The Foto Awards presented by Las Fotos Project: Esmeralda Estrada in Conversation with Safi Alia Shabaik
This week in honor of Latinx Heritage Month, we are celebrating an organization in Los Angeles, the Las Fotos Project, and The Foto Awards event taking place on October 23, 2021. Today we feature the work of Esmeralda Estrada who received the Self-Expression Youth Award presented by Sony Alpha Female. Las Fotos Project’s mission is to elevate the voices of teenage girls through photography and mentoring, empowering them to channel their creativity for the benefit of themselves, their community and future careers. The organization was founded in 2010 to introduce teenage girls to the transformational power of photography and advance positive change in the surrounding community.
Hi, my name is Esmeralda Estrada. I am 16 years old. Some adjectives that describe me are quiet, a bit picky, and fun fact: I am a Virgo. Growing up I was always picking up cameras from here and there. I always feel so alive with a camera in my hand and the best part about photography is I can choose what I want to see. It’s one of the things that is always able to keep me happy and also it’s the reason I make images/art. Someone who I get a lot of inspiration from is my mother. She is a single mom, works hard, and plays two figures in my life. She sacrificed a lot for my sister and I, and we love her for that. She pushes me to be better, so one goal that I’m setting for myself is to get better at my portrait photography.
Safi Alia Shabaik: Tell us about your growing up and the landscape of your childhood.
Esmeralda Estrada: Well, I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. I was one of four girls. So I would describe the landscape of my childhood as very bare but bold.
SAS: How did photography enter your world? What drew you to becoming an artist with a camera?
EE: I went to an after school program in South Central that took about 20 kids a year up to Yosemite. They would film the trip and I would love to help out the staff by taking pictures or recording the trip. I always felt that from that moment on, photography was always going to be a part of my life.
SAS: Describe your perfect day with your camera…
EE: Anytime I am out shooting is a perfect day for me. I would not have a specific time or place with my camera that isn’t perfect.
SAS: When did you discover your photographic voice?
EE: I discovered my photographic voice during my first and second semesters with Las Fotos. During my first semester, I was trying out different ways to shoot with my mentor and she pointed out that I shoot a lot of landscapes. In my second semester, I stuck to landscape and, if I say so myself, I got good at it with the help of my mentor that semester.
SAS: How did you get involved with Las Fotos Project?
EE: My older sister Joana told me about Las Fotos Project about a year ago. She was telling me to try it out because at the time I wasn’t really doing photography. So I joined my first class ever. I was into it but at the same time, I didn’t really think anything of it. Once my first project was out on the website, that’s when I fell in love with Las Fotos.
SAS: Who/What are your creative influences?
EE: I would have to say myself, but it wouldn’t be in the sense of me physically, it would be me mentally. I picture the world very differently in my mind so I draw a lot of inspiration from my imagination.
SAS: How has the Las Fotos program helped you grow?
EE: Las Fotos has given me confidence with my photographs. I am more open now to sharing my work and actually getting out there with my camera.
SAS: Do you have a mentor you would like to acknowledge?
EE: Yes, I would love to acknowledge both Amara Higuera and Collin Hughart. They were my first and second semester mentors. I owe a big thanks to Amara for helping me find my photographic voice. Collin was a big help for my recent project that I won an award for and I also owe him a big thank you for all his help and support when I created the project. At first I was very hesitant but I’m glad I put it out at the end with his support.
SAS: Your images really evoke a lot of mood and emotion. Is that symbolic of something in your life? What do your images mean to you?
EE: I will say that I am a very emotional person. My images do mean a lot to me because there was a point in my life where I wanted to speak up about my feeling and thoughts but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to so photography showed me that there was a way to share my thoughts and feeling without physically doing or saying anything.
SAS: The title for this body of work is “Sobreviví”, translated from Spanish meaning “I survived.” Can you share with us how you decided on this title and what it represents for you? Does it reference a particular event in your life?
