How the Philly Block Project is using photography to unite a changing community - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 7, 2016 9:12 am

How the Philly Block Project is using photography to unite a changing community

The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center will exhibit professional portraits of South Kensington residents as well as residents' own family photos.

Neighbors of N. 3rd Street photographed for Philadelphia Photo Arts Center's 2016 Philly Block Project.

(Photo by Will Steacy/Hank Willis Thomas Studio)

It’s no secret that South Kensington has gone through major changes in the past decade or so, and part of those changes has been the influx of artists and arts orgs planting in the neighborhood.

The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC) is a nonprofit ”devoted to the study, practice and appreciation of photography in the Philadelphia region” and based in N. American Street’s Crane Arts building, a giant, concrete former plumbing warehouse.

PPAC used to organize the annual Philly Photo Day, which invited anyone in the city to take a photo and submit it to be included in a citywide exhibition in public and outdoor galleries. PPAC decided it wanted to transform that project into one that would allow the Center to connect with its own neighborhood and those who live in South Kensington, as well as to educate residents about PPAC’s educational workshops, teen programs and printing services, said Lori Waselchuk, the project’s coordinator and a documentary photographer.

Tony Garcia stands with his father at the bus stop in 1962.

(Photo courtesy of PPAC)

The result is the Philly Block Project, a year-long community photography project with two end goals: One, an exhibition of photographs of local residents living within a four-block radius, and two, an exhibition of residents’ own family photos taken in the neighborhood. The professional work will be exhibited in September. The community’s pictures will be exhibited in June.

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The Block Project is funded by Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from the Knight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

PPAC identified the project’s lead photographer as Hank Willis Thomas, an internationally known, NYC-based conceptual artist with family roots in this city — the event that triggered his artistic process was the murder of his cousin in Philly, according to Waselchuk. 

It seems strange that a non-local artist would be chosen for a hyperlocal community arts project, but Waselchuk said it makes sense because of his family’s connections, his high recognition and his canon’s focus on engagement.

Hakan Ibisi carries a photograph of his grandfather in his wallet. (Photo by Wyatt Gallery/Hank Willis Thomas Studio)

(Photo by Wyatt Gallery/Hank Willis Thomas Studio)

“Hank’s career has been built upon projects where engagement is the project,” she said. “It’s about the process. It’s about collaboration.”

In her role as coordinator and tasked with weaving the project’s artistic components with community engagement, Waselchuk is the one who can speak most to PPAC’s intentions to highlight the people who actually live in South Kensington.

“We’re trying to reach as many people in the community as we can,” she said. To make it easy for residents to submit their photos, PPAC is hosting “scanning salons” where people can bring their photos to be scanned quickly at neighborhood places — two were this past weekend at a luncheonette and St. Michael’s Church.

PHILLY_BLOCK fam 1

(Photo courtesy of PPAC)

PPAC is also developing free, monthly public arts workshops so artists can interact with South Kensington neighbors, and those neighbors are invited to monthly project planning meetings. On Saturday, March 26, residents can bring a family photo to PPAC and have a contemporary family portrait taken in return for free.

The project will culminate in a street carnival and art making event on Sept. 10.

“It’s been a very intensive project” in getting the word out, Waselchuk said. A PPAC community organizer is working with residents who live on the blocks being professionally photographed. It’s also been a matter of meeting with small business owners and shaking hands with people on the street to encourage them to participate.

“We’ve been working on all levels to try to get the word out,” she said. “It’s a very big, deep project.”

On March 10th, PPAC will host its monthly community planning meeting, which is open to the public, at 5 p.m. Immediately following the meeting is the opening reception for the “Preface” exhibition, which will serve as a visual introduction to the Philly Block Project and the Philly Block Project team. Curated by Sarah Stolfa and Philly Block Project lead photographer Hank Willis Thomas, “Preface” will feature the personal work of Thomas and collaborating photographers, including Lisa Fairstein, Wyatt Gallery, Hiroyuki Ito, Will Steacy and Lori Waselchuk.

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