Rites Disrupted

LA’s Class of 2020 Graduates In A Tumultuous Time

In this portrait essay, we look at the impact of COVID-19 on the high school class of 2020, examining how the graduates grapple with the derailment of their expectations yet redefine themselves while in quarantine.

Published June 19, 2020

​As the coronavirus pandemic raged and Angelenos were asked to stay “safer at home,” I thought about how I might contribute to this historic moment with my photography. During the last 15 years, I’ve produced portrait essays about issues such as immigration and community-building, and I've created work that explores our shared identity and values.

To me, young people are a fascinating, intimate gateway into the COVID-19 crisis.

Standing at the precipice of adulthood, the members of this generation will feel the social and economic impact of the virus for the rest of their lives.

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These kids grew up connected to social media and came of age during Donald Trump’s presidency. When the virus hit, high school seniors were at a pivotal moment in their lives, entering the home stretch of their K-12 education and cruising toward graduation. Coronavirus forced them to cut short the rites and festivities that would have marked the momentous occasion. Their passion projects would be largely unrealized. Their achievements, unrecognized. Rituals cancelled. Celebrations muted.

I thought about what a tumultuous time these students had lived through, capped off by a global pandemic. I wanted to hear their perspectives.

“Senior year is the culmination of so much, more than even the school career, it’s the culmination of childhood in a lot of ways. What happens when the culmination, the rites of passage, what happens when those are taken away? How does that effect a person?” Sam Comen

I reached out to friends in the Los Angeles education system and posted in my Instagram stories. Ashley Brockman, a high school friend who is now a teacher and librarian at Palos Verdes High School, connected me with her network of teachers. After a month of outreach, pre-production and securing permissions, I spent six weeks photographing 40 students who attend nine different schools throughout L.A. — five public schools, three magnets and one independent school.

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I wanted to document their hopes, their fears and their creativity in devising new graduation rituals.

I asked them what they'd miss most about their end-of-year rites and we crafted scenarios to represent those losses. One couple, denied the chance to perform their last musical together, worked with me to stage a musical theater scene at one of their homes. In other cases, I was able to photograph “drive-by” graduations that had already been planned.

Two weeks before I finished taking photos for this project, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, touching off nationwide protests. Here in Los Angeles, thousands took to the streets to express their outrage.

The students I met during the protests were shaken up and saddened. About to bloom into independence, the class of 2020 was coping with a society that seemed to be splitting at the seams. For many of them, Floyd’s murder has forced them to question their assuptions about our culture and values — and about their paths forward.

Making this project, I’ve seen the emotional ambivalence that comes with having your rites of passage interrupted but I’ve also found, without fail, a deep resilience in each student I photographed.

I am struck by the gratitude many of them feel. They’re thankful they’ve been able to stay safe, connect with their families and find time to reflect before they take their next steps in life. I’m curious how these experiences will shape the class of 2020 and how the class of 2020 will, in turn, reshape society.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

For Bianca Gonzalez (second from left), the drum major of Compton’s Centennial High School marching band, the disruptions caused by the pandemic have been devastating.

For Bianca Gonzalez (second from left), the drum major of Compton’s Centennial High School marching band, the disruptions caused by the pandemic have been devastating. “I feel like people won’t take stuff for granted anymore because none of us saw this coming, at all. I wanted to play at my graduation with the band for the last time, officially. The band has impacted my whole life. Honestly, it changed my whole demeanor towards what it is to be a musician. It’s an honor to be a part of this music program. Ever since I was in middle school, and I would see the drum major at the time, I’d always think, ‘Oh, I want to be like him. And you know, I’m a female. It’s rare to see females take this role of leadership, and it's an honor.’”

