Las Fotos Self-Expression Awardees: Michelle Montenegro and Alexis Hunley
Every October Las Fotos Projects honors six artists in 3 categories: SELF-EXPRESSION: For those who are purposefully disrupting mainstream photography, ADVOCACY: For power in photojournalism or use of photography for use in community advocacy or social justice, and CATALYST: For those who are purposefully disrupting mainstream photography.
Today we celebrate two artists in the Advocacy category, one a student, Michelle Montenegro and one a professional, Alexis Hunley. The 5th Annual Foto Awards takes place on October 21st 2023 and if you are in Los Angeles, we encourage you to come!
An interview with the artists follows.
You’ve been selected to receive the Advocacy award at the Foto Awards from Las Fotos Project. Congratulations! In your bio you reference the layers of your identity and experience. How do these layers express themselves in your photographs.
Layers of my identity express themselves differently through my photographs. Whether it be the materials and operations used to create the photograph, the intention behind the expression, or the actual content of the image, my work is driven, inspired, and informed primarily by different layers of my identity.
I notice your bold use of color in your photographs. How do you think about color in your work?
Generally, I do not approach color in photography through a technical lens. Instead, I think about the ways in which certain color and lighting patterns reflect special memories and feelings tied to my identity. Then, I do my best to authentically present them.
What do you hope people will take away from your photographs?
Through my images, I hope people will feel a sense of comfort and nostalgia. Additionally, I hope they feel inspired to think critically about the different layers of their identities and how they impact their individual and collective experiences.
How has your experience with Las Fotos Project shaped your life?
My experience with Las Fotos has molded my identity not only as an artist, but as an individual. Las Fotos project has facilitated a space of growth, love, and creativity in my life. Since 2019, LFP has not only provided me with access to the technical tools needed to succeed as a photographer but they’ve also showered me with endless support and empowerment. I am immensely grateful to Las Fotos Project and the team.
What advice would you give to young people who want to explore photography as a form of advocacy?
I would let young people curious about exploring photography for advocacy know that it is okay to be patient with yourself. This type of work can be overwhelming and may require extra steps for its competition such as research or revisiting ideas. It could be more helpful to grant yourself patience and grace during these moments.
Michelle Montenegro (she/her/ella) is a 19-year-old Los Angeles-based mixed media artist. Her work is inspired by the social and historical contexts that influence the various layers of her identity and experiences. In this approach, Michelle’s work focuses on the issues of capitalism, migration, family ties, and intergenerational trauma within communities of color. She aims to redistribute power to her subjects and the different communities she belongs to through honest storytelling and photographic perspective. Michelle combines family photo archives, portrait photography, and collages to achieve her conceptual goals.
You’ve been selected to receive the Advocacy award at the Foto Awards from Las Fotos Project. Congratulations! How did you feel when you heard about the award?
Thank you! Honestly, I was shocked! It took a moment to really sink in but once I got my bearings I felt nothing but immense gratitude and appreciation. I work across multiple genres and mediums, but the documentary work that I engage in holds a special place in my heart – so to have that work recognized as something that showcases the power of community advocacy and social justice is really special to me.
In your personal work you’ve looked at protest, grief, gender, and the intimacy of friendship. What guides your exploration? How do you think about advocacy?
In my personal work I intentionally allow my emotions to guide me. When something resonates with me on an emotional level, I allow myself to follow those feelings wherever they lead me. Engaging in a deeper exploration of my own emotions creates opportunities for more impactful work.
We, as humans, cannot exist without each other and so I feel a deep sense of duty to use my artistry to act on behalf and in support of others. Advocacy is and will always be a core component of the work that I find most fulfilling.
Do you think you bring an advocacy lens to your editorial and commercial work as well?
It is always my intention to put my fullest self into my work and so with that comes an “advocacy lens.” How I engage with sitters, the projects I choose to take on, the work that I turn away, and how I present my work – they are all informed by my desire to lead with care and compassion, always.
What impact do you hope your photographs have on viewers?If viewers engage with my work and walk away having felt something of significance that inspires them to investigate their own emotional landscape more thoroughly and/or enthusiastically, then I have done my job.
What advice do you have for young photographers who want to advocate for their communities through their work?
Start close to home. Start with the people and places that you know. Allow the love you feel for them to guide the imagery that you produce and share – show the world why they should love those people and places too.
Based in Los Angeles, California, Alexis Hunley is a photographer whose art centers on the intersectional experiences of underrepresented communities. She views each opportunity to create as a collaboration that can only truly prosper with trust, care, compassion, and integrity. With a focus on deep exploration of vulnerability and emotional connection, Hunley encourages audiences to embrace their authentic selves and delve into the depths of their own experiences. Her life long goal is to create work that celebrates the beauty and complexity of the human experience.
About Paula Ely, President, Board of Directors, Photographic Arts Council Los Angeles:
Paula Ely is President of Paula Ely Projects, a multi-faceted consultancy with ventures in the worlds of media, art, and documentary film. She and her partner Cesar Rueda have collected fine-art photography from Latin America for more than 15 years.
Las Fotos Project’s mission is to elevate the voices of teenage girls and gender-expansive youth from communities of color through photography and mentoring, empowering them to channel their creativity for the benefit of themselves, their community, and future careers.
Las Fotos Project was launched to provide opportunities for those who are both systemically and socially silenced to make themselves heard and, in the process, advocate for social change and create their own pathways to successful, creative futures. Our program model further reinforces photography’s inherent ability to spark introspection, evoke deeper meaning, and serve as a catalyst for change by placing students at the heart of social justice efforts in their respective communities.
Las Fotos Project was founded in 2010 by Los Angeles-based photographer Eric V. Ibarra after seeing a need for teenage girls throughout Los Angeles to have a skill that could help build their confidence and self-esteem. In March of 2011, Las Fotos Project became a project of Community Partners, a 501(c)3 organization which accelerates ideas into action to advance the public good. Las Fotos Project has since worked with girls throughout Southern California, and has developed partnership with national and international nonprofit organizations and schools to expand the movement of inspiring teenage girls through photography and self-expression. Our current focus is on the Central, South, and East Los Angeles regions of Los Angeles.
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