Samanta Helou Hernandez uncovers the complex histories of East Hollywood’s immigrant communities
Compelled to document her East Hollywood hometown after being troubled by its rapid gentrification, the photographer has built a powerful visual mechanism to ensure no individual or place is forgotten.
- Olivia Hingley
- 24 March 2022
For Samanta Halou Hernandez, photography has always served much more than a solely aesthetic purpose. Primarily documenting LA’s immigrant communities and the idiosyncrasies of its built environment, through her photography, Samanta brings attention to the people, places and stories that have been neglected or misrepresented. Being heavily inspired by her LA hometown, “its vibrancy, its quirks and imperfections”, for the past few years Samanta has dedicated herself to painting an honest picture of its diverse array of long-standing communities. “I’m inspired by place-making, the way subcultures build identity outside the mainstream”, she says, “and the ‘third-spaces’ people create as a way to feel free and safe in an otherwise harsh and unwelcoming world.”
Born in Mexico, when Samanta was eight years old she emigrated to the US and grew up in Escondido, San Diego County. But, it was only in Samanta’s last year of college that she took an intro to photography class in which she “immediately felt at home”. “Spending hours in the dark room watching my images develop was pure magic”, she reminisces. And, as soon as she could afford it, Samanta bought a 35mm film camera and began to photograph her surroundings: “photography allowed me to slow down and really take in my environment. I found a new way of seeing and appreciating the world.” Samanta has now lived in LA for 12 years, the last seven of which she has worked as a freelance journalist and photographer.
A prominent feature of Samanta’s work is her brilliant ability to so sensitively and honestly depict her subjects. When discussing how she puts the people she photographs at ease, something she recognises is “uncomfortable for a lot of people”, Samanta explains that “transparency and consent are both key”. “I try to capture people in a dignified manner, no matter who they are. When you lead with empathy and sensitivity toward human beings, the results will be evident in the photograph.”
This considered and humane approach is evident in her portrait of Takashi Hoshizaki, a former botanist and East Hollywood local. Taken as part of the series Making Our Neighbourhood: Redlining, Gentrification, and House in East Hollywood, the portrait aims to shed light on the continued discrimination immigrants face in the United States and “the many layers and complexities of East Hollywood”. In 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, a teenage Takashi and his family were forced to leave their neighbourhood for an internment camp in Wyoming. Demonstrating the unbreakable community bonds forged in his local area, a Black family, with whom Takashi's family had formed a strong relationship, helped them take care of their property and belongings for the duration of their incarceration. A truly 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 valuable individual surrounded by his beloved plants, in the house he’s lived in for decades”.
Alongside her exceptional portrait photography, Samanta uses landscape photography to bring into question the devastating physical effects of gentrification. Beginning as an archive page on Instagram in 2017, Samanta’s project This Side of Hoover, has now transformed into a vital source of documentation. Detailing as to why she chose to use Instagram as her primary tool, Samanta explains it to ensure the project isn’t one sided and that the narrative is “ongoing”, “people’s comments on my posts are also part of the storytelling”, she says. “Oftentimes people share their own memories about a particular place that close, or a person in the neighbourhood I captured.” Focusing on depicting as many buildings and storefronts as she could, Samanta found that very rapidly “many of those places were replaced by businesses catering to a whiter, more monied demographic that was moving in”. So now, aesthetically looking to depict the visual language of the neighbourhood, which is full of colour and texture, Samanta's primary goal is to “humanise an oftentimes confusing issue. While gentrification is largely systemic and a result of decades of discriminatory housing policies, it also has very real on the ground effects.”
After the success of This Side of Hoover, Samanta has recently teamed up with a number of fellow storytellers to launch a newsletter entitled Making a Neighbourhood, which continues to uncover East Hollywood’s history whilst also looking to expand into stories from all over the country. “This newsletter is a way to continue to do this work sustainably and it’s an opportunity for people to support local journalists and storytellers.” Samanta concludes. “We’ll be publishing photo essays, creative nonfiction, interviews, and untold histories about what it means to make a neighbourhood.”
Samanta Helou Hernandez: This Side of Hoover (Copyright © Samanta Helou Hernandez, 2021)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.