Some of the most heartfelt, gut-wrenching — and sometimes simply beautiful — street photography in Los Angeles is being created by low-income teenagers who meet once a week after school at the St. Francis Center on Hope Street in Downtown. The kids live near the center and are guided by their teacher, photographer Joanne Kim, and five volunteer artist-mentors.
The class is offered by Venice Arts, a non-profit program that recently joined with the USC Annenberg School for Communications to form the Institute for Photographic Empowerment. The students, for the most part new to photography, explored and documented their Downtown environment over ten weeks. Their subject matter included the streets and alleys around the Center, Disney Hall, and the students' own homes and families.
Their photographs are an example of "participant-produced" imagery, a way for kids who live in marginalized communities to have a voice and tell the stories of their lives. Venice Arts creative director Jim Hubbard, a veteran photojournalist, believes this kind of visual storytelling leads to individual empowerment and awareness for the students, and ultimately to social change.
For Kim and the mentors, the most important achievement so far has been to get the students to engage with and trust their instructors. On the Wednesdays of class, students are loaned a digital camera and escorted onto the streets in groups. After taking their pictures, they edit on computers at the center.
In mid-December, the year-long class took a break with a pizza party and slide show of everyone's best photos. Joanna Hernandez, who is 13, used her hand to frame a compelling image of Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill. Geovanni Montes, 15, caught a woman on a train that brought to mind the style of Bruce Davidson's series on New York subways.
Kim hopes the coming weeks will provide opportunities for the kids to learn more about photographic technique and about well-known photographers who might provide inspiration. Mostly, she wants them to continue using their cameras to examine and reveal the world they inhabit.
It's not only for their own sense of identity and self-worth, but as a tool to inform the larger community how youngsters Downtown live and the realities they face.
Photos from the class: (click to view each photo larger)
Xiomara Lara, 14
Judith Ocampo, 12
Antonio Bautista, 16
Brian Hernandez, 15
Monica Alvarado, 12
Claudia Bueno, 13
Daniel Hernandez, 13
Sandra Torres, 15
Joanna Hernandez, 13
Geovanni Montes, 15