Seeing the World Through a New Lens: The Stetson Shutterbugs and Photography Without Borders

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Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, for GPA -- Walking down Wallace Street in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, the Light Room Gallery, a photography co-op tucked in a beautiful brownstone, might be easy to miss. But on Friday May 11, the door was wide open and the stoop ringing with the sound of giggles and squeals as students from John B. Stetson Charter Middle School invited passers-by in to their photography exhibit: “Who We Are / Quienes Somos.”

The students belong to an after-school club called the Stetson Shutterbugs. Their instructor, Tony Rocco, is an award-winning photographer based in Philadelphia who aims to use the medium of photography to build bridges across cultures. A year or so ago, Tony – or Mr. Rocco as the students call him – thought to combine his passion for photography and his mission to build cultural awareness into a cross-cultural, pen-pal, photo exchange called Photography Without Borders.

In this program, each member of the Shutterbugs partners with one student from Grupo Flormorado in La Florida, Colombia. Throughout the course of the year, or more if they choose, they exchange emails, videos, and photos. As these things go with children, they do not aim to change the world through their communications. They do not aim to be global ambassadors. They aim simply to make a friend. To find others who are, in their estimation and in their own words, “really cool.”

But again, as these things go, the students are global ambassadors. And their pictures are testament to the power of art to foster global understanding. Case in point, Franchesca.

Franchesca took this photo. A carousel horse has left its tribe and rests alone in a yard. We discuss together her choice for internal framing, selective focus, the poem she wrote to accompany the photo. “I tend to take pictures of the gritty,” she says. “Find beauty in the unexpected.” Her friend in Colombia, however, takes pictures of more conventional sites – a sunset, a park. When Franchesca asked her friend why she makes this choice, her friend in Colombia replied, “So that I can focus on the nice stuff. Stay optimistic.”

I ask Franchesca, “What have you learned about Colombia through this project?” I want a big picture view. But, a consummate photographer, Franchesca focuses us back in on the detail. “Well, I only really know this one small part of Colombia.” Colombia, she explains to me, is like her native country of Puerto Rico: rich, diverse, eclectic. One end of the island, she says, is completely different from another.

In this day and age, students are constantly bombarded with messages about countries and cultures outside of their own. It is so tempting, through this morass, to develop a worldview that refuses complexity, that simply adopts one whole-cloth impression of the world outside their own borders. But the Stetson Shutterbugs are adopting a different view, literally and figuratively. They are learning to think about the world as a kaleidoscope, with pieces perhaps that do not all fit into one frame. And they are not afraid of this world. They are, instead, enlivened by it, eager to explore it. And above all, committed to portraying it.

Quienes Somos will be on display at The Light Room through May 26th. At the exhibit, visitors can purchase postcards the students have made of their photos, as well as framed or unframed prints. The monies raised from this exhibition are helping to support an upcoming summer trip, wherein a handful of Shutterbugs will travel to Colombia to meet their friends and snap some more photos.

To hear the students and Mr. Rocco describe the work themselves, take a minute to watch this video made by independent filmmaker John Thornton, and featured in this Al Día story.