EE: Yes, my project talks about a certain time in my past and that time was a very hard time for me. It contains events that could have ended my life. So I always say that I overcame or I survived that hard part of my life. Also, I wanted to include my Mexican culture in my project somehow so instead of having it be “I survived”, I decided to change it to “Sobreviví.”
SAS: What brought you to express yourself through the landscape as opposed to portraiture or self-portraiture, for example?
EE: In my opinion, facial emotions or actions can be very confusing and not always true. For example, when looking at a portrait, the person in the photo can put on a happy face but in reality, that’s not always true. As in landscape, you are able to interpret your own feelings based on the colors and everything in the photo.
SAS: Congratulations on being the TGA’21 recipient of the Las Fotos Award for Self-Expression. What does this recognition mean to you?
EE: It means that I have been heard. This project was me speaking about stuff I couldn’t bring myself to speak about a year ago. So I’m glad and this recognition is closure for me in a way.
SAS: What do you hope people will take away with them after experiencing your work?
EE: If someone is ever going through something, I just want to remind them that they are not alone.
SAS: What is your favorite thing about photography?
EE: No image has one meaning. That’s is my favorite thing – that one person can have one opinion on a photo while another person can have a whole different opinion on that same photo.
SAS: What personal discoveries have you made through photography?
EE: Being able to see something in an object or place and also being able to capture a mental shot of something in my mind.
SAS: What do you want to accomplish in life as a grownup? Do you see photography as part of your life in 10 years? 20 years? What role will it play?
EE: I would love to accomplish a lot of things but the thing I’m most passionate about accomplishing is being able to sell my work both online and in a shop.
SAS: In your bio, you mention that you are a Virgo? What is your most prevalent Virgo characteristic? What Virgo trait best describes you?
EE: I do believe myself to be a very nice and sympathetic person. I feel like that is what really makes me a Virgo.
SAS: What would be your dream location/destination to photograph in?
EE: Any National Park. For example Grand Teton National Park or Olympic National Park. I would love to visit them and shoot there.
SAS: Other than photography, what do you like to do in your free time?
EE: I love to read and cook. I love the feeling of learning something new or creating something.
Safi Alia Shabaik, known by her moniker flashbulbfloozy, is a Los Angeles based interdisciplinary artist working in photography, collage, sculpture, and experimental video. She discovered her visual voice at a young age, setting her on her path to earn a B.A. in Fine Art with honors at UCLA. Under the mentorship of Catherine Opie, she learned the art of large-scale color printing in Opie’s custom-built darkrooms. Upon moving to New York, Safi became fashion stylist, photographic documentarian, personal assistant, travel companion, and confidante to the legendary icon Ms. Grace Jones, in her personal and public lives.
Safi’s photographic work explores identity, persona, transformation, daily life, and the humanity of all people. Her subject matter spans the self, family, street life, fringe culture, and counterculture – people who push their bodies to extremes and challenge societal norms.
Safi exhibits her work nationally and has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, Black + White Photography, Lenscratch, Alta Journal, Catalyst: Interviews, Edge of Humanity, Upworthy.com, The Advocate, CameraCraft, Artillery, and in Grace Jones’ book: I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. She has been featured on The Candid Frame (episode 465), and her work has earned her recognition in PhotoLucida’s Critical Mass Top 50. In collaboration with the Parkinson’s Foundation, Safi is the recipient of a Visual Arts grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). She is the first (ever) recipient of the Las Fotos Project Foto Award for Self-Expression, presented by the Photographic Arts Council Los Angeles. Safi is a founding member of both the Los Angeles Street Collective and FERN, a bicoastal multiethnic art collective of six women. By invitation, she has presented her work at Open Show, Alta Asks Live, and at several high schools and colleges in the greater Los Angeles area. A lover of the human form, the artist is also an award-winning mortician. Follow Safi on instagram: @flashbulbfloozy
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