“It would have been better to experience graduation fully or to experience it with a mask on, rather than over the computer,” said senior snare drum player Laylani Peevy-White (right.) “We are living in a chapter in history, through things we are going to be learning about in the future. I think it’s good that people are actually going out and trying to get their voices heard because cops have killed Black people for no reason at all. Finally, people are going out and speaking up about it... Now, I have no idea what I want to do in college. It’s changing for me. I [wanted to be] a homicide detective. Now, I don’t want to be a police officer because they are killing people. I don’t want to work for that. I’ll probably keep my major in Criminology and Criminal Justice but not become an officer.”

Alongside Laylani and Bianca, graduating clarinet player Margarita Alfaro (third from left) said there’s been “no better band, no better people to spend my four years with… It feels good having us together here.” On the impact of coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement she added, “Once I got into the idea of [quarantine], I was happy that, at least, I'm doing it for my own good. All my friends, they are doing it for their own good. Other people out there with the actual disease, we’re doing it for them too. But once the protests and everything started happening, I just felt anger at not being able to do as much as I wanted to — to participate, with safety measures.” She smiled a bit, “It’ll get better eventually, because this new generation is just so, the energy is so uplifting. It’s frustrating how slow it has been going...for us to have another killing. But we're making change. That’s all that matters. I want to help other people. That’s always been a huge interest with me. I’m going to university and majoring in sociology — hopefully I’ll become a social worker.”

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Graduating seniors in Palos Verdes High School's student government (ASB) gather for a distanced prom portrait on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the usual location PVHS students and families use for prom photos.

Graduating seniors in Palos Verdes High School’s student government (ASB) gather for a distanced prom portrait on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the usual location PVHS students and families use for prom photos. The taped-out grid is composed of 6’ x 6’ boxes. ASB advisor Jama Maxfield brought this group of her students together after two months of Zoom-only classes. Maxfield said her students “lost a once in a lifetime thing.” “And I keep telling all of them, if this is the worst thing that ever happens in your life, you're gonna have a pretty good life. But it’s still really hard. It’s not just your year-end senior celebrations, this is like the end of your childhood, really. You’ve gone to school with these people for 12 years, and this is the end of your childhood, and now it’s gone. It’s ripped from you.”

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Carloads of family and friends wave, whistle and shower Aiyana Lopez-Spears with love, gifts and balloons in a drive-by party to celebrate her graduation from Crenshaw High School.
“I’m a 17-year-old black woman who’s looking at 400 years of a system that’s been in place that has destroyed lives and taken more lives than I could count so it’s hard thinking like what specifically can I do?” Aiyana Lopez-Spears

Carloads of family and friends wave, whistle and shower Aiyana Lopez-Spears with love, gifts and balloons in a drive-by party to celebrate her graduation from Crenshaw High School. “The quarantine [allowed] me to get myself together mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually — to meditate,” Aiyana said. “I’ve noticed my attitude is different, I see things through other people's points of views. I reflect and I think more before I react. I’m not letting my emotions control me...And with all of my siblings, we got to really connect in a different way because we had time with each other.”

Aiyana has ruminated on her career path as well. “I started really understanding what I am going to do with myself and what I am going to do with my life. Wanting to perform and be a backup dancer has pushed me.” The Black Lives Matter movement and protests against systemic racism in L.A. and nationwide have strengthened her resolve. “I feel like my future is bright and it’s going to remain bright. I won’t let anybody take that away from me, no matter how many times I have to speak up, no matter how many times I have to fight for what’s right. I’ll stay strong and build a community who feel the same way...And the truth comes out eventually...President Trump calls us thugs, but they are the thugs. They think we take everything from them, [that] we kill them. No, they kill us. They are the real thugs. With this COVID-19, I’ve regained my power along with others. This was a blessing in disguise.”

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Veronica Zellers prepared Beethoven's 'The Tempest Sonata' for a major, collaborative concert hall production planned in honor of the composer's 250th birthday at Hamilton High School's music academy. When it was cancelled, she made her own plan — performing for friends and neighbors while her mother Marcia Zellers (left) records the piece for the online recital to come.

