Photographing Life Along the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront

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Tony Saenz, Atwater Village | Photo: Ricardo Palavecino

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

The portrait series was born out of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative (NELA RC), an interdisciplinary partnership that combines planning efforts, strategic investments, and an economic revitalization plan to help NELA communities thrive. The series aims to showcase the demographics around the L.A. River in Northeast Los Angeles, structured within an online hub of stories, discussions, and engagement activities inspired by life in the NELA communities.

The photo project, which spanned over a few months, allowed Palavecino to converse with residents who lived in five different neighborhoods: Atwater Village, Cypress Park, Glassell Park, Lincoln Heights, and Elysian Valley. The snapshots display individuals in their hobbies, everyday activities, and jobs.

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.

Palavecino stresses the wide diversity of individuals he encountered on the project, and he describes his work as different from the portraits artists usually create in studios of staged lighting, sets and props.

"I like doing 'urban portraits' without asking [people] to pose. They are free to do whatever they like to do. It's more in [the subjects'] own environment, their own place where they feel more comfortable. I didn't want to alter anything," Palavecino said. "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 [...] there are many pictures, there are many subjects -- each one has its own character, own flavor, own personality."

Cecilia Garcia, Lincoln Hights | Photo: Ricardo Palavecino
Cecilia Garcia, Lincoln Hights | Photo: Ricardo Palavecino

One of the portraits features Cecilia Garcia, whose theater company Bilingual is based out of Lincoln Heights. She spoke of how the organization performs plays from South America and Mexico, and works to conserve the theater and performing arts. Theater for Garcia is a passion, a way to make others feel comfortable and understand different cultures. The image is striking -- Garcia cracks a wry, knowing smile in the glow of lights and among a sea of purple seats.

Another portrait shows barber Tony Flores Saenz at work, in the middle of giving a client a haircut. Saenz has been working at the barbershop for 40 years, and he's seen changes in his neighborhood over the past few years. Families, pets, even the L.A. River make cameos in the series.

Even though the individuals captured in the images are of varying backgrounds, Palavecino notes that they all share a sense of community and ownership of living near the 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 hopes others who see his project also learn about the various communities in that area.

"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."

Capturing the human spirit with photography and film has long fascinated Palavecino.

"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.

"This project is really powerful, shows a lot about the city of L.A., the mixed culture -- it is a melting pot."

Bernice Leung, Elysian Valley | Photo: Ricardo Palavecino
Bernice Leung, Elysian Valley | Photo: Ricardo Palavecino
Gary Soldah, Lincoln Hights | Photo: Ricardo Palavecino
Gary Soldah, Lincoln Hights | Photo: Ricardo Palavecino

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