Photographing the Diversity of Life in Northeast Los Angeles

A vintage clothing store business owner. A wood worker. A theater lover who encourages youth to the embrace arts. These are the characters that photographer Ricardo Palavecino captured with his camera for a portrait series on the people of the North East Los Angeles riverfront, an insight into the daily lives of individuals and communities based around the L.A. River.

The project, spanning over a few months, allowed Palavecino to converse with residents who lived in five different neighborhoods, specifically Atwater Village, Cypress Park, Glassell Park, Lincoln Heights, and Elysian Valley.

"I go by instinct first - I approach people on the street, have an informal conversation and then, from there, see if I can capture the portrait," Palavecino said.

In little time, Palavecino, who has over 30 years working behind the camera, got a sense of his subjects and had an idea of how to go about framing the images. Short audio snippets and a transcript accompany the portraits, with some stories transcribed in both English and Spanish.

"There are many pictures, there are many subjects - each one has its own character, own flavor, own personality," Palavecino said.

As a result of working on the portraits, Palavecino believes he has a better understanding of what life is like along the LA River.

"I think what I learned was the diversity of the community and how little we know about the river," Palavecino said. "Personally, I knew about the river but I didn't know enough like I do now and how important the river is for the community."

Palavecino stressed the wide diversity of individuals he encountered on the project, where he took dozens of photographs of people of all ages and ethnicities.

"I like doing 'urban portraits' without asking [people] to pose. They are free to do whatever they like to do," Palavecino said, noting the difference from portraits artists created in studios with staged lighting, sets and props. "It's more in [the subjects'] own environment, their own place where they feel more comfortable. I didn't want to alter anything. I liked to capture them right there in their own place and own environment."

Even though the individuals captured in the images are of varying backgrounds, he noted that they all share a sense of community and ownership of living near the L.A. River.

"The people work, they care for their cities and homes, their neighborhoods, their kids - they want them to go to school. They want to improve themselves," Palavecino said. "They want to move forward and they always welcome new ideas, and they're expecting their government or their representatives to listen to their needs and hope that they can help them."

He also expressed the community members' concern about construction projects related to the L.A. River.

"Everyone is aware of the river and they want the river to be controlled with sense instead of just doing crazy things without being aware of how they're going to do it. Most of them say that the river programs and projects should be from the different citizens of the city instead of outsiders - they are worried that the projects will change the surroundings," said Palavecino, whose based in Thousand Oaks. "They want projects with sense, that will help them, that will integrate in the community, and they don't want randomly developed things in the river that will affect them later."

The human spirit has long fascinated Palavecino, who has covered wars in Central America in the past.

"That's what I like about photography and film, you always engage in different dimensions. And the dimension for me is a journey - going into a place, capturing all those images and bringing them back to where we are," Palavecino said. "Always you're learning and that's what's good about having a camera - there's always something there that you want to capture and want to tell a story and want to be able to engage people. I know how powerful art can be once I have a camera in my hand because I know that I will try to make changes and try to engage and try to show people that people aren't used to seeing, so they can be aware of what we have. You have to be very, very open, you have to be aware of what you do and how much you can do with your camera - you can do a lot of damage or you can do a lot of good, it's a very powerful tool."

About the Author

Connie K. Ho is a freelance writer, web producer and social media manager.
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