. Specializing in community issues and empowerment for women of color, her style consists of vibrant colored images. Metztli joined Las Fotos Project in the fall of 2015 and believes photography has helped her, “...gain a great deal of knowledge about my culture and as helped me become very proud of where I’m from and of my beautiful and revolutionary ethnicity”. She plans to continue her involvement with the organization while in college. As a former foster youth, Metztli is determined to become an advocate for those whose voices are not heard. Living life through the lens of a young Latina, Metztli credits her family and community for helping her to become the passionate and hardworking young woman she is today.