How Taking Photos Made Me Love My Hometown
The first photo I ever took in Los Angeles starred hundreds of cars in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I still regret that.
I had just finished a 35-day cross-country road trip after four years of living in Washington, D.C. I had a lease on an apartment I'd never seen, no job, and no friends. A northern California native, I'd been raised to think I'd hate L.A. After 6,800 miles and nearly that many photos from national parks and great cities across the country, the fact that my first literal image of my new hometown was of traffic seemed an inauspicious sign.
In the madness of unpacking and furniture-buying and job-hunting, I forgot to take photos and barely explored my surroundings at all for a couple of weeks after that. Then one day, I took a break to hike a popular trail just up the street from my place. I had no sense of L.A. geography, so I decided to take my camera to get a sense of what was where. From the top of the hill, I saw the ocean for the first time since I arrived, as well as the mountains that ring the city. It wasn't until I got home and started scrolling through the photos I had taken that I realized that Los Angeles was beautiful. Somehow the framing of each piece of the landscape hit me in a way that even seeing it in person hadn't.
That's not to say I'm a great photographer. I didn't know how to operate a DSLR at the beginning of the road trip. Now I'm capable with my Nikon D60, but I exhibit no special talent and will never be more than a hobbyist. Yet in the year and a half since that hike, photography has become my primary vehicle for learning about Los Angeles. Actually, taking photos taught me to love it here.
L.A. is the most difficult city in the country to understand. It's huge, yes, but it's also (by some measures, at least), the most diverse city on the continent. You could explore it for years without stumbling on all the different worlds. And, of course, the fact that it is notoriously maligned makes it all the more difficult to cut through the haters hatin'—about the smog (though strong emissions regulations have cut it to the point that it's rarely noticeable), the traffic (though my neighborhood is highly walkable), and the vapid populace (though people I meet here are, on average, far more diverse and interesting than in D.C.)—and get to the core of what makes it great.
Taking thousands of photos hasn't made me learn the city any faster—if it takes 10 years to become a real New Yorker, as former mayor Ed Koch insists, it must require at least 15 to turn into an Angeleno, camera or not. But in a city full of secret worlds, my lens captures details I might have otherwise missed. Too often, people reserve photography for when they're traveling—we don't expect to be surprised in our own hometowns, whether we've lived there for one year or 30. But when I've got a camera in my hand, I can use that same spirit of exploration that guides a trip abroad to keep things exciting at home.
I haven't taken any photos in traffic since that first day, because I'm rarely stuck in it (cue gasps). I did shoot a fun series of the subway that runs two blocks from my house (cue more gasps!). But most of my photos are taken while walking down the street. The city's vaunted street art scene is alive and well, and some of my favorite photos are of paintings and wheat-pasted posters that appear out of nowhere and often disappear just as quickly. Every time I trek out to East L.A. for birria or the San Gabriel Valley for dim sum, I make sure to take photos of unfamiliar signs and foods and wares. And my camera has come on plenty more hikes and beach trips since that first one.
My next goal is to take photos of people. I recently upgraded to a 50 mm lens, which is great for shooting almost anything but captures portraits particularly well. Though I've been in journalism since I was 14, I don't relish the idea of approaching strangers on the street, particularly without the pretense of a story assignment. But every time a teenager walks by on her way to her quinceañera or an old man in a dashiki crosses my path, I wish I had asked them for a photo. I'm getting there.
Of course, an expensive DSLR lens is no longer necessary for taking great photos—nearly half of Americans now have a perfectly good camera in their pocket in the form of a smartphone. With no need to spend extra money or lug a bulky camera around, there's no reason not to take photos, even if no one will see them but you.
Part of the value of the Art Every Day challenge is that it reminds us that art brings real value to our lives, beyond a simple appreciation of beauty. After my initial skepticism, I've embraced my adopted hometown in ways I wouldn't have without a camera. Taking photos may not have made me into an Angeleno yet, but it's made me aspire to be one.