On a recent warm summer evening, dozens made their way around a small, low-key photo gallery in Lincoln Heights, sipping on ice water as they stared into each portrait on the walls.
A woman in a police uniform, a mother bathing her children, another woman selling street food: each captured moment highlighted the gallery's most recent theme, "A Woman's Work."
"I get really excited every semester I display my work," said photographer Natalia Angeles. "I'm always happy to see new faces come into the exhibit and really look at your photo."
At first glance, even a trained eye may not have realized the photos were all taken by photographers hardly trained themselves.
That's precisely the goal of Las Fotos Project, a nonprofit organization taking girls ages 12-18 and teaching them the art of still photography.
"In the beginning, I was like, oh ... I don't have the ability to take that picture," Angeles said. "Now that I have more experience, it's made me go out more and be able to capture something in a whole different way with different perspectives."
Las Fotos Project has been around about four years, taking mostly young Latinas from around Los Angeles County and pairing them with experienced mentors.
Soon enough, each young photographer learns the technical and artistic aspects of photojournalism, leading to them covering many different major events across the region, as well as their communities.
"When I go out and take pictures, I see something that I really want to take and it's just like, 'Whoa. This is something I've never seen,'" Angeles explained. "Like for example, the woman in the mirror."
The Woman in the Mirror
By the number of folks who stopped to look, it's clear Angeles' portrait stands out among those of her peers: a shot of a woman, a street vendor in Santee Alley, staring at the young photographer's lens through a mirror hanging in her little store.
"That's a decisive moment, I guess you could say," she said. "When we first approached her, she was really bored. She looked really bored and really sad. She captured my attention and I went up to her and I was like, 'Can I take your picture?'"
The image is focused on the mirror and the woman's eyes, while the out of focus colors around her bring a vibrancy to the composition.
It's a moment the 14-year-old admits she may not have been able to capture once upon a time.
"I was always really shy, so when I first started the program, like I said before, I would go out and people would reject me," Angeles said, who is from Bell Gardens. "But after the years I was with Las Fotos, it made me go out of my comfort zone and be like, 'OK. I got rejected once. I can go out and take pictures of other people. It doesn't have to be that person.'"
"This is very intimate and it's very strong," said Jesenia Quijada, Angeles' mentor, as she glanced at the photo. "I think when we first started working together as mentor and mentee, she was a little more reserved. It took her a while to open up with me."
Las Fotos Project
Over the past few years, Quijada and Angeles have formed a friendship based around a mutual love for photography. Quijada teaches Angeles the technicalities of the craft, while Angeles tries to apply the intricacies of a well-composed photo to whatever catches her eye.
"I've seen her learn to understand the tools and all the elements of design. I have seen her become more comfortable in her role as a photographer, more comfortable in her role as a photographer in her community," Quijada said. "I've seen her grow as a person."
Angeles tries to stay away from the stereotypical.
"I go more for the things that people don't put in movies and all that," she said. "Being able to capture other people, like women with their kids waiting for the bus, or women working, or women in a place where you would never really see them or you'd see men instead."
It's all part of the endgame of Las Fotos Project, to not only give young women a powerful tool to capture moments, but also to decide which moments are important to capture.
"I think there's a lot of power that comes with sharing your version of the truth with the world. I think your version of truth can be just the little details that nobody else would notice," Quijada explained. "I found Las Fotos Project when I was at a point in my life when I was realizing how important photography was to me.
"What I found when I started working with Las Fotos was that I liked working with the girls even more than I like working with photography," she added.
And now because of mentors like Quijada and a program like Las Fotos Project, young women are learning the lifelong skill of being able to identify and capture moments around them, because afterall, a powerful photo can't be taken if there's no one around to take it -- like the woman in the mirror.
"I feel like them -- powerful -- because I get to capture how confident they are," Angeles said. "Now everyone is going to see how powerful they are to the rest of the community."