Pulling no punches in their portrayal of Los Angeles landscapes and citizens, a current society of Latinx photographers and media arts advocates are utilizing the street as a present-day workspace and repping the region’s badass identity. Through an analogous portrayal of a bold city thanks to the use of the time-honored medium of portraiture, these artists are establishing their distinctive aesthetic and depicting L.A. time through light and shadow, clinching their place amidst the city’s chroniclers/documentarians. Elevating their craft is an assertive gamble on print media, their love of self-published zines being their primary method of distribution. This union of print media, film and digital photography sets the stage for a reinvention and growth that’s self-made.
In a rapidly changing urban panorama, the means of production for documentation seems to require both keeping up to date with developments, while looking to the past periodically. The zines and photographs created by these artists, present accounts of an appreciation, history and preservation of Angeleno topography and transformation. There is refuge in the pastiche between millimetric film heritage alongside digital news gathering and the compositions they make. The immediacy flowing through this work breeds informed sights and inspired sounds reflective of today’s youth.
Photography has been Erwin Recinos’ medium of choice for over 15 years. Creating imagery for graphic content projects and zines has been a way for him to share his work with others on another platform besides the internet. With some research and a print background, he creates small photography booklets to give to peers at shows and various other events. “I document what I see every day,” Recinos says. “My daily routine is a visual pleasure and inspiration for me. That photography work shows up in my zines, ‘Metro Anonymous’ and ‘Film Fiend.’ ‘Metro Anonymous’ is a series dedicated to public transportation in and around Los Angeles — a visual documentation of life as a working commuter. All photos for this zine are created with my camera phone.” Possessing a veteran’s love for 35mm film photography, polaroids and analog media, the battle for film’s worth is evident in publications such as “Film Fiend” and “No Masters.” “‘Film Fiend’ revolves around documenting the urban landscape of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. The photography in this zine is all 35mm film photography. It was published last year and I’m working on a future installment,” he says.
There are also two online publications he contributes to. Snapshot Galleria is a photography publication based in L.A. focused on film photography as an artistic medium. It features work from founding members Luis Torres, Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin and Recinos. With this platform, they interview other film-based photographers worldwide. Erwin also produces work for L.A. Taco, the L.A.-centric website featuring art, music, food and events happening in the area, and showcasing photographs of events, places and people in and around L.A.’s “taco lifestyle.” “I'm the son of Salvadoran immigrants and raised by the Latino culture of Los Angeles, so in my 36 years of life, the culture of Los Angeles has raised me to see a broad scope of economic and social influence from brown skinned people that I have met in that time. Latin culture in this city is rooted with family history and a sense of community that I deeply respect, you see the influence of hard work, dedication and community within my work,” Recinos explains.
When asked how he would classify his work, what Recinos is certain of is that his work is not meant to be trendy or geared towards a particular demographic.“If you look at the work I produce it's not fashionable, I believe it’s for people who see past the first instinct of what photography is today, what is currently fashionable online via social media. I am a documentarian creating a visual timeline of my personal experience and present creative outlets, constantly building on a body of work, frame by frame. I work on particular projects that I believe add value to me personally and creatively.” True to photography as a deeply personal medium of expression, Recinos emphasizes that the photography he creates is made to invoke individual thoughts and perspectives in the viewer. “Currently there are no hidden messages behind the photos I take. I am an objective vessel and use my design background as a foundation in my work, and with that base, there are endless possibilities that I can carry out when I shoot. For me, photography is about the process and creating images in that moment.”
La Liga Zine is a print and online cooperative conscious of Latinx representation. The collective aims to disintegrate stereotypes by emphasizing originality across geographic and conceptual barriers. “La Liga originally started as a fashion/street style fashion blog that aimed to feature and highlight the personal style of Latinxs. We knew that we were being vastly underrepresented, and we wanted a platform where we had the space to [address that]. As we grew, we began to discuss privately as a team our fears, opinions and ideas about things that were happening both to and within the Latinx community. Our pieces got more political and opinionated, our posts got built around creating solidarity with other collectives and groups fighting against injustice; we just slowly became more critical of the world around us,” Mia Rodríguez explains. With contributors based in places as diverse as L.A., Baltimore, New York City, San Antonio and beyond, La Liga Zine creates a correspondence of resistance. “Our body of work is always centered around exploring and deconstructing Latinidad, what it means to be a Latinx. Our essays focus on our influence and the exploitation of our labor, both physical and creative, and our photography highlights the diversity in the way we look and express ourselves through clothes, hair, makeup, etc. Our interviews serve to enlighten our readers about the great things our community does and has accomplished, whether it's political, creative, visual or community work, and most importantly, our biggest goal is to let every person who identifies as Latinx know that they are represented, they are accepted and they are a part of our community,” Rodríguez says.
