A new generation of lawyers use photojournalism to light up life in LA


Haley Santibanez started out in photography as a child, photographing a popular social media subject: cats.

Today, the 17-year-old from El Sereno is a published photographer with serious accomplishments. The photos she took at a protest in downtown Los Angeles last summer were featured in The Washington Post.

Haley Santibanez’s photographs included protesters forming a roadblock. (Photo / Haley Santibanez)

The media’s attention surprised her. “I didn’t think my work would be good enough to be presented like this,” Santibanez said. Just a few years ago, Santivanez was a painfully shy teenager when she entered a photography program in Boyle Heights called Digital promotions. She knew little about the technical aspects of photography, like aperture or shutter speed, but the training of the program changed that.

Digital Promotoras helps non-binary girls and children of color use photography to improve their communities. It receives funding through the USC Good Neighbors Campaign, foundations and other donors. During the 12-week program, participants find their own voice, gain confidence, and learn to stand up for themselves and others.

“The growth that we are seeing in some of our students is just amazing,” said Lucia Torres, Executive Director of Las Fotos Project, the nonprofit organization that runs the Digital Promotoras program.

The program takes its name from promoters, who are traditionally women in Latin American communities educating their neighbors on basic health issues. The promotoras model works particularly well in lower-income neighborhoods with limited access to quality health care. Residents are often new immigrants or are wary of health care systems.

Trained promoters teach neighbors where to buy healthy food. They show them how to access low-cost health insurance, reproductive health care, and other resources.

Digital Promoteras offer a modern take on this role. These promoters use photography and photojournalism to illuminate daily life and social struggles in their neighborhoods. They have done photo projects on food insecurity, the impact of a small community health clinic or even profiles of activists running for public office. Participants focus on South, East and Central Los Angeles.

“Our students are becoming the promoters,” Torres said. “But instead of doing the door-to-door education that promoters traditionally do, they are embracing the photojournalism model to have conversations about issues that impact their communities.”

The program is open to girls and non-binary people of any race and ethnicity, not just Latinas, between 13 and 18 years old. Participants receive free coaching and training from volunteer artists and teachers.

Santibanez has followed the program three times. She sees photography as an almost therapeutic art form.

“If you want to express yourself, you can let some of that anger or stress escape through photography,” she said. “Sometimes it helps me calm down.”

Her photos are improving and others are starting to notice her talent. As his hard work begins to pay off, Santibanez is keen to continue developing his photography and activism.

“Now I know I can do other things,” she said.

Black Lives Matter events

The 12-week Digital Promotoras programs help aspiring photographers find their own voice, gain self-confidence, and learn to advocate for themselves and others. (Photo / Haley Santibanez)

More stories on: Community, Community Outreach, Diversity, Journalism, Latinx Heritage Month

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