In Los Angeles, a city of over 200 languages, we shift from one world to another, block to block, mile to mile. When asked where we are from, the most common answer is "not from here."
I traveled here from Canada to attend college at the Art Center College of Design. Los Angeles was not all that different from my home town -- it was just bigger. Another transplant, Stella Kalinina, traveled from Russia to D.C. to Los Angeles to do the same, as a photography student with a focus in documentary work.
For me Los Angeles was a world of no snow and fruit trees; for Stella it was the world of the fruit seller. Stella was fascinated by a young man selling fruit across the street from her apartment, and it inspired her to create a series of portraits of the men and women selling fruit throughout Los Angeles.
The Outsider, as told by Stella
I started out doing this work as a complete outsider. I spoke no Spanish, and it was difficult to explain to the fruit sellers the purpose of my project or why they should trust me. However, as I photographed more and more subjects, I started bringing prints from my previous shoots to every new location. Seeing the prints made the sellers appreciate my project and want to be a part of it. Also, over time, I picked up a few phrases in Spanish, which helped a lot, as most of the sellers speak almost no English at all.
Formal Portraits to Documentary
Initially, I was certain that I wanted to make semi-formal environmental portraits of the
vendors. I continued photographing different sellers and different locations for a couple of months, revising my technical approach as I went along. As I spent time with the sellers, I began to appreciate just how important they are to the communities where they work: Boyle Heights, MacArthur Park, South Central L.A., Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Downtown, and other neighborhoods.
A breakthrough in the project happened when I returned to one of the locations to give Louise, one of the sellers, a print of a portrait I had made. To my great surprise, that day, the man she works with, Daniel, invited me to "shadow" him for a day, as he and several women brought fruits for the day, prepared them, and setup on location. The day I came to his house to document the day was truly special for me. His and his family's hospitality and generosity really moved me...
New level of comfort
The very last location I photographed was in Culver City a couple of weeks ago. One of the two sellers, Victor, actually volunteered to help me with the shoot: he held the reflector for me and helped me move my light stand with the sand bag around the location. I saw the scene through my viewfinder and couldn't resist taking a picture of it, with all the bystanders observing the shoot. I felt very happy to have made enough progress in the project to be able to work with the fruit sellers at this level of comfort and ease.
All Images © Stella Kalinina
Website: Stella Kalinina
Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog
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