[box type="note"]Scroll down to the end of the post to view a large gallery of pH15 photographs.[/box]
Where there are millions of ways to craft an identity, how do you choose to define yourself? More importantly, how do you give that identity a voice? And if you have no voice, how can you ascribe worth to that identity? Nothing forces a culture to re-evaluate its identity like a crisis, and subsequently, the direction, and voice, of a culture changes dramatically in its wake. The culture and spirit of Buenos Aires since 2001’s devastating economic crisis are testaments to that phenomenon, as is the relationship between art and social activism throughout Argentina.
One of the most fascinating aspects of post-crisis development in Argentina is the movement to create and support voices of the oppressed, un-represented, and underprivileged through art. Through the power of the media, advertising, marketing, and film, the expanding domination of The Image in our daily lives creates a stage for democracy that few political movements have in Argentina. Not surprisingly, one of the most powerful forms of imagery, photography, has been an important catalyst in this movement.
All over Argentina, self-starters have been running workshops and courses teaching socially excluded groups to express themselves through the lens of a camera and learning the photographic process step by step — from building the camera to printing the image in a darkroom. The end result is a declaration: “Here I am!”
To create an image is to exist, to express, and to give significance to one’s perspective of the world. Karlo Sosa and Moira Rubio Brennan, a freelance photographer and director of the workshop pH15, respectively, have dedicated their lives to facilitating this type of self-discovery in Buenos Aires.
Sosa has perfected the art of pin-hole cameras, or in laymen’s terms, constructing a camera out of a tin can. He implements this technique in workshops with children from underprivileged backgrounds, namely homeless shelters. Brennan is the heart of pH15, a ten-year-old foundation that organizes photography classes, exhibitions, and activities in the Ciudad Oculta, “The Hidden City,” a poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires.
Sosa, a native of Cordoba, studied television and film at the university in his hometown. He worked at a television station, but upon its bankruptcy shortly before the crisis in 2001, he moved to Buenos Aires, where he started to “rediscover” photography as an art-form. He began working with a group that facilitated basic photography workshops all over the city, quickly realizing that although they were learning photography three hours a day once a week, because nobody had their own cameras, there was no way to work outside the classroom.
“From there came the idea of pin-hole cameras,” Sosa says, “which I was fascinated with, because in constructing one’s own camera, the students could understand the phenomenon of the manifestation of light, and in that sense the camera didn’t have any secrets, seeing that you built it yourself.” From there, he realized that he could teach the discipline with a social element involved, awakening a sense of critical thinking and reflection in his students while inspiring them to shape their own destiny, starting with nothing but a tin-can.
Sosa’s students begin with a can at the bottom of a trash can. They create the pin-hole camera, and then he accompanies them through the basic steps of taking the picture and developing the image in a dark room. At no point does he tell them what to take pictures of or how to do it. “The idea isn’t that we hold their hand through the process,” Sosa says, “but that they walk alone.”
Sosa’s interpretation of photography as a transformative art is inspired largely by the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian theorist who coined the term “Popular Education” in the mid-to-late twentieth century. The theory supported the idea of a more participatory and active form of education as ways of fighting social oppression and exclusion.
Freire’s 1975 publication, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, became a worldwide sensation within groups attempting to revolutionize educational systems in their respective countries. The key concept was participatory education that drew from one’s daily life and struggle — people created their own education through their experiences and development of pre-existing knowledge, not from the authority of a teacher or state. The roles of teacher and educator were turned on their heads. As Sosa explains, through the idea that learning comes through the exchange of ideas where everyone is on an equal level, and nobody’s glass is assumed to be half-empty, everyone, regardless of their social status, operates on a certain level of thinking that is valid and should be recognized as such.
This technique works well with children, whose respect is earned through flexibility. “We can’t implement a form of learning with a manual,” Sosa explains, “we see what the group’s needs are, and you adapt to them, because that way you earn their respect and attention.” That, paired with the transformative art of photography, awakens his students’ ability to think critically, exchange ideas, and express themselves.
He sees the photography as a sort of means to an end, or an “excuse.” Seeing that they can make a camera out of nothing more than a tin can, a process of self-empowerment begins, and “from that point, like any human being, most of the children attempt to create a sort of self-portrait through their photography, and through that process, they see that they exist,” says Sosa.
Then they ask, “‘If I exist, why does the ‘system’ exclude and reject me?’ So they see that although they are excluded by the system, they still exist, and from there they can use the camera to form their own destiny. In thinking for themselves, they can create their own destiny using the photographic tool.”
pH15 was born in 2000, when photography professor, Martin Rosenthal, was shooting a project in Ciudad Oculta, “The Hidden City,” a poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Children approached him, inquisitive about the camera and how it worked. They loved the idea of learning how to work a camera, but classes were too expensive. Rosenthal told the kids that if they could organize a group of ten students who wanted to take classes and found a space to facilitate them, he would be willing to teach them photography.
The kids called a few weeks later saying they had found ten students and an open space, and since then there have been photography classes every Saturday. pH15 functions on various levels: There is one set of students that begin three years of classes annually. The first year they learn photographic expression; the second, technique; and the third, digital photography and video. The other program consists of shorter workshops in various communities — one or two day workshops on pin-hole photography, like Sosa’s.
Both Sosa and Brennan agree that the success of these programs has much to do with the socio-economic context in which they began. “Crises always do that,” Sosa comments, “they generate new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing, and ways to come out of it and move forward.”
In 2001, people began to ask each other, “What do we do now?” Seeing that the government would not help the people, the people had to help each other, and many organizations and groups sprung up that supported and financed themselves. The crisis of 2001 was a positive step for those with ideals like Sosa’s, he says, in that “it forced people to think about what they really wanted for this country and re-think how people were going to create networks between people, because the crisis had really dismembered social ties.”
Brennan applauds the solidarity shown during the moments of crisis, but was quick to mention that it is not always that way. Ph15 was supported by an American NGO for a time, which helped them expand immensely, but now operates from donations, and, Brennan emphasizes, with what people don’t need, or what they have too much of. She believes that Argentines need to change in that respect, and that the children deserve better.
Brennan shares Sosa’s belief in the power of art as an agent of social change, saying, “When the children can express what they can’t usually express through images and are recognized by a society