South LA

“My love letter to the community”: Kayla Jackson reflects on her photo project on South L.A.

Jackson’s series #OwnTheChange was part of Las Fotos Project, an L.A.-based nonprofit that engages youth in photography, storytelling, social change and more.

When Kayla Jackson, 16, began photographing her community during the pandemic, she had no idea what her lens would uncover. While peering through her camera, she came to see her community, the Hyde Park area of South Los Angeles, in a whole new light.

“Shooting brought me closer to my community, which I didn’t expect at all. I got to meet so many people, business owners. They got to see my love letter to the community,” she said.

Jackson said she loved seeing the community-wide support in South L.A. She mentioned that she saw community fridges and food pantries in Leimert Park, local businesses offering a seat at their cafe so residents could have access to WiFi and landlords showing kindness to their tenants who struggled to pay rent.

“Just kind of how the community stuck together as one was really beautiful,” she said. “I loved seeing it while I was shooting.”

Jackson’s photography series, #OwnTheChange, is a part of Las Fotos Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring teenage girls to pursue a path toward creative artwork. It was founded in 2010 by Eric V. Ibarra, because he wanted to provide resources for young girls to help build confidence, leadership and self-esteem. The organization says it has worked with countless girls in Southern California to open their creative eyes to the world around them. The program, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, offers peer mentors, exhibitions and workshops to 13 to 18-year-old girls to help guide them through creative projects.

Lucia Torres, executive director of Las Fotos Project, says the initiative was built through the core values of social justice and inclusivity.

“We work with teen girls from communities of color using photography as a tool for mentorship in order to allow a platform for our students to elevate their voices and also explore their own identities, their community, and future careers as well,” Torres said.

The program Jackson took part in, Digital Promotoras Action, or digital advocates, is just one of the many programs offered within the organization that provides photojournalism lessons to its students in an effort to raise awareness of key social justice issues. Torres explained that the Digital Promotoras Program is one of their three core programs, along with Esta Soy Yo and CEO, which stands for Creative Entrepreneurship Opportunities. Each of these programs “is essentially like our three-pronged approach to having our students connect with their stories and their identities and so it’s self, community, and career.”

The Digital Promotoras project allows students to focus on their community and issues that impact their community, which Torres said became especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Through photography, [they can] document what these issues are and then also document potential strategies or uplift leaders in the community who are doing something about addressing these issues or uplift like small businesses and things like that,” said Torres.

Jackson decided to focus her Digital Promotoras project on gentrification that she observed within her South L.A. community.

“I’ve seen it come up, and I’ve seen it grow — the good, the bad, all of it. And so my favorite thing to photograph is things that I go through or experience or social issues that are arising,” said Jackson. “I went ahead and I shot all around the area, mostly View Park and Leimert Park.”

Jackson said that her mentor, Alanna Araujo, the community engagement coordinator of Las Fotos Project, was one of the “biggest helpers” in achieving her series.

“I think that she’s [Araujo] amazing. She’s given me so many opportunities, and she’s kind of just a coordinator with putting everything together,” Jackson said.

Araujo gave Jackson the platform she needed to get started with her artwork, and then let her go into the real world to shoot and work through any creative slumps she faced.

“I can always turn to her [Araujo] if I was feeling stuck, or I wasn’t quite sure if this is good. They really gave us the platform to share what I wanted to do,” Jackson said.

As a mentor for Las Fotos Project, Araujo helps support students in their creative endeavors by giving them advice and connecting them to other organizations that value student voices.

“I reached out to [Kayla] about an opportunity to host a Girl Talk session, so it was really just more giving Kayla space to like share her voice and share her opinions,” Araujo said.

When Araujo received word from one of Las Fotos Project’s partners about including student work in their media, she instantly thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity for Jackson to expand her work.

“They were looking for a student who was documenting their neighborhoods and their response to the pandemic and just what’s been going on,” said Araujo. “So I immediately thought of Kayla’s project.”

Jackson now has the ability to work with community newsletters and take pictures of her community. Last summer, she even shot photos of the Black Lives Matter protests.

“This is kind of where I want to bring my career and even just my home…” Jackson said. “So I want to pursue a career in this for sure. I wouldn’t have wanted to if it wasn’t for Las Fotos.”

As part of Las Fotos Project’s celebration of its decade-long impact, the organization will continue to support youth voices with its upcoming Age of Change. This series of activations and creative projects will help raise $100,000 for the next generation of photography storytellers.

The first of these activations is the Los Angeles Public Art Exhibition, which will display student artwork around the city. Las Fotos Project partnered with Outfront Media/JCDecaux and Streets LA to add a series of public photography exhibitions in various L.A. bus shelters, making art more accessible to the community.

Angelenos can expect to see the first of these installations on April 2 at bus stops on the intersections of Wilshire and Crenshaw, Wilshire and Lorraine, Wilshire and Mansfield, Wilshire and Cloverdale and Daly and Broadway. Torres said that people can also expect to see Kayla’s artwork as well the expansive collection of other student work from Las Fotos Project’s archives.

“I feel like we often hear, especially when people are doing youth work, it’s always like we have to, you know, support our youth because they are the future of education or government or what have you,” she said. “But they’re not. Young people are our present, our now. And our future.”