Veronica Zellers prepared Beethoven’s ‘The Tempest Sonata’ for a major, collaborative concert hall production planned in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday at Hamilton High School’s music academy. When it was cancelled, she made her own plan — performing for friends and neighbors while her mother Marcia Zellers (left) records the piece for the online recital to come. “Having an audience is a really big part of playing in a recital,” Veronica said.

“It’s really nice to be able to feel the energy of everyone else around you, and be able to just know that it's directly resonating with someone else that, quite literally, you know. With the pandemic, it’s like life is just kind of shut down. It’s the same thing as every other senior in the world, but it’s kind of like all this stuff that you've worked towards, all the things you look forward to, the culmination of this 12-year journey, is just completely tossed aside. Checking in with yourself, relying on the people you have, that’s helped me.”

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eacher Cynthia Mindicino (right) surprised her student Isabella Ruiz (left) at home with a yard sign celebrating her graduation. Palos Verdes High School teachers self-organized the effort to distribute the placards to all 400 seniors in the class, bargaining among themselves to visit specific graduates.

Teacher Cynthia Mindicino (right) surprised her student Isabella Ruiz (left) at home with a yard sign celebrating her graduation. Palos Verdes High School teachers self-organized the effort to distribute the placards to all 400 seniors in the class, bargaining among themselves to visit specific graduates. Mindicino said, “It was really cool to see a lot of teachers having to negotiate for the students they’d get to see. A lot of us have special relationships with these kids. I think that really speaks to the fact that we are a really strong community and we’ve all made such a difference in each other’s lives.” Upon seeing Isabella for the first time in two months, Cynthia said, “Isabella has become an incredibly special person to me. It took every ounce of the strength that I had not to run and give her a big hug.”

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'All these guys, they are my best friends for at least the last four years, so not playing baseball with them ever again is really, really hard,' said Tyler Imbach, who has been on baseball teams since he was six years old.

“All these guys, they are my best friends for at least the last four years, so not playing baseball with them ever again is really, really hard,” said Tyler Imbach, who has been on baseball teams since he was 6-years-old. He had looked forward to a competitive senior year behind home plate. He’s slated to play for the University of San Francisco and will head to campus in the fall as scheduled. But he's missing all of spring season with the teammates to whom he’s grown close. “I used to wake up for school and look forward to going to practice, but now, I don’t have that anymore,” Tyler said. “So it’s a weird feeling, a sadness, knowing that I’m not gonna get up and have that routine of going to baseball with my friends everyday.”

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Aiyana D’Abriel performs her thesis choreography in the garage of her family home, instead of on stage with an ensemble of dancers.

Aiyana D’Abriel performs her thesis choreography in the garage of her family home, instead of on stage with an ensemble of dancers. At Hamilton High School’s Performing Arts magnet, she also served as President of the Black Student Union and president of the southern region and state board of the United Black Student Unions of California, representing approximately 500 schools. Her insights on the connection between the pandemic and the worldwide protests were striking. “Going from one crisis to another — chaos inside of chaos, that’s what’s going on here,” she said. “COVID-19 numbers are still up, and the inner chaos is the systematic racism being overlooked by people who are supposed to govern and protect all of us.”

Having met “with Karen Bass, Shirley Weber, Holly Mitchell and these great black women who are changing the system for the better for everyone,” Aiyana wants people to know that “political participation does work—there are ways to make change within the system, ways to make your voice heard.” She shared, “My days have consisted of waking up, spreading information, going on calls, signing petitions, emailing officials and government leaders...I made a list with one of my friends of 75 petitions to sign and we went through all of them, signed them ourselves. We started a page giving out information. We’ve been searching for Black-owned businesses to support. I was up at two in the morning doing research...there's so much. There’s a national waking up. It’s like I’ve just washed my face with cold water and now I’m wide awake. I feel like, if you know better, you do better. So if all of this information is being shared to us, it is up to us to do better. I’m a 17-year-old Black woman who’s looking at 400 years of the system that has been in place and has destroyed more lives than I can count.”

