For Celeste Umana, an 11-year-old from South Los Angeles, the class assignment was fairly straightforward: Use lights, mirrors and a camera to take a self-portrait.
But Celeste wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t have a big mirror.
“Then I remembered this little hand mirror that I had,” she recalled.
Celeste played with that little mirror, and after multiple takes she eventually had a self-portrait that made her proud. “I was ready to show,” the young photographer said.
The class — titled Esta Soy Yo, or This Is Me — was part of Las Fotos Project, a nonprofit Los Angeles program that provides free photography classes for underprivileged female-identifying and non-binary students up to age 18. Beyond simple camera instruction, Las Fotos Project provides a safe space for girls to be mentored and to develop a strong sense of identity and confidence, participants said.
For a girl like Celeste, that meant the chance to see her self-portrait selected for a Las Fotos exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.
“When it was up at MOLAA, it was unbelievable,” said Celeste, now 14. “This is a museum, and it’s up with all these amazing other Latino artists like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera — all these other famous artists — and here I am, 11, and I have one of my first photos from my first semester up in an exhibit. It was just unbelievable. I was beyond happy.”
Las Fotos Project dates to 2010, when Los Angeles resident Eric V. Ibarra was frustrated by the lack of creative opportunities for teenage girls, particularly in communities of color.
“I realized nothing like this existed,” he said. “There was no program just for girls.”
Ibarra was inspired to start Las Fotos Project after watching “Born Into Brothels,” the Academy Award-winning 2004 documentary feature about impoverished children of prostitutes in India who become empowered through photography. He wanted L.A. to have a place where girls could learn photography in a safe environment largely run by women. Since the photo industry is dominated by men, Ibarra said, he was motivated to create a path for young women to enter the field.
“I wanted to create something where students in my neighborhood could also have that same opportunity,” said Ibarra, the group’s executive director.
Las Fotos Project accomplishes this with three courses: Esta Soy Yo, Digital Promotoras, and CEOs.
“The first one is focused on self,” Ibarra said, “the second one is focused on community, and the third one is focused on career.”
Esta Soy Yo centers on introspective photography and self-portraiture. In Digital Promotoras, students identify social issues and document them in their communities. CEOs teaches entrepreneurial skills and connects the girls to paid photography gigs.
Mentors work one-on-one with the girls, and a teaching artist leads class instruction. A typical class consists of 10 to 12 students, taught in the evening and on weekends during 12-week spring and fall semesters. Each course culminates with a project that showcases the semester’s work.
“The students will create either an exhibition as a group,” Ibarra said, “or they’ll put together a zine, or they’ll have some sort of end product.”
Students can also gain life skills in the process.
“Ideally they’ve gone through all three programs,” he said, “and now they understand who they are, they understand their place and power in their community, and they see how photography can ultimately help them earn a living.”
Celeste and her classmates worked on a project titled “Flow: A Community’s Relationship to Water,” which documented water consumption; the L.A. River; and Tongva tribal water protectors, who believe water is sacred and work to protect it. Las Fotos Project collaborated with the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York as part of a national project called “Water Is a Woman’s Issue.” Celeste and her classmates presented their findings during a U.N. youth conference.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking because we had all these delegates from all these different parts of the world, and they were listening to us and seeing our presentation,” Umana said. “I was really thrilled with the whole experience.”
Regina Zamarripa, 18, from Boyle Heights, said Las Fotos Project helped her to realize her passion and potential.
“Without Las Fotos, I don’t think I would have found my way to photography,” Zamarripa said.
She enrolled in the program in 2014. This spring she co-taught Esta Soy Yo as a teaching artist’s assistant and was president of the youth advisory council at Las Fotos Project.
Her work was featured at the Getty Museum in June as part of the “L.A. #Unshuttered” student exhibition, but she said her biggest achievement was a solo show she shot and curated at Las Fotos Project.
“That was a very important moment in my photography career or just like a very special moment in my life,” she said.
“I documented 12 indigenous people — mostly of different backgrounds and experiences here in L.A. — as a means to shed light on the diversity within indigenous communities and break down these stereotypes of the singular narrative that often comes with indigenous people.”
This fall, Zamarripa is attending UC San Diego to study anthropology and fine arts.
“It won’t be the last time I’m involved in Las Fotos. I think at this point they’re kind of stuck with me as I am stuck to them,” Zamarripa said.
She hopes to come back to Las Fotos Project as a volunteer.
“It gives girls the opportunity to tell their stories in a very authentic, unapologetic way, and it helps them find their voice, make their voice stronger, and more heard,” she said. “It definitely does empower them to take more positions of power or as more viable candidates for future jobs.”
The program has garnered support from the community. In April, with its lease in Lincoln Heights ending, Las Fotos Project launched a campaign to raise $30,000 in 30 days for a new home in Boyle Heights. The group raised $40,000 by Day 4. It ended the campaign with $60,000.
Las Fotos Project’s new landlord is a nonprofit that reaches out to community groups ito combat gentrification. Although the location has changed, the mission remains the same: Provide a space for girls to come together, to sit with others who may go to a different school or who may come from a different neighborhood.
“There’s so many examples of really brilliant-minded young women in the program who are no doubt going to be doing amazing things, whether it’s because of LFP or not … because someone who is destined for greatness, they’re destined for greatness, right?” Ibarra said. “But I definitely can say with confidence that this programming has created a supportive environment for them that has positively impacted their trajectory in life.”
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