Fedella Lizeth remembers a time, not so long ago, when she did not appreciate her hometown. Like many teenagers with a restless sense of displacement, she says growing up in San Diego sometimes felt unsatisfying and she dreamed of escaping to places like Costa Rica.
Then she got a camera.
“I was so anti-San Diego,” admits Lizeth on a rainy afternoon in her Logan Heights apartment. “But because I was somehow able to turn it around, I now have this deep love for it, and in return it also made me love all the flaws that I had or that I thought my family had. It all slowly disappeared the more I did it.”
The “this” in question is her amazing photography practice. Finding a newfound appreciation for home or one’s hometown is not uncommon. Most of the time, though, it takes moving away to realize just how green the grass was back home. For Lizeth, however, it came with her exploration of her hometown. Camera in hand, the lifelong local began documenting aspects of San Diego culture that she felt often went unrecorded or unrecognized. From the people in her community to distinctive places that quietly define the local culture, Lizeth manages to capture an elemental essence, the defining characters and characteristics that make San Diego unique.
“I think it’s so important to just take a picture of anything, especially as changeable as this world is,” says Lizeth. “An image of a building can be so important because that building may not always look like that.”
This sense of specialness, and the sense that she is capturing a distinct moment in time, is especially evident in her portraits. She manages to capture a distinct sense of vulnerability in her subjects, despite most of the photographs being casual and unposed. She seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to capturing, in one click, the ethos and aura of a person.
“I’m still very shy to approach people like that, but if there is something or someone that needs to be photographed, I just have to do it,” says Lizeth. “And when I say ‘photograph them’, in my head I also say ‘celebrate them’ in a way. They are just being their natural selves. Maybe they go to the store, and they don’t even think of themselves that way. So when I ask to take their picture, they’re often like, ‘really?’ This is my way of telling the people around me that they are beautiful.”
One of the more interesting things to learn, and what makes her work all the more impressive, is that Lizeth shoots almost entirely on film. Using analog to produce or consume art has become more and more trendy and to shoot on film have something of a moment below those who grew up primarily taking photos on phones. However, Lizeth has been using film cameras for years and says she has never owned a digital camera other than the one on her phone.
“I got into the film early and it was great,” says Lizeth. “It used to be such a humbling process for me, but I just loved being physically involved with the camera. I had to know every little thing to get a good image: the exposure, the ISO (a camera’s sensitivity to light), the aperture – I had to know everything and if I didn’t have it, I could have a whole roll and find out later I didn’t turn it right in the camera.”
It’s a practice she perfected as a lifelong local. The daughter of an Italian mother and a Nicaraguan father, Lizeth found herself having to move around a lot after her parents divorced. As a teenager she says she gravitated towards documentaries and at 16 she received a book about street artist Banksy’s work and remembers feeling “excited” about the idea of documenting street art.
“I really wanted to document graffiti, that was my first influence,” Lizeth recalls. “I wanted to be the photographer who finds these things, the ones that are sometimes hard to find. I took public transportation and I would just go out and try to find that stuff in San Diego.”
This fascination morphed into a more all-encompassing outlook on documenting and photographing various aspects of San Diego culture.
“It was then that I realized that I really enjoyed documenting my city because I began to see my city in a different way than I ever had before,” says Lizeth. “I grew up moving around a lot. I’m very privileged in a sense, but I also grew up with inaccessibility to a lot of things. Food was difficult at times, I was homeless a few times and so I didn’t necessarily have that love for home because there really wasn’t a home for me in my head. But when I started taking more photography, I realized there were all these things I might be trying to look away from and dream of something else. All those things that were in front of me the whole time were just so beautiful.”
She began to see her passion pay off and began participating in group art exhibitions and projects of her work. Last year, several of her photos were included in “La Tierra Mia: A Chicano Park Story,” a photography book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic neighborhood park. She also had her work at “Clown’ Around Vol. 1,” a group show of femme/queer artists at Mixed Grounds Coffee in Barrio Logan.
Around the same time, she participated in “Eat, nevertheless,” a group exhibition at the Athenaeum Art Center in Logan Heights that centered on different aspects of Latino food, cuisine, and consumption. Lizeth’s piece, “If It’s Goya It Has to Be Mierda,” focused on popular Latin American food producer Goya Foods, as well as its controversial endorsements of right-wing candidates like Donald Trump.
“I just thought, ‘how can this company that represents the Latino community here support someone who actively discriminates against that community,'” says Lizeth, adding that she plans to do similar projects in the future. “I was angry and it was my first time trying to do something like that, a political thing.”
More recently, she was part of a group exhibition and series of workshops at Art Produce in North Park called “Electrification, Efficiency, Equity,” which centered on energy efficiency and its impact on workers and communities. Lizeth’s involvement in the project is further proof that she has come full circle to not only embrace her hometown, but now to help it through her art and activism.
“It blossomed into something where I am all about my city, my reality and what I have come to know,” says Lizeth. “And not even just mine. It’s a whole community that was out there that I wanted to see celebrated.”
Born: San Diego
Fun fact: When Lizeth first got into film photography, she says she often had to track down PDFs of scanned manuals for the cameras she used. “These days it’s popular enough that people can figure it out by watching a TikTok video,” she says.
Combs is a freelance writer.