It’s Friday afternoon, the end of the first full week back at school after the holidays, and 15-year-old Dayanara Rodriguez is at her North Philly home, sitting beneath her lofted bed. Behind her, the iconography of an adolescence creatively spent: medals from her 8th grade graduation last spring—one for Spanish, another for music—and a ukulele she taught herself to play.
In her hands, Rodriguez is holding a small black camera she refers to as her beloved “brick.”
“This was the first one I got,” says the ebullient teen, now a freshman at The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush. Then she holds up a Nikon with a massive zoom lens and, after that, a manual camera she’s decorated with stickers. She holds up containers of film, an embroidered camera strap—each item with its own story—then carefully places the items back inside of a lovingly decorated blue shoebox.
Rodriguez is just one of nearly 50 students who each year participate in programming from Photography Without Borders, the nonprofit that gives predominantly Latinx students in the Kensington and Olney neighborhoods experience in, and a platform to express themselves through, visual arts.
The organization’s name speaks volumes. “With Photography Without Borders, we’re removing either real or perceived barriers both between the students and the world outside of their neighborhoods, and giving the world access to them and their art and their stories,” explains program director Shoshanna Wiesner.
Students go on field trips as much to hone their photography skills as to expand their horizons: to the zoo, to Christmas Village, and even as far as Colombia, South America.
Their work has captured the neighborhood’s violence, blight and drug problems; City Council has used students’ photos during hearings, as examples of the kinds of issues that affect the North Philadelphia community.
But the student work is also joyful, documenting nature, family togetherness, friends goofing off and kids just being kids.
“I’m always looking forward to Friday with PWB, because we’re always talking about something fun or interesting, and it’s just great to be together,” Rodriguez says.
PWB began informally in 2009 at the John B. Stetson School in Kensington. Tony Rocco, an accomplished and published photographer, had been teaching computer science there for nearly a decade when he decided to start an after-school photo club. He was encouraged by the immediate popularity of the program, and inspired to transition from his role in the classroom to devoting himself full time to piloting a student photography program.
By 2014, Photography Without Borders became an official 501c3 nonprofit—particularly fortuitous timing, given that the year prior, the School District of Philadelphia had made its sweeping budget cuts, with arts programming being all but decimated throughout the city. The program receives funding as so many arts organizations in our city do: through foundations, grants, and donations. All programming and supplies are free to youth.
Since its inception, PWB has expanded to work, at different times, with a half-dozen schools and community groups. Prior to the pandemic, students met in-person weekly to learn new skills, critique each other’s work, improve their craft, explore the city, and simply come together as part of a safe, nurturing community.
Rodriguez joined the program in 7th grade at her former school, the bilingual Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School in Olney. She helped set up Hostos’s first darkroom, and graduated from working with a rudimentary pinhole camera to the film cameras in her homemade shoebox. When the pandemic hit, PWB programming went virtual, and students were provided with digital cameras through a partnership with Olympus.
And recently, the work of Rodriguez and 13 other students was published in a special issue of Motivos, a bilingual magazine that’s distributed nationally; Motivos, which in English means “reasons,” turned its entire December issue over to PWB with the theme of life during Covid-19. The issue showcases photography by students from Hostos Elementary School, Olney High School, Taller Puertorriqueño, and Norris Square Neighborhood Project.
Reaching bigger audiences
Wiesner says that the opportunity to collaborate with Motivos, which was made possible through a Community Voices grant from Independence Media, speaks to PWB’s guiding mission.
“Students have been part of a number of in-gallery exhibits, but this was bigger in a sense because it goes beyond Philadelphia. It’s nationally distributed, and there’s a permanence [with magazines] that you don’t get in a gallery show,” Wiesner says. “I know I’m going to hang on to my magazines forever, and the students will have this as a part of their portfolios. It’s a win on so many levels.”
Having graduated from Hostos last spring, Rodriguez and her equally joyful and talented friend, 15-year-old Mirielis Almodovar-Alamo, now a 9th grader at High School for Creative and Performing Arts, have been tapped to become teachers to younger students at their alma mater.
“Daya and Miri displayed such extraordinary leadership skills, that we hired them to serve as paid mentors once they graduated from Hostos and moved on to high school,” Wiesner says. “Tony and I coach them on how to run the class and then we step out of the way.”
Trusting students to teach their peers is a key component throughout PWB’s work. “One of the ways we build trust, enthusiasm, and participation in class is by turning over some control to the students, which gives them a sense of ownership, accountability, and builds leadership skills,” Wiesner says. For example, during the spring term of his last year of high school, Rey Sierra began creating video versions of the lessons, for students to be able to reference outside of class.
Visual time capsule
Throughout Motivos’ 30-plus-page issue, there are 11 two-pages spreads, each telling a different story about life as a teenager in North Philadelphia during this ever-bewildering, once-in-a-lifetime era; they convey the mix of solitude and hope we can all relate to. “Tony is big on storytelling, so we helped students work on how to create a narrative to go alongside with the images,” Wiesner explains.
Almodovar-Alamo’s contribution is called “A party filled with air.”
She explains: “It was my little sister’s birthday, and I wanted to take pictures of the birthday cake because the candles and the cake itself looked really nice. But as I did that, this realization hit me that there could’ve been a ton of people here gathered behind the cake, all wishing my sister a happy birthday—and it just made me realize that Covid has prevented us from seeing others and having big groups of friends or just our own family with us.”
Images throughout the magazine reference Black Lives Matter; offer commentary on the societal pressure on young women to look a certain way; capture empty restaurants and family pets and video games and streetscapes. Many of the images feature different takes on light: candles; streetlights; sun beams; shadows.
Yanilda Recio, a recent graduate of Olney High School, created a spread she called “Calming Light”; it features four arresting images, including one that appears on the magazine’s cover as well: a young woman holding a candle in the dark (pictured at top).
Alongside her images, in Spanish and English, the text reads:
“The moments in which I sit down to think about what photos to take and how to do it are for me a way to escape reality and carry out my ideas. This is one of the things that makes me happy in these difficult times… an escape from reality and a way of expressing myself in different ways by letting my imagination fly with the little I have.”
Creating beauty in dark times, making something out of nothing, expanding boundaries and breaking barriers—what more meaningful gifts could any of us hope to give to our city’s youth?
“Photography Without Borders really helped me get through Covid,” Almodovar-Alamo says. “It gave me something I always looked forward to.”
She wants to pay that embrace forward, use her artistry to bring hope to others. “I just want to let people know that you’re not alone,” she says. “There are other people that are going through this too. We’re all here together, and we’ll get through this.”Photo by Yanilda Recio, a 12th grader at Olney Charter High School.