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Santa Ana photographer Karissa Raya recalls her mother constantly lugging around a Pentax film camera growing up. Whether it was for family parties or vacations, Raya’s mother was always snapping photos, capturing every moment on a roll of Kodak film. 

“It didn’t bother me until I was a teen I was like, ‘Oh my God, Mom, like stop, you’re taking pictures of everything.’ But that was really born for her from her experience of not having any pictures of her life. She has a handful of pictures that exist from her childhood,” Raya said. 

Raya soon found herself playing with her mother’s camera, eventually turning a hobby into a professional service in 2018. 

Now, Raya is taking on her first long-term project as she began photographing Santa Ana residents and their families in front of their homes. Photographing porch portraits since 2020, Raya wanted to document the love and joy among families during a time when people are socially distancing and sheltering in place. 

“I was like all right, you know, we can do some family portraits in front of the house. That’ll be fun and easy without having to get ready and go somewhere else and get all fancy. It was the flexibility and just the casualness of it that caught my attention to do it,” said Loni Paniagua, a participant of the project and founder of Amigas Social Club

The inspiration behind the porch portraits came from a countrywide project that started in March 2020 by East Coast photographers Cara Soulia and Kristen Collins, who called it “The Front Steps Project.” 

After noticing that “Front Steps” featured single-family homes and nuclear families, Raya wanted to bring more diversity to the project by taking portraits of families who reside in Raya’s hometown of Santa Ana, she said. 

“What I recognized was that there are so many kinds of families, single-parent families and apartment-dwelling families, so I wanted to do it in Santa Ana,” Raya said. 

In an effort to highlight the residents of Santa Ana, the porch portraits are free for anyone who would like to participate. Families will receive free digital copies of their photos, but Raya also accepts donations for those who would like to support her. 

Wendy Youngs, a participant in the project and Raya’s friend, had her portraits taken at her parents’ house, a house they’ve had for over 30 years. Youngs’ childhood home became a second home in which she now raises her 2-year-old son. 

Wendy and Hugo Youngs in 2020 on the left, and in 2021 on the right.
These portraits were taken as a part of the “This Is Santa Ana” project.

“That’s the house I grew up in. And I still feel like it’s my house because I work there, and I’m there every weekday with my son. So it almost feels like he’s growing up in the same house I grew up in,” Youngs said. “So it’s nice to take pictures, where my mom probably took pictures of us running around.”

Raya has photographed around 55 families since last year, as well as following up with them and retaking their photos this year to show the one-year difference. She is continuing to take more requests of Santa Ana families who want to be featured in Raya’s “This is Santa Ana: Porch Portraits Collection.” The porch portraits will be on display for free at Callejon del Beso, an outdoor art space in the Artists Village in Santa Ana, from 4-8 p.m. Aug. 21.

James and Patricia Salazar with their daughters in 2020 on the left, and in 2021 on the right.
These portraits were taken as a part of the “This Is Santa Ana” project.
Loni and Louie Buenrostro with their children in 2020 on the left, and in 2021 on the right. These portraits were taken as a part of the “This Is Santa Ana” project.
The Hillenbrand family in 2020 on the left, and in 2021 on the right. These portraits were taken as a part of the “This Is Santa Ana” project.

“I love to just explore different creative projects and build on ideas,” Raya said. “So this is the first long-term project that I, like, recognize I don’t want it to end with just porch portraits. I want this Santa Ana project to evolve and continue to grow.” 

Bringing Visibility to Santa Ana

Being born and raised in Santa Ana, Raya said she wants to bring more visibility to her community as the “The Front Steps Project” birthed a new project, “This is Santa Ana.”

This is Santa Ana” is an ongoing community photo project planning to highlight the different people who live in Santa Ana by featuring a collection of portraits from elders, entrepreneurs and others who reside in the community. 

Raya will be starting her elders/abuelos collection this fall. 

“My purpose is really centered on the idea that I want us to have more photo evidence for our future generations. To have documentation that we were alive, who we were,” Raya said.   

From left, Javier, Monica and Maria Nunez; and Christina, Oscar and Alyssa Gonzalez. This portrait was taken as a part of the “This Is Santa Ana” project. Credit: Image courtesy of Karissa Raya

Raya’s parents immigrated from Mexico to Santa Ana when they were young. Her parents felt that they had to hide anything related to their culture as they were trying to assimilate into American culture, she said. 

“Learning about their experience of needing to assimilate, needing to not be seen as who they were culturally. You could not speak Spanish, you know, learning English and fully immersing into the culture here to feel comfortable and validated,” Raya said. 

Raya’s purpose of visibility, comfortability and confidence through her portraits comes from this notion of individuals not being or feeling seen because of their immigration status, body image or other insecurities.

“There’s so many layers. That’s what got me to the idea of being seen. Like, I see you as you are, you see yourself as you are. And you are, like, comfortable with the person you are enough to take a picture and be able to print it and put it on your wall or share it and tell your story.”

Patricia Salazar, Raya’s friend and participant in the project, got her portraits taken last year and this year. The first was with her extended family – her husband, two daughters, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and her husband and their two kids – who all live under the same roof in their Santa Ana home, along with a baby girl she and her husband were fostering. During the second round, those photographed were Salazar, her husband and their two daughters. 

The Calderon family. This portrait was taken as a part of the “This Is Santa Ana” project. Credit: Image courtesy of Karissa Raya

While Salazar’s husband has collections of photos of himself and his family growing up, Salazar doesn’t have much to look back on, making the family portraits that Raya took even more sentimental and memorable for her.

‘This is Santa Ana: Porch Portraits Collection’

When: 4-8 p.m. Aug. 21

Where: Callejon del Beso, an outdoor art space in the Artists Village in Santa Ana, between 3rd and Bush streets

Cost: Free

More info: olivelavida.com and thisissantaana.com

Instagram: instagram.com/olivelavida

“I didn’t grow up with pictures which is something that I kind of regret,” she said. “I like to look back at my husband’s photos to see how he was, especially now with our girls. And that’s why I think, also, that I like making sure we photograph specific moments of our life.” 

“This is Santa Ana: Porch Portraits Collection” is presented in collaboration with Community Engagement, the Santa Ana Business Council, and local community groups Amigas Social Club and Mommies Unidas as part of the Kid-Friendly Initiative in downtown Santa Ana. The initiative is being used as an effort to help make downtown Santa Ana more family friendly by creating more inclusive spaces, said Flor Reyes, founder of Mommies Unidas. 

Raya will continue to take porch portraits after the presentation of her portraits at the outdoor art space, so for those in Santa Ana interested in getting their family portrait taken and becoming a part of the porch portraits project, sign-ups are through Raya’s website, Olive la Vida.

“I’m super excited to go see them, all the portraits (at the outdoor gallery),” Salazar said. “I saw a couple that she had posted and I’m really eager to see what other families were up to within that year too. Let’s see what changes came about in their little families as well.”

Kristina Garcia is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kristinamgarcia6@gmail.com.

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