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© Rafael Cardenas/Courtesy of the artist, from Más Acá
© Rafael Cardenas/Courtesy of the artist, from Más Acá
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LA Photographer Rafael Cardenas Talks Eastside Love

Picture of Marnie Sehayek
Updated: 24 October 2016
Rafael Cardenas is a Mexican-born East LA-raised photographer chronicling everyday life in Los Angeles. His street-level view offers honest portraiture of the people and places of the rapidly changing Eastside that can be read as a people’s history. Cardenas’ recent photo book, Mas Aca, compiles a time capsule of these neighborhoods seized in the current of urban ebb and flow, but he insists it’s not a political statement. Rather, it’s a document from the heart to his beloved city.

In this interview, the photographer explains his daily photographic practice and the motivations behind his compelling new work.

Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca

What first attracted you to photography?

I’m fascinated by the creative process. Always have been. Whatever it is that propels us to create.

What subject matter are you drawn to the most?

I don’t have a favorite subject matter. I just bring my camera along with me, and if I’m lucky, I’ll come across something I want to shoot. The majority of my photos are shot at an event or location that I would have been at even if I didn’t have a camera.

Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
Courtesy of the artist, from Más Acá
Courtesy of the artist

You’re a self-taught photographer who now shoots professionally. What’s the most important lesson/tip you’ve picked up along the way?

Always shoot. More importantly, always shoot on manual. Learn your camera. Shoot and edit as much as you can.

When you first started photographing more seriously, you began a practice of posting a photo a day on your blog. You’re still at it. What motivates you to keep it going?

I fell off my routine this summer, but I’ll get back to it soon. It’s like mining. I keep digging and digging and pray to get a photo that makes the effort worth more than the pixels it’s recorded on. In its simplest form, it’s a natural urge to make something meaningful.

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Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
yin-yang
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca

A lot of your photographs are scenes from the streets, but at the same time, they feel intimate. How do you earn trust from your portrait subjects to capture them so honestly?

I’ve been told that my photos are honest. That’s a word I get often. I think it’s mostly because I take photos as I go about my day. I’m not creating moments – they are presenting themselves. I try to stay ready. For example, the little girl running up the street sign was a total random act of a young niece being a ham. I was walking with my nephews and nieces, holding my camera, and she just ran up the pole and hid. I love that photo. I never would have thought to tell her to do that.

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Courtesy of the artist

With the Eastside bowing under the weight of gentrification, you’re capturing these neighborhoods in transition. Are you motivated to preserve them through your photography?

Yes. It’s not my primary concern. But it definitely guides my eye when I see something like that. There are a few photos in my book that you can no longer recapture because the business is gone. Sometimes the whole building is gone. It’s on everybody’s mind out here. It’s palpable.

Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca

Is your work more personal or political?

Personal. I don’t think politically at all. I’m not an activist, but I have shot a lot of activist events.

What inspired your photography book Mas Aca, and what is the significance of the name?

I was once in a band called Slowrider. We had an album titled Más Allá, which loosely translates to ‘Further Out.’ I was in my late 20s, and I was pretty spaced out. The CD cover was a lowrider in outer space. That was over a decade ago. I realized that photography has brought me closer to the people in my community and grounded me back on Earth. I decided to name the book Mas Aca, which loosely translates to ‘Further Here.’ So, it’s a poetic play on the words to tell you we’re gonna look closer to where we are now.

Courtesy of the artist, from Más Acá
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
Courtesy of the artist, from Más Acá
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca

Tell us about your ‘Summer 2016’ project.

I decided to do another daily photo project. But I fell off. It’s harder these days to get out and spend hours walking around looking for a shot. Some days it doesn’t happen. So after two days of not getting anything worth posting, I took a break. I plan to get back to it immediately. I missed a whole week.

What other upcoming projects can we look forward to?

I have a show at Ave 50 in Highland Park in September together with Sonia Romero. She’s an artist that I have collaborated with in the past. She uses my photos to create public art projects. I will also be a part of a group show at the Vincent Price Art Museum in October that will be themed around youth culture.

Oh yeah, and I hope to direct a movie one day.

Courtesy of the artist, from Más Acá
Courtesy of the artist, from Mas Aca
Courtesy of the artist, from Más Acá
Courtesy of the artist