When middle school teacher Tony Rocco created an after-school photography program at Stetson Charter School in 2009 to share his passion for photography, he had a simple objective: to show youth how to discover themselves through photography.
Since then, the single program has evolved into Photography Without Borders (PWB), a nonprofit organization that runs youth photography programs in schools and community organizations in Kensington and Olney. Rocco, the organization’s founder and executive director, said PWB is trying to teach more young people how to use a camera — not only for selfies but to learn about their communities, learn about themselves, and show others what it’s like to grow up in their neighborhood.
“A lot of times they try to focus on positive things because there are a lot of beautiful, happy, positive things going on in Kensington,” Rocco said. “ … Not only is it therapy for them, but by communicating with a wider audience, they can also share those images of hope with everybody else because everybody could use some hope, especially in Kensington.”
The organization serves students from grades 5-12 through after-school and summer programs. It has six photography programs at Stetson Charter School, Taller Puertorriqueño, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, Norris Square Neighborhood Project, Hostos Elementary, and Pantoja Elementary. The programs are free, and each student receives a DSLR camera for the program duration.
Last summer, the City’s Kensington Community Resilience Fund awarded PWB and 19 other community organizations $10,000 grants for general operations. With the funding, PWB was able to initiate its newest program at Kensington Health Sciences Academy. According to PWB’s Program Director Shoshanna Wiesner, the organization wanted to start working with high school students after its success in middle schools.
“This is a space where we want to develop a career pipeline,” said Wiesner, who has a background in fine art photography. “So we have established photographers in the field who are able to work directly with our students and give them hands-on experience.”
Rocco, an award-winning Latinx photographer, said the organization focuses on storytelling, which empowers young students.
“Our kids are not used to being asked what they think,” he added. “They’re used to being told what to think and told what to do. So they feel empowered. We use that word a lot, but they feel like, ‘You know what? People actually care about my pictures. They care what I have to say.’”
According to Wiesner, the organization helps youth tell their own personal stories to a wider audience.
“[The students] have a lot of inspiring, hopeful stories, but they’re also struggling with some of it and saying what it’s like to have to walk to school or deal with public transit,” Wiesner said. “ … We’d rather hear it from them than someone [in the media] who’s looking into the neighborhood from a separate community.”
PWB helps share the students’ work through competitions, exhibits, and publications, she added. Each year, students from PWB are chosen to compete in the Photographic Society of America Youth Showcase. The students’ work has also been published twice in Motivos Magazine. As a result, some of the students were interviewed by CBS TV and Telemundo.
This year, the organization plans to offer its youth more services, which will require more funding.
“We’re applying for grant funding to see if we could find mentors for them, apprenticeships for them,” Rocco said. “So that they could actually learn what it’s like to go out and run a business and do it legitimately like what would it take.”
But for Rocco and his team, the organization goes beyond the program services.
“At the end of the day, it’s not just about taking pictures,” he added. “We form really great relationships with our kids.”
Editors: Zari Tarazona, Christopher Malo / Designer: Solmaira Valerio
Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.