What illuminates La Liga Zine is its elevated, highly personal and relational content — a family spread across its various essays and highly stylized photography accentuating Latinx inventiveness, intelligence and artistry while still maintaining a critical outlook on the society we inhabit. “Our entire culture is embedded in the themes we explore in our work, from feeling isolated to the feeling of safety and family; it’s what centers and informs everything we do. We also aim to explore either parts of our culture that get overlooked like home remedies, family traditions, foods and dishes, etc. to things that are more nuanced like colorism, growing up hairy, prejudice and racism toward other minorities, class and race, etc. We take a critical approach to almost all that we do because we never want to present an idealized or false version of what really happens in our communities,” Rodríguez says. La Liga Zine takes some inspiration from past movements and aesthetics to develop their own collaborative language. “Our struggles and demands have been the same for a long time; we don’t want equality, we want liberation from systems that have scammed us financially, culturally, politically and socially. We think the work created by artists in eras past is still relevant and powerful today, at least the ones based in exposing the injustices we face and calling to arms. Art can get cliché and dated when it focuses on trivial things ... ”
As La Liga Zine grows in its mission and declaration, it wisely and cautiously keeps an eye out for capitalization, imposition and the possible “Columbusing” of its statements. “We see it all the time in either visual work — fashion shoots, Instagram pictures, makeup tutorials — [or] written works, like the time we found out major media outlets were lurking our page and then stealing our content. I think we experience just a slice of appropriation compared to what the Black communities have been going through for decades. Everyone is aware that as soon as a white person either wears, looks like or sounds like what we’ve been wearing, looking like or sounding like for years, it becomes ‘fashionable’ and ‘new’ and they will almost never give credit where credit is due,” Rodríguez says. La Liga’s female Latinx identity essays aspire to construct unity via artistic perseverance with a style that wishes to define the future. “We hope to shed light on the place and voice of women in the fight for freedom and liberation and revolution. Our entire team is either female identifying, femme or non-binary, and we aim to keep it that way in order to let our audience know how much of an impact a woman’s voice can have in this struggle. We want our audience to know that we don’t do any of this for personal or professional profit and that our goal is to remain independent and grassroots,” Rodríguez says.
Elefante Collective seeks to create a visual media language/education where people of color are at the forefront of creation and in control of their own narratives. “Elefante Collective is a Los Angeles based POC multimedia collective of artivists who are focused on horizontality and elevating community spirit through storytelling and all forms of artistic expression. We are determined to bring to light the beauty, struggle and dignity of our people by utilizing art as a tool for social transformation, striving to be autonomous in our efforts through skill-sharing and nurturing the resources we have in our communities. As people of color we do not want to wait to be given the opportunities to express ourselves and do not need permission to create and/or vocalize our opinions through media or any other form of expression,” says Elefante Collective.
Opening the doors of self-expression and solidarity within the Latinx community is an essential component to the Elefante Collective mission, building a community of creators who resist against trends to focus on personal histories while defying formulas through constant production. “We recognize that our communities are diverse and multifaceted spaces and places of unique memory and consciousness. Our personal and collective expression is a representation of the many talents that each person has, not necessarily [gained] from a college or the academy. Elefante Collective wishes to cultivate and nurture all talents and especially challenge the lack of/or exclusion of people of color in mainstream media. We would like to see Elefante grow into a larger community where we can hold monthly workshops and photography/film challenges; somewhere creatives can go to offer their skills for collaborative projects or find resources for their own projects.”
Zines and social media have been the motor for dealing out messages and documentation of life for Elefante Collective, sharing aesthetic manifestations of culture and creation belonging to its community and beyond. “As social media started reaching popularity, so did photography, especially self-documentation, revealing to the world glimpses of our everyday life. We saw ourselves and our streets in a whole new way, sharing little bits of beauty that somehow balanced out the ugly. That was a turning point for so many of us, we were able to communicate over images, videos and captions, leaving it open to interpretation and discussion,” says the collective.
A sense of belonging and empowerment permeates the print media that the collective produces, tracing back to the influence that zines have played in all of their lives. “Zines, on the other hand, have been around for so long, and to so many of us, they've been the ‘books’ and information for our youth and from our youth, teaching us and allowing us to learn something new that otherwise would not have been accessible to us. From Boyle Heights to South Central, Lincoln Heights, El Monte, Huntington Park, Compton and even the Inland Empire, youth were sharing everything from music, STD awareness, to knowing your legal rights. When we started Elefante we were trying to figure out ways of showcasing our own work without having to deal with entering into photography contests or photography magazines. We knew that we had the power to do this ourselves and we didn’t need permission or acceptance from anyone,” explains Elefante Collective.
More interested in communal art exposure, Elefante Collective proudly publishes the imagery and stories of their communities in order to inform themselves and others of their roots and autonomy. “Our body of work comes from a place of resilience, the beauty of our neighborhoods and its people who reside in it, therefore it is important for us to tell our own stories and not let them be told by others like it has been for hundreds of years. Self-publishing and documentation [are] important for our stories to survive. Our work showcases the movements that are happening on the east side of the [L.A.] River since gentrification is rapidly changing the things we grew up with, changing and robbing our neighborhoods from their culture, authenticity and its people by displacement. It’s important to know what makes you who you are, what shapes you and influences you,” the collective says.
As media activists, Elefante Collective elevates the battle for citizen’s access to tools of creation in several communities. “Sharing the knowledge we have as photographers, videographers, editors, etc. is important for us as well, we feel that there is a lack of accessibility especially in the realm of multimedia, so we definitely want to continue giving free workshops in our neighborhoods. We also want to keep documenting as far as our roots go here and abroad. The work we did a few years back with the Zapatistas was life changing for us. And bringing back that valuable information we learned was extra special because just like the Zapatistas, we're going through parallel struggles, dealing with police brutality, racism, displacement, lack of resources in our neighborhoods and schools.”
Utilizing photography as a reaffirmation of identity is a continuous approach amidst these skillful zine makers, design playing a huge role in this visual/print realm, on the page and off. This group of artists is wholeheartedly expressing and creating their own models and language of such caliber, it allows little room for intrusion. As ferocious and unbroken as L.A. itself, the natural and artificial features presented and denounced in these zines and multimedia experiences could only be produced by dedicated persons, by the theater of substitution and intensity that requires you to do your research and stay grounded.
* This article has been updated.
Top image: Courtesy of Elefante Collective