The Filipino owners of an Asian restaurant at work. A glimpse of Thai worshippers praying inside a Buddhist temple. A man perusing an Armenian bookstore.
These are just a handful of the photographs captured by 15 local Los Angeles Unified School District high schoolers participating in the Operation Unity cultural exchange program. And while it may seem as if Operation Unity's founder and executive director, Cookie Lommel, footed outrageous travel expenses to send the teens on a hunt for these exotic images, the photos were, in fact, all snapped here in Los Angeles.
What unites the 15 prints in "A Youth Exploration of Diversity -- California Kibbutz" is that they draw their philosophical inspiration from a place foreign to the inner-city streets where many of these teens live: the kibbutz. The goal of the art project was to take a group of people from a variety of backgrounds and build cross-cultural appreciation by having the students work with one other while exploring other ethnicities.
Lommel led the teens, of African American, Latino, Armenian and Asian descent into sections such as Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo and Koreatown to expose them to a breadth of cultures.
The resulting work spans the city and its ethnic pockets. Ellen Sedrakyan, an Armenian girl, took a portrait of a Latina docent in front of a plaque describing Los Pobladores in historic downtown; Trivelle Bidelle, an African American boy, captured the Jewish Historical Society's Tu B'Shevat event at Breed Street Shul by depicting people nearby a sign with greetings in Spanish and in Hebrew.
"This exhibit tells a great Los Angeles story," Lommel said. "It paints a visual and verbal picture of how youth can help bridge racial gaps and work together, promoting harmony through diversity."
Lommel, an African American author, fell in love with kibbutz life after visiting Israel in the early 1990s. In 1994, upon her return to Los Angeles, she founded Operation Unity, a project that simulates the kibbutz experience for inner city children on the Malibu-based Camp JCA Shalom grounds. The nonprofit Operation Unity has since attracted various sponsors, including the Jewish Community Foundation, City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and the Roth Foundation.
For most of the students hailing from neighborhoods such as South Central, Compton, and East Los Angeles, Operation Unity was their first exposure with nature and with Jewish and Israeli culture.
For Simmons, "The highlight of my experience was about the Jewish community" when she visited the Museum of Tolerance.
"I was crying because it was so sad," said Quinisha Simmons, 18. "I never met anyone who went through that. It was always hearsay. But here was someone in person, and he showed us his tattoo and he was crying and he told us how his family was killed. You never forget something like that because it was so tragic."
Through the photo project, Simmons learned about her own culture snapping actress Christine Nelson as Biddie Mason, founder of the First AME Church and the first African American woman to own real estate in downtown Los Angeles.
Sedrakyan, 17, said that she had no idea that her photos would wind up as part of a traveling exhibit.
"I was the only Armenian in the whole [photo] trip," said Sedrakyan, "but she didn't want me to do my own culture, so she gave me the Mexican community."
Sedrakyan embraced the subject matter.
"The reason I wanted to [photograph the] Mexican community," Sedrakyan said, "is because, in my neighborhood, there are a lot of Latinos not getting the recognition they deserve."
She cited Pio Pico, the first governor of California, as an example.
Lommel would like to see the multicultural-embracing kibbutz model incorporated into American life.
"What people overlook is that they see the kibbutz idea as Israeli, but it's very global," said Lommel, who remembers a local teen telling her that he had never met a Korean person until he was on a kibbutz in Israel.
"Even though it's very diverse here," she said, "[people] still don't interact."
Sedrakyan's experience with Operation Unity has helped further her interest in cultural relations.
"I was always involved in my community the Hollywood area," Sedrakyan said. "Now I'm getting involved as an intern at the Armenian National Committee, where I'm trying to get the mulitcultural point through."
She said she derived a universal truth from her Operation Unity experience.
"Everyone's the same, basically, but they don't see it."
"A Youth Exploration of Diversity -- California Kibbutz" will be displayed at Aon Center, 707 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, thru March 7. It will continue to Manufacturers Life Building, 515 Figueroa St., Los Angeles, from March 10-22; and Wells Fargo Center, 330 S. Hope St., Los Angeles, from March 24-April 10. Call (310) 577-0363 or visit www.operationunity.org.