A Portrait of Yesica Prado

By Sonner Kehrt

Yesica Prado

The Berkeley photographer documents the lives of people living in their vehicles. She happens to be one of them — and coronavirus has upended her community

Like everybody else, Yesica Prado can feel frustrated by shelter-in-place. She’s restless working from home, staring at the same walls.

“I don’t want to be in here all day,” she says. “I go out and shoot.”

As a CatchLight Local photography fellow with the San Francisco Public Press, Prado has spent the last six months documenting the lives of people living in their vehicles in the Bay Area. The fellowship, which connects photographers with local media outlets to support a photo project, has just been extended for Prado, giving her the opportunity to explore what shelter-in-place means for those living in cars, trucks and campers.

It’s a particularly personal subject. For the past several years, Prado’s home has been a 23-foot RV in Berkeley.

“You only have 20 feet to walk back and forth,” she says. “It’s kind of hard to stay in.”

Prado gave up her other job as a Lyft driver a few weeks into the pandemic as rides slowed to a bare trickle. She does her work as a reporter from her RV now, writing articles for the Public Press to accompany her photographs. But her role in her community — both as a photographer and a young, healthy person — means she’s often out and about.

“I had to be personally knocking on everybody’s doors, just so I know what’s happening with them,” she says. She helps organize food for elderly neighbors and works to ensure that everyone knows the latest news on regulations and recommendations. And, of course, she takes pictures. “I just like that a camera is a tool of truth — and to preserve,” she says. “That’s the only proof you have.”

While working toward her BFA in photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Prado focused her thesis on the daily lives of people who, like her, were living undocumented in Chicago. It was her first foray into photographing people in her own community. “What she brings to the story is that she’s really there,” says Noah Arroyo, Prado’s editor at the Public Press. “Her photos are incredibly intimate.”

Through the CatchLight fellowship, Prado, who has since received a visa, was connected with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which was curating an upcoming exhibition on the census. Prado’s work fit right in; people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity tend to be undercounted. As part of the exhibit, the museum planned to have tools on hand for people to complete the census right there — another way of documenting proof of life.

Because of coronavirus, the exhibition is now on hold (though an online version launched this month). But her work continues. Staying inside such small spaces is hard, Prado says. The closure of public and community sites means people need to venture further for things like water and Wi-Fi. She’s watched her own community start to shift, as some people have departed for life outside the city, or to be closer to family. But she’s also encountered more people sleeping in their vehicles now, especially essential workers worried about infecting their families.

“A vehicle is a type of shelter,” Prado says. “We always show poverty as a ‘lack of.’ How about if we show what people actually have?”

Prado’s portraits of people living in their vehicles were to be showcased this month as part of a mobile art installation, commissioned by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in which a “photo truck” would be driven through the communities she photographed. Above: Three highlights from the project. 

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