Samanta Helou Hernandez unravels the complex stories of East Hollywood’s immigrant communities

An important characteristic of Samanta’s work is her brilliant ability to portray her subjects with such sensitivity and honesty. Discussing how she makes the people she photographs feel comfortable, something she acknowledges is “uncomfortable for a lot of people”, Samanta explains that “transparency and consent are both key”. “I try to capture people with dignity no matter who they are. When you lead with empathy and sensitivity towards human beings, the results will be evident in the picture.

This thoughtful, human approach is evident in his portrayal of Takashi Hoshizaki, a former botanist and East Hollywood resident. Taken as part of the series Making Our Neighborhood: Redlining, Gentrification and House in East Hollywood, the portrait aims to shed light on the ongoing discrimination faced by immigrants to the United States and “the many layers and complexities of East Hollywood”. In 1942, in the middle of World War II, a teenager Takashi and his family are forced to leave their neighborhood for an internment camp in Wyoming. Demonstrating the unbreakable community bonds forged in his area, a black family, with whom Takashi’s family had built a strong relationship, helped them take care of their property and possessions for the duration of their incarceration. A very beautiful portrait, so powerful in its composition and use of dappled light, Samanta tells us that “to me, this photo shows Takashi as a strong and precious individual surrounded by his beloved plants, in the house in which he’s been living for decades.”

Alongside her exceptional portrait photography, Samanta uses landscape photography to question the devastating physical effects of gentrification. Beginning as an Instagram archive page in 2017, Samanta’s project This side of Hoover, has now turned into a vital source of documentation. Detailing why she chose to use Instagram as her primary tool, Samanta explains to make sure the project isn’t one-sided and the story is “ongoing,” “people’s comments on my posts are making also part of the storytelling,” she says. “A lot of times people share their own memories of a particular place that’s nearby, or of a neighborhood person that I’ve captured.” Focusing on depicting as many buildings and storefronts as possible, Samanta found that very quickly “many of these places were replaced by businesses catering to a whiter, wealthier population moving in “. So now, aesthetically seeking to portray the visual language of the neighborhood, which is full of color and texture, Samanta’s main goal is to “humanize an often confusing issue. While gentrification is largely systemic and the result of decades of discriminatory housing policies, it also has very real effects on the ground.

After the success of This side of HooverSamanta recently teamed up with a number of other storytellers to launch a newsletter titled make a neighborhood, who continues to uncover East Hollywood history while looking to expand into stories from across the country. “This newsletter is a way to continue doing this work in a sustainable way and it’s an opportunity for people to support local journalists and storytellers.” concludes Samanta. “We will publish photo essays, creative documentaries, interviews and untold stories about what it means to make a neighborhood.”

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