A community’s story through the eyes of their residents

In photography as in life, a person’s eyes are intensely communicative. Photographers look for eyes, expressive faces, how people place their hands, and how people use body language to form the structure of a good picture.

Photojournalists and their editors often won’t consider running images where the subject is making eye contact with the reader, as if a fourth wall is being broken and interfering with the “journalistic experience.” But of course the truth is that as journalists, whether using photography, text, audio etc, the act of gathering information inherently changes the information.

Vidal Bidal, stands for a portrait inside Taqueria San Francisco in the Mission District, where he works, on June 29, 2023 in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)

Audiences today are likely more comfortable with social media videos where an influencer speaks directly to them, making eye contact, than they are with the traditional visual language of photojournalism. El Tecolote staffer Pablo Unzueta said he has been instinctively photographing this way for years, and found a way to bring this intimate, person-to-person approach to his newspaper photojournalism.

“I started photographing at 17, just walking down to Skid Row and making portraits of people living on the street there,” Unzueta said.  “It was like I could peel away all the polarizing ways we talk about homelessness and just make a human connection – and that started by photographing peoples’ eyes.”

When Pablo was hired by El Tecolote, a position supported by Report for America and CatchLight, he said he was given more creative freedom than he was used to, but still had to cover a lot of fast-turnaround dailies that don’t leave a lot of time for creative interpretation.

So Pablo started a biweekly photo newsletter with the pages of El Tecolote, and coming up with a title was easy: Ojos, or in English, eyes. For his first subject featured in Ojos, Pablo chose Elena Castanon, who spoke about her journey to finding fulfilling work in the Bay Area.  Accompanying the short interview is a portrait of Elena, with an enigmatic smile reminiscent of the Mona Lisa.

Elena Castanon stands for a portrait behind the counter of the food stand where she works and helps to operate and grow food with her partner on July 20, 2023 in Half Moon Bay, Calif. (Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)

“Starting Ojos is a way for me to keep myself accountable, not just to the community I’m photographing, but also to my original intent for becoming a photographer,” Unzueta said.  “I just go out and walk, and someone will catch my eye. I’m always transparent about who I am and how my pictures will appear in print – it’s a lot of responsibility to immortalize someone through your own perspective.”

Pablo’s portraits for Ojos have a distinctive and consistent look, partly because of the buttery-smooth bokeh and three-dimensional feel of the Leica lenses he uses. The black-and-white toning he uses also brings its own drama and formality to the images and makes a rapidly-scrolling reader pause and reflect on the conversations Pablo presents to his Bay Area readership.

“I was Chilean in Chile, and in the United States I learned that I was Latin American,” Gonzalo Hidalgo said during our interview from his Fruitvale studio loft that he built himself more than one decade ago. (Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)
Carlos, a Honduran man who moved to the Bay Area less than one year ago and only provided his first name, stands for a portrait on July 29, 2023 in Calle 24 in the Mission District, in San Francisco, Calif.
(Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)
David Stinnett briefly glances towards the camera lens underneath a tree-lined street in the upper Mission District. (Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)
Aldo Cabello, 73, stands for a portrait in his daughter’s backyard on Aug. 16, 2023 in Oakland, Calif.
(Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)
Manuel Vergara, 47, stands for a portrait with a large Chilean flag that he is selling on Sept. 11, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)
Victor Love, 37, is a security guard for Unidos En Salud, he stands for a portrait in the Mission District on Sept. 29, 2023 in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)
Michael McCarthy, 64, looks up from outside of his house as he talks about coke dust that had been lingering in the air, just hours after the Martinez Refining Company recklessly spilled the toxic particles into the air, on July 14, 2023 in Martinez, Calif. (Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)
Nicole Jajeh-Garcia looks through the camera lens with sage smoke drifting from her altar during San Francisco’s Día de los Muertos in the Mission District. (Photo by Pablo Unzueta/El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)