"Women Protesters," by Josefina Ortiz, is one of the photographs… (Josefina Ortiz )
Last summer, 17-year-old Rebecca Sanchez's world shrank to the size of her camera's viewfinder.
For several months, Sanchez and three other Bell High School students immersed themselves in the city's corruption case. They spent hours after school with their cameras, documenting demonstrations and long, rowdy meetings triggered by the pay scandal that led to criminal charges against eight former officials in the working-class town in southeast Los Angeles County.
Last week, the four students were honored for their work by the newly installed City Council.
"These pictures show a story of a community that rolled up its sleeves, got to work and refused to accept defeat," said Mayor Ali Saleh. "A community that took responsibility for its destiny. The students should be proud of their work and the great service they have done for our residents. These pictures will continue to tell our story for many generations to come."
The idea for the project came from the students' photography instructor, Cynthia Herrera, who was teaching about documenting life through photography when the scandal broke. Sanchez said Herrera offered other students extra credit to help her document reaction to the scandal.
"I thought this was important for them because they need to be aware that they need to be politically involved," Herrera said. "It's teaching them to be good community members, to be civic-minded."
Of the 150 students she asked, only six responded, according to Herrera. Two dropped out early on, but the other four moved ahead with the project. Their portfolios include photos from council meetings, protests, community gatherings and portraits of Bell residents.
The students said it quickly became less about a good grade and more about what was happening in their town.
"Everything changed that day," said Ernesto Figueroa, 16, of the day he learned of the pay scandal. "Everyone came together … and now everyone comes to the meetings to make sure" it doesn't happen again.
Early this year, the students shared some of their work at an art show at Cal State Fullerton. They also held a photo exhibition at the Bell Community Center that was attended by dozens of classmates and some council members.
Sanchez's photographs were among those displayed.
Her favorite, which she titled "Hear Me Out," shows a Bell police officer's right arm resting on a microphone against a backdrop of blurry residents sitting inside the school's auditorium during a council meeting.
Hours after she took the picture, eight city officials were hauled off in handcuffs.