“COVID sort of slowed people down to be able to see. Everyone was in the house when [we learned about the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, so that anger really exploded. The first thing people did was go to the streets and protest...I’m seeing a lot of my non-Black, people of color and white friends reading more and focusing on what I'm sending them. And it’s starting to really hit them. It’s better late than never, you know. Each person has their own growth and their own learning process. So, if people weren’t necessarily a part of a movement before or weren't really big on activism before, I’m glad that they see this and didn’t look away. I’m glad that they saw this and stepped up.”

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After a decade of advancing through the ranks to Eagle Scout, Jean Luc Lesaca's culminating ceremony has been cancelled, along with wilderness events sponsored by his school. He explained, 'Our school does yearly campouts. I had an advantage coming into that because of my experience in scouting. It was a little bit of a time for me to shine. It's an end of the year thing, so [losing that] final outing is a bummer. It really meant a lot to our graduates last year, to be out in the wild, to really appreciate each other. It's different having to do it digitally.'

After a decade of advancing through the ranks to Eagle Scout, Jean Luc Lesaca’s culminating ceremony has been cancelled, along with wilderness events sponsored by his school. He explained, “Our school does yearly campouts. I had an advantage coming into that because of my experience in scouting. It was a little bit of a time for me to shine. It’s an end of the year thing, so [losing that] final outing is a bummer. It really meant a lot to our graduates last year, to be out in the wild, to really appreciate each other. It’s different having to do it digitally.”

Also training as a musician for the past four years, the cancellation of the Reno Jazz Festival, where he has felt most connected to other young musicians, has hit hard. “That was the one thing that really, truly got to me with coronavirus, that I wasn’t able to go and be surrounded by all these fellow people that are really passionate about jazz and music. That’s been a really powerful experience for me because I’ve been going since I got into the music program. It’s always been a highlight of the year.”

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Alexia Issagholian attends her drive-through graduation ceremony at Hoover High School in Glendale. Reflecting on the pandemic’s disruption and this moment in history, she said, “It's definitely been a wild ride. The transitions in class and desk-work to online — home, bed and laptop — work, that was a huge shift.”

Alexia Issagholian attends her drive-through graduation ceremony at Hoover High School in Glendale. Reflecting on the pandemic’s disruption and this moment in history, she said, “It's definitely been a wild ride. The transitions in class and desk-work to online — home, bed and laptop — work, that was a huge shift. I honestly was used to it pretty quickly because I love technology. But it's just like the swift change that we had to take in was a bit shocking. And there was a big physical disconnect. I was looking forward to going to prom with my friends, going to Six Flags, even walking on stage at graduation. It’s our last year in high school before the real world, so just getting to experience that ‘senior life’...I wish I could go back in time and get my senior year experience.” She added, “It kind of hurts, but I’m also excited because nothing is going to be the same after this. I'm anxious to see what the world will look like. I think I want to study theater arts, mostly the light board, the sound, the audio — that’s what I want to work in. I feel excited to figure out who I am and what I want to be.”

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In the absence of a chance to perform their final high school musical, Hannah Paddock (right) and Brad Nolan (left) brought some of 'Crazy For You' to the Nolan family home. Brad said, 'The senior show was always something special. There's a speech before the show where each senior thanks the department and just has their chance to convey appreciation. It's kind of felt like we were robbed of the last bow.'

In the absence of a chance to perform their final high school musical, Hannah Paddock (right) and Brad Nolan (left) brought some of ‘Crazy For You’ to the Nolan family home. Brad said, “The senior show was always something special. There's a speech before the show where each senior thanks the department and just has their chance to convey appreciation. It’s kind of felt like we were robbed of the last bow.” Hannah continued, “It’s like your last bow is your goodbye. But probably ten years down the road, I’ll look back and have a bigger perspective. I’ve gained so much more gratitude for my friends and my family.”

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Driven and insightful, Blanca Henriquez, valedictorian at Diego Rivera’s Communication and Technology School said, “We didn’t make a long, hard journey to start a new life here for me to be average. I feel like my parents want what's best for me and I owe it to them to try my best in everything I do for them. School has taught me how to succeed with the environment that's given to me. When I'm able to have a bigger impact, I'll use it for the people I care about and my community.” With her valedictorian speech happening online instead of on campus, Blanca holds the cords that symbolize the school’s highest honor.
"I think I'm gonna remember how it took a whole pandemic for us to finally realize that everything that's wrong in the world, all the racism, of discrimination against certain people, whether it be black people, brown people, how everything is just messed up." Blanca Henriquez

Driven and insightful, Blanca Henriquez, valedictorian at Diego Rivera’s Communication and Technology School said, “We didn’t make a long, hard journey to start a new life here for me to be average. I feel like my parents want what's best for me and I owe it to them to try my best in everything I do for them. School has taught me how to succeed with the environment that’s given to me. When I’m able to have a bigger impact, I’ll use it for the people I care about and my community.” With her valedictorian speech happening online instead of on campus, Blanca holds the cords that symbolize the school’s highest honor.

“I’ll remember how it took a whole pandemic for us to finally realize everything that’s wrong in the world, all the racism, all the discrimination against certain people, whether it be Black people, brown people, how everything is just messed up in a sense, how there’s a system that isn’t meant to protect us. We were all able to come together for the Black Lives Matter movement. We need to speak with them, right besides them, not for them. I feel like it’s also important to remember that right now, it’s not about me or Latinos in general...We’re still fighting the same fight we were fighting many years back. There were the L.A. riots, the Civil Rights Movement, many protests like this. We won’t see that big impact we want unless we’re consistent. We can’t just protest one week and expect it all to be good. We have to go at this consistently to be able to be heard.”

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The Rener sisters are both graduating seniors: Emmy (left) from Palos Verdes High School, and Hannah (right) from Pepperdine University. They've retreated to a seaside home to make the best of the quarantine as they complete their coursework.

The Rener sisters are both graduating seniors: Emmy (left) from Palos Verdes High School, and Hannah (right) from Pepperdine University. They’ve retreated to a seaside home to make the best of the quarantine as they complete their coursework. Emmy shared, “I’ve been working five days a week babysitting much of my four years of high school to pay for the senior trip. And that is off the table. That’s probably the hardest thing for me, because I can kind of get over the pomp and circumstance of graduation, but I think that the Europe program was just something that felt very freeing and it symbolized a lot more than walking across the stage. That said, to sit here and talk about how unfortunate this situation is would be very short-sighted, and kind of isolated and ignorant of the greater picture of life. Years from now, I’m probably going to cherish these moments that I’ve spent with my parents and with my sister. Hannah and I have had a very like yin and yang kind of vibe. In moments where she’s feeling sad, I bring, you know, joy to those, and vice versa.”

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Julian Cabrera's online graduation from South Pasadena High School didn't feel like enough to his family, who opted to organize a car parade for their son.

Julian Cabrera’s online graduation from South Pasadena High School didn’t feel like enough to his family, who opted to organize a car parade for their son. Some family members hopped out of their cars to take photos with Julian in front of the display his immediate family built themselves, and installed in a field adjacent to their home in East L.A.

Dane Dawson (left) and Carter Harrigian (right) have returned to their bicycles during quarantine, citing it as one of the only outdoor activities they can do together and still be in compliance with L.A. County's 'safer at home' mandate. They reflected on their graduation disrupted by coronavirus.

Dane Dawson (left) and Carter Harrigian (right) have returned to their bicycles during quarantine, citing it as one of the only outdoor activities they can do together and still be in compliance with L.A. County’s “safer at home” mandate. They reflected on their graduation disrupted by coronavirus. Carter: “Our parents really do care about things like graduation. I definitely would have wanted a good graduation too. Everybody’s worked hard to get where they are. But, as much as I would probably remember my name getting called, I feel like the things I actually learned through high school are going to be more important to me.” Dane: “The journey is more fun than the destination.” Carter: “Yep. And I hope [coronavirus] just unites everybody, that it brings us closer together, as a global community because...” Dane: “We’re not fighting each other, we are fighting the virus.”

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Jay Martin, a senior at Pasadena's Sequoyah School, is pictured in the dress they expected to wear to prom. Jay has found the time lonely and frustrating, and felt pulled to their job at a local supermarket, which their family insisted they avoid because of their sister's health condition.

Jay Martin, a senior at Pasadena's Sequoyah School, is pictured in the dress they expected to wear to prom. Jay has found the time lonely and frustrating, and felt pulled to their job at a local supermarket, which their family insisted they avoid because of their sister's health condition. “It’s a relief that even if I do have to quit, that I’ll still be okay,” Jay said in reference to their family’s financial security. “But I feel a lot of sympathy for people who have to work. I know that most of them are probably dreading going to work every day. They’re just hoping they're not sick and washing their hands as much as they can, but they don't have a choice because it’s part of them supporting themselves.” Jay reflected on what good might come out of this difficult time. “I hope it’s the reform of practices that we have in society. Like maybe we’ll realize that essential workers deserve more money, deserve more compassion, deserve better practices. And maybe the government can be more responsible for the people that it governs.”

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Leslie Ramirez and her family celebrate her graduation from Hamilton High School's Humanities Magnet at their home in South L.A. She said, 'I'm first-generation. My parents come from Guatemala, my grandparents as well. They came here for us to have a better future. Graduating high school is a big milestone.'

Leslie Ramirez and her family celebrate her graduation from Hamilton High School's Humanities Magnet at their home in South L.A. She said, “I’m first-generation. My parents come from Guatemala, my grandparents as well. They came here for us to have a better future. Graduating high school is a big milestone. Being the first in my family to be college-bound, especially to a four year college — I know my parents want to have that experience of helping me on moving day and seeing what my classes could be or what my schedule is like. And I look forward to that too. With the possibility of fall semester and fall classes just being canceled and having online instead, it kind of takes away that happiness.”

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Katrina Manor, pictured in the Glendale's Hoover High School stadium, where she would have sung during graduation ceremonies. She explained that having the end of her senior year derailed has been flush with emotion.
“The incomplete feeling is what I’ve been talking to my friends about, because granted, I do feel like it’s unfair, but I do understand. There are people passing away, and getting severely sick, and going through traumatic experiences, so and sometimes I feel like, who am I to complain?” Katrina Manor

Katrina Manor, pictured in the Glendale’s Hoover High School stadium, where she would have sung during graduation ceremonies. She explained that having the end of her senior year derailed has been flush with emotion. “Regret is a big one, being unfulfilled is heavy. It's a feeling of incompleteness, that's what it is. And I’m a big believer in closure, so not being able to close out this chapter, mentally, you know, it messed with my head a little bit. I feel like it’s unfair, but I do understand that there are people passing away and getting severely sick and going through traumatic experiences. So sometimes I feel like, ‘Who am I to complain?,’” she explained.

“Can you imagine George Floyd on the floor with the cop's knee on his neck? And a black man’s perspective: ‘I don’t want to be a hashtag for people to share, because they only share it when you’re dead?’ Can you imagine being a hashtag? You know, they check my bag...and they don't check everyone’s bag. I shouldn’t be profiled a certain way. It’s a very hard pill to swallow. [The whole situation] has made me closer to my friends, but it also has made me realize I’ve matured a lot during this quarantine, and I put my values first and what I want to do in life, like my music.”

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SAM COMEN is an L.A.-based documentary portrait photographer. He currently has award-winning work exhibited at The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., from his series Working America. It's his second time exhibiting there. His series, The Newest Americans, produced in partnership with the California Museum in Sacramento, is on tour across the U.S.

In Los Angeles, he has exhibited at The Annenberg Space for Photography, Union Station, Grand Park and L.A. Plaza Del Cultura y Artes. His photography is held in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress and LACMA, and he has been commissioned by publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone and Esquire.