By Shoshanna Wiesner
I first learned about Photography Without Borders (PWB) as a site visitor for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund grant panel. Initially, it was intimidating to park on B Street at Allegheny Avenue and walk up to the front of Stetson Middle School. I had visited other Philadelphia public schools as a photojournalist for CityPaper, but not in this Kensington neighborhood of North Philly with a pervasive opioid drug presence.
Once inside, the woman who greeted me at a makeshift entrance desk warmly directed me downstairs where I met Tony Rocco, the founder and Executive Director. But before I even got to his classroom, I was transported back to my own school days with kids whizzing by in the hall, backpacks slung over a shoulder, socializing with what little free time they could squeeze between classes.
Immediately, I warmed to Tony’s passionate story of his transition from a teacher of nine years at Stetson to the afterschool “Shutterbugs” program. Class started and students politely interrupted us as they had questions or needed their teacher’s attention. Much of the program’s success is due to Tony’s ability to juggle a million things at once and maintain compassion for everyone involved. He didn’t hide the challenges of being in a dimly-lit, mouse-frequented classroom. I scanned the old lockers overflowing with mismatched photography equipment, school desks pushed together with a flea market’s worth of antique cameras, and very focused students at the epicenter - concentrating on their more current computer tools. Having grown up and trained in an analog world, I appreciated the range of technology presented to these 21st century artists.
We proceeded to the fourth floor where a ghost-like whir of an aged HVAC system inhabited the abandoned hallways after school hours ended. I had a flashback to my college darkroom as we made the tight turn into a former broom closet and I spotted the familiar jugs of D76 developing solution. What stunned me was the 11 year old girls twirling around the space they set up with Tony’s guidance. He started picking up this and that item left out, razzing them about keeping the place cleaner. I got to know his quick shifts between teacher, doting parent-figure, and teasing older kid.
You may be wondering how we came up with the name “Photography Without Borders”. In addition to several student trips to Colombia, our name serves us well in Philadelphia as we break barriers of perceived access to the arts for our participants in neighborhoods lacking resources and funding. To that point, our students have gained confidence selling their prints in the upscale Fairmount neighborhood at the annual Arts Crawl. They have learned how to speak about their images in gallery exhibits, such as the historic Plastic Club in Center City. Our students range from 11 to 20 years old, some hailing from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we learned the resilience of our artists as we shifted from in-person to virtual classroom learning.
Initially, the younger students were apprehensive about taking photos of themselves and their families. After a few months in quarantine due to COVID-19, they relaxed and found solace in the activity. We may have started our weekly zoom sessions with a litany of frustrations over being bored, feeling stuck at home, and unsure of the future. However, in the following weeks, they would remark at how much fun they had taking photographs in their bedrooms, out the back window, even enlisting a sister or pet as their subject.