Inspiring Teenage Girls, One Photo at a Time
What stories can a simple photo tell?
What difference can a camera make?
They’re questions at the heart of Las Fotos Project, a unique nonprofit headquartered in Los Angeles that has spent more than a decade giving teenage girls and nonbinary people cameras and training to them tell the stories of their lives, neighborhoods, and dreams.
Las Fotos Project, which caters largely to Latinas from lower-income communities, launched 11 years ago after a local L.A. resident and activist watched the 2004 film Born Into Brothels. The Academy Award-winning documentary portrayed the lives of poor girls in India who were raised in a slum in a community where the their parents and caretakers worked in prostitution. The girls were taught photography as a means of having empowerment over their lives.
Leaders at Las Fotos Project have taken that idea and expanded it into classrooms, mentorship, and an array of activities to boost the confidence and leadership skills of the young people to whom it caters.
“We’re called Las Fotos Project but really, what we are is a mentorship organization,” says executive director Lucia Torres, who works with about eight staffers — nearly all of them women — who oversee about 150 students who go through the program each year.
“We utilize photography as a platform to amplify our student voices. The mentoring happens through our students discovering themselves and the power of their eyes and voice through the photography,” Torres says. “Then, on top of the photography training, we pair up students with adults who work as photographers to help them develop a vision and figure out their connection to the world.”
Students are grouped into weekly after-school classes that are divided into three teaching components: Self, Community, and Career. Self is also called “Esta Soy Yo” (“This Is Me”). Community is called “Digital Promotoras” (“Digital Activists”). Career is “CEO” (“Creative Entrepreneurship Opportunities”).
"For us, this is a space where girls and nonbinary people can come explore their identities in their own ways. Their voices can sometimes get silenced and manipulated in other spaces,” Torres says."
“In Self, students look at themselves through their own cultural identities. We ask questions such as ‘What does home mean to you? Who are you at this point in your life and growth? Who inspires you?’” Torres says.
The teens then document their family, friends, and neighborhoods through photos.
In “Digital Promotoras,” the students work on educating their communities and each other via photography.
“They look at things like healthy food options in the community or lack thereof, green spaces in their neighborhood, racial tensions, immigration, and other subjects they can pick on their own,” Torres says.
In the last component, Career, the teens learn how to make photography into a career and are set up with photography-related jobs. Some make $17 an hour while others make up to $1,000 per assignment.
“They’re taught how to set up photos for daytime and evening shoots and how to do headshots,” Torres says. “They’ll even get chances to be hired by local companies and organizations that need photographers.”
Everyone who participates in Las Fotos Project also can, at the completion of their courses, submit one or two photographs to an online auction the group puts together. The students earn a part of the proceeds from their photos.
Altogether, the teens over the years have used photos to address topics ranging from gentrification and water access to sexual and gender identity.
At times, Torres has fielded questions about why the project focuses on girls and nonbinary individuals instead of also including boys, a group to whom she says photography could also be a beneficial teaching tool.
“But for us, this is a space where girls and nonbinary people can come explore their identities in their own ways. Their voices can sometimes get silenced and manipulated in other spaces,” Torres says.
“Teenagers, especially girls, are constantly bombarded with social media images of what they should look like and how they should act. So it’s important for us to give these students a space where they can explore a vision of themselves outside of what the media tells them they should be,” Torres says. “We want to tell our students, ‘Yes, you can be those things if you want to, but you don’t have to. The camera and the lens are yours. You get to decide.’”