An Inner City Teacher Weaves Community Through Photography

By Jim Fields and Emmeline Zhao, originally published by The 74.

Tony Rocco, founder and executive director of Philadelphia’s Photography Without Borders, knows his students live in one of the country’s most at-risk neighborhoods.

Their campus, John B. Stetson Middle School, is only a 15-minute walk from the corner of East Allegheny and Kensington Avenues — the heart of the East Coast’s largest open-air drug market. Every week, they know they’ll need to avoid drug users, dealers and violence during their walks to and from school, acutely aware that this is a reality — their reality. 

In the shadow of all this, Rocco says his program has become a vital, safe haven for these kids to pursue photography, share passions and build identity — and a conduit through which both Stetson students and the community find hope through art. 

He says photography helps students better understand themselves and their neighbors — and that empathy shows through not just in the photos but in their growth as individuals and community members as well.

The 74’s Jim Fields and Emmeline Zhao visited Photography Without Borders to see the group in action, and met students whose photographs captured far deeper expressions of self than so many of the selfies we’re used to seeing from middle schoolers.

As you’ll see, the photographers beautifully express their inner lives and document the everyday challenges facing their community. Many of them say that pursuing photography as a form of higher art has in return raised their self-esteem, and offered them a chance to share their lived experiences with adults in the neighborhood. 

As for Rocco and the club, students, parents and the wider community members have enthusiastically embraced the effort. You can see the resulting bridge that’s been built, between student photographers and community elders, when they’re given a chance to showcase their work for the public at an area gallery. 

This story was originally published as part of the “Weaving a Stronger Society – Starting in our Schools” series celebrating educators who use community to help students succeed in school and life. The series was produced by education news site The 74 Million in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project and support from The Walton Family Foundation.

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