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Arts and Entertainment

Photographer: An Up-Close-And-Personal Look At Eastsiders Today

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When photographer Rafael Cardenas began taking impromptu portraits of folks who lived and walked through Boyle Heights and East L.A., he didn't realize he'd be gaining a new perspective about the hopes and dreams from members of the communities.

His project, "Reflejos y Regalos de East Los" (Reflections and Gifts of East Los), was launched to celebrate Self Help Graphics & Arts' 40th anniversary. This project was born when members of the art center found a treasure trove of nearly 40-year-old snapshots of people in the communities from the early days when the center first opened, according to Zócalo Public Square, which first wrote about these snapshots. The art center discovered these pictures while they were preparing for their move from East L.A. to their new Boyle Heights location. Self Help Graphics & Art's Executive Director Evonne Gallardo asked Cardenas, who had volunteered to help them move, to photograph these portraits and create a time capsule that captured the essence of the people in the neighborhoods today, Cardenas told LAist.

The art center set up three pop-up photobooths in the communities at Mariachi Plaza, Costello Park and Hollenbeck Park, and asked locals to come by and get their studio-like portraits taken, according to Zócalo Public Square. They subjects didn't have time to go home and change their outfits with the purpose of having them look natural, Cardenas said.

To get his subjects to have what he called "the Rafael gaze," he would have talks with them, asking them where they wanted to be and what they wanted to do with their lives. "'I’m holding them [your dreams] here in my hands,'" Cardenas would tell them. "Look at this hand and imagine all of your dreams coming true."

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Cardenas had the subjects sign a waiver and then asked them to pick up a copy of the photos in a few months at the locations where the pop-up booths were set up. When they arrived, they found that their portraits, which had been blown up as part of an 8-feet-by-20-feet mural, adorned the walls. Cardenas explained they did this because some people don't go out to see art, so this was their way of bringing art to the people.

"Some of them were really excited to see themselves and some of them were like, 'Oh no, we look horrible,'" he said. But, for the most part, it was nice for him to see people look at photos of themselves. Some even would take selfies next to their portraits.

At the mural unveiling at Mariachi Plaza, he had decided to put two photos of a random man and woman side-by-side looking away from each other. In a twist of fate, when the two subjects arrived on the date of the exhibit unveiling, Cardenas discovered the man and the woman were once in a relationship together and had since broken up. "They hadn’t seen each other in awhile," Cardenas said. "They were amicable and talked for awhile."

But what Cardenas got the most out of this project was from talking to people about their dreams.

"You forget how many dreams there are," he said. "When you listen to their dreams and struggles, it gives you an entirely new perspective."

Rafael Cardenas also has an exhibit, "Because L.A.," which captures life in L.A. through his lens, on display from now through May at Homegirl Cafe at 130 W. Bruno St. in Los Angeles.

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