Thalía Gochez, Dos sangres, 2019
Courtesy the artist

In photographs, Los Angeles can take on many forms based on the city’s mythos. But one vantage point often under-highlighted is that of the city’s youth. In capturing photographs of their homes, neighborhoods, and friends, the students of nonprofit organization Las Fotos Project are framing the city through their own unique lens.

Founded in 2010 by Eric V. Ibarra, the organization fosters creativity in young folks ages thirteen to eighteen, primarily across Central, South, and East Los Angeles. Beyond teaching teens the technical basics of photography, Las Fotos Project focuses on the power of storytelling. The workshops function to spark ideas—and to encourage values like self-confidence and leadership.

Las Fotos Project teaching artist Gemma Jimenez supports student Jocelyn Pena during their community photojournalism class, 2022. Photograph by Carolina Ferreira
Courtesy Las Fotos

The programs range in their themes: Esta Soy Yo focuses on the personal and explores the therapeutic nature of photography, while Creative Entrepreneurship Opportunities gives teens career insights and on-the-job training through gigs with brands and local organizations. Las Fotos Project has also hosted multiple exhibitions, previously staging them at well-known spaces throughout Los Angeles like Plaza de la Raza, Casa 0101 Theater, and Self-Help Graphics & Art.

During pre-COVID times, the annual Viva La Muxer event included food, vendors, live performances, and art—all of which encourages Angelenos to support the organization. The 2020 event was cancelled; in 2021, it went virtual and included programming such as Instagram Live conversations with the podcast producer Mukta Mohan and artist Gabriella Sanchez. In addition, the Foto Awards honor youth and established photographers and pays homage to female and gender-expansive creators. The environment supports young creators and also gives Angelenos (and people everywhere) the chance to see their work.

Thalía Gochez, Genai, 2020, for Foot Locker x Nike
Courtesy the artist

Thalía Gochez, a Los Angeles–based photographer, has previously worked with the organization. Gochez, whose work was featured on the cover of Aperture’s “Latinx” issue, is known for her focus on Latinx women and for combining her photographic eye with a love of fashion; her portraits celebrate the full complexity of the subject’s identity. She photographs people she rarely saw in magazine pages or photography classes when she was in school figuring out what she wanted to do.

As part of a brand partnership with Forever 21, youth photographers with Las Fotos Project shadowed Gochez during a photo shoot and took some behind-the-scenes shots. A Las Fotos student who had shadowed Gochez three years ago for another project recently joined Gochez on a shoot for Converse for Women’s History Month. “I’m like, Oh, my gosh, we’ve kind of grown together in this way,” Gochez says. “It’s just so beautiful to see the evolution of this young creative.” Gochez says that access to on-set experiences was something she didn’t have as a young, self-taught photographer trying to find her footing.

Photography lends itself to quick connections; photos, Torres says, can help teens get their message across without having to write or say anything.

Mentorship, Gochez says, ended up being extremely important as she pursued a career in photography. Early on, she received a direct message on Instagram from a creative director who ended up guiding Gochez through all the complexities of working with brands and making sure she got paid. This mentorship was invaluable during her first professional photography job with Nike.

“We still are in contact, and I still ask her questions because I don’t know everything,” Gochez says. “But I remember thinking, Wow, that was really needed. And I hope to be as amazing as she was to me, to someone else . . . it left an impression on me and a beautiful message of the power of mentorship with folks that already can relate to your story.”

Las Fotos Project teaching artist Kenzie Floyd supports student Rocio Hernandez during their creative career class, 2022. Photograph by Carolina Ferreira
Courtesy Las Fotos

In her portrait photography, Gochez prefers to have a connection with her subject. She asks questions about where they want the photo shoot to happen and considers details like what they’re wearing. She says she “always felt a strong desire to capture stories and to capture real people and really honor their story and identity.”

Lucia Torres, executive director of Las Fotos Project, says that the organization strives to include teaching artists and mentors who come from backgrounds similar to those of their students. Formerly a board member, she says that Ibarra made the decision to step down in 2019 to allow the organization to be woman-led. Torres remembers first seeing the artwork of Las Fotos Project students in an alleyway in Boyle Heights; the public space was transformed into a DIY gallery that highlighted the work of the youth.

Las Fotos Project students Eunice Shin and Lucy Hwang participate in a Foto Walk around Boyle Heights near the Las Fotos Project gallery, 2022. Photograph by Carolina Ferreira
Courtesy Las Fotos

She especially appreciated the organization’s mission to give teens a chance to share their stories “in a way that’s authentically them.” Photography lends itself to quick connections; photos, Torres says, can help teens get their message across without having to write or say anything. She recalls how teens have been so proud to see their work on display, whether in a show or at a bus stop. One student from Arizona joined Las Fotos Project when it went virtual—and when she found out her work would be on view, her family planned a trip to LA.

“I saw myself in a lot of the students who were coming through and participating in the program,” Torres says. “When I was 13 years old . . . I couldn’t really put myself out there because there was a lot of pressure for me to just be very charismatic and very vocal. As a very awkward and introverted teenager, I just did not want to do that. So I felt shut out. Photography offers you the opportunity to be able to do that—to be very loud and vocal with your story while at the same time being quiet.”

Photograph by Michelle Montenegro for Las Fotos Project, Fall 2021
Courtesy Las Fotos

Michelle Montenegro, a current student at Las Fotos Project, can attest to this experience. She says that her love of photography started getting serious in high school. “Photography has always been something I’ve been able to go to when I’m feeling really stressed out,” Montenegro, who is eighteen, says. “And to share my voice without actually having to say anything.”

Montenegro found out about Las Fotos Project through a friend and has enrolled in classes like Esta Soy Yo, which she appreciates for its inclusion of self-care. A current student at the University of Southern California (USC), she often finds it difficult to find moments for herself in a hectic schedule. Showing up to class at Las Fotos Project once a week helps with that.

Montenegro says the environment has been supportive from the start, and seeing the work of her peers expands her understanding of the medium, since everyone tells their story their own way. “I love documentary photography as well as combining photography with journalism,” she says. “I love to capture my mom, my parents, my community around me—and finding beauty in unconventional spaces that aren’t really highlighted.”

Thalía Gochez, Michelle, 2020, for Bella Doña
Courtesy the artist

Things are evolving at the organization. Its new space in Boyle Heights was designed to offer teens the tools they need for creative expression, including a studio space with professional equipment like backdrops and lighting. Torres says her team also plans to create a darkroom, since several students have expressed interest in print photography. Las Fotos Project will invite local creatives to rent out the space at affordable rates for their own projects.

“Hopefully, we become this creative hub for young creatives in East LA,” Torres says. These resources are meant to help teens bring their own creative visions to life. Gochez emphasizes that in her own mentorship, she wants to foster a space for artistic freedom. “Ultimately, I can teach them a lot of technical aspects, but I think the most valuable lesson that I feel like I teach them is just how to be a photographer with integrity and respect,” Gochez says. “To me, taking someone’s photo is a very beautiful, sacred act. If there’s any way that I can show that to them, then I win.”

Watch a conversation with Thalía Gochez about Las Fotos Project on Aperture’s YouTube channel.