Using her art to bring more awareness to mental health issues

Maya Alfaro, a senior at Mira Mesa High School, standing outdoors holding a camera and smiling
Maya Alfaro is a senior at Mira Mesa High School and a photographer whose work was selected for inclusion in a new exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Arts.
(Jarrod Valliere/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Maya Alfaro, 18, is a graduate of Mira Mesa High School in San Diego and one of the youth artists whose work is included in the Museum of Photographic Arts’ “Darkest Nights, Brightest Stars: 15th Annual Juried Youth Exhibition”


The call for submissions for the Museum of Photographic Arts’ annual juried youth exhibition went out, and after some encouragement from a teacher, Maya Alfaro gave it a shot. The worst they could do was to reject her submission, right? The talented, young photographer was shocked when she’d learned that the museum had selected her work for display in this year’s “Darkest Nights, Brightest Stars: 15th Annual Juried Youth Exhibition.”

“I hadn’t heard about this exhibition until my photo teacher brought it up to the class. … I spent hours filtering through my photos to create a storyline that fit the theme I wanted to represent,” she says. “I was so shocked to receive the email that my submission had been selected to be displayed. It was even more surreal to see it printed on the wall of the museum with my name in bold next to it.”

The MOPA youth exhibition — open through Feb. 6, 2022 — asks artists to respond to a theme, and students in kindergarten through 12th grade from San Diego and Tijuana submit work in line with that theme to tell stories and share their perspectives. Alfaro’s piece, a photograph titled “In My Head,” aims to bring greater awareness to mental health challenges.

Alfaro, 18, graduates from Mira Mesa High School today, where she’s been active in many activities — from volunteering with organizations that serve people who are homeless to helping distribute food or direct traffic. She lives in Mira Mesa with her parents, an older brother, her grandmother and their “spunky little dog,” Buddy. She took some time to talk about her love of photography as a hobby and an art form, and her inclusion in the MOPA youth exhibition this year.

Q: You say that you’ve always had a camera in your hand? How did that start? Why do you think you were drawn to taking photographs?

A: When my brother and I were little, my dad would always shoot home videos of us and take pictures of all our family vacations. Because of that, there were always handheld, point-and-shoot cameras lying around the house. I would use these to take still lifes of my toys, or make my family pose for photos. I loved that I could capture a moment of pure joy and keep it forever. I also loved how I could see this creative vision in my head and create a physical representation of it. I enjoyed other mediums of art, too, but I could never get my message across with a painting or drawing in the same way that I could with a photograph.

Q: There were two thematic calls for MOPA’s “Darkest Nights, Brightest Stars: 15th Annual Juried Youth Exhibition”: “growing up” and “space.” Which one did you choose, and why?

A: I chose “space” because it was actually the only option. “Growing up” was the theme for the 2020 exhibition that got delayed, but I still loved “space” as a theme because it challenged me. The literal interpretation didn’t click with me at first, but eventually, I landed on the idea of “headspace.” I thought of it as a way to bring an awareness to mental health, which has always been a common theme in my life.

Q: What does it mean to you to be part of MOPA’s annual youth exhibition?

A: It’s really empowering. Photography has always been more of a hobby to me because I never felt like my work could be appreciated by anyone other than my mom, who is obligated to say, “it’s nice.” It makes me feel like I could have a future in it.

What I love about Mira Mesa ...

How incredibly diverse it is. Mira Mesa is filled with immigrants and their children who work incredibly hard to make their families proud. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else.

Q: What can you tell us about “In My Head,” the piece you have on display in “Darkest Nights, Brightest Stars”?

A: Some people very close to me have struggled with mental illness for a long time. From an outside perspective, I’ve come to learn that it can make you feel like your head is in the clouds. Because of this, I wanted to shoot a headshot of my model (her name is Sakari Lewis, and she’s usually the subject of my shots) in front of the dark clouds on a blue sky. We took it in front of her house as the sun was beginning to set with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i. I love using contrast in my photography, so I hardly had to edit the photo, aside from some minor adjustments, cropping out the trees, and removing her shoulders to emphasize how isolating mental illness can be.

Q: What do you hope people get or understand from “In My Head”?

A: I want them to understand how often people mask their mental illnesses. There could be another world in their head, and it is just as real and consuming as any physical illness.

Q: As an artist, what have you found that you’re particularly drawn to in terms of the subjects of your photography?

A: I love taking pictures of people. That doesn’t always come in the form of portraiture, but I think candid shots are just as beautiful, if not more. People are so complicated, and what better way to tell a story than to fit an entire lifetime in one shot?

Q: Are there photographers or artists whose work you admire? If so, can you share a couple of their names with us? Describe the kind of work/photography they do and why you admire what they do?

A: One of my favorites is Petra Collins. She does an amazing job of depicting women in an authentic way. Her work is filled with ultra-feminine themes and emotional shots with dramatic lighting and high saturation. In a world where so much of femininity is wrongly portrayed in the media, I admire that her work illuminates the complexities of women.

Q: How would you describe your point of view as an artist?

A: I don’t usually go for the main action shot. I look for a candid moment to create a perspective of appreciation for a beautiful little moment in time. In fact, some of my favorite shots are of my younger cousins giggling in the background of a bigger moment.

Q: What do you want to say through your photography?

A: Although I’ve been taking pictures all my life, figuring out my voice in photography is still new to me. I’m currently working on exploring different themes, which is why this exhibition was so helpful. However, the most common message I come back to is the importance of gratitude, especially for our relationships with other people.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work as a young artist?

A: Trying to find my voice. I love seeing consistency in the works of experienced artists, but I don’t have that yet. I’m still in the process of determining what’s most important to me and how I want to communicate that through my photography.

Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?

A: Being able to remind people of a beautiful moment in time. I’m usually the one behind the camera, so I’m not in a lot of photos, but seeing my friends and family get excited over snapshots of moments they forgot about makes it all worth it.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: That I have more to say than I thought I did. Nine times out of 10, the pictures I take have a story behind them, even if I don’t know what it is, initially.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: “Nothing is embarrassing if you don’t let it embarrass you.” I don’t quite remember who said that. It might have been from TikTok, but I think about it a lot.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: That I ran for the position of photojournalist in my fifth-grade class election, and lost. I was humbled at the age of 10.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Going for a run in the morning on one of San Diego’s beautiful trails, followed up by brunch with my family. I’d eventually end the day by watching the sunset with my friends at the beach while our favorite songs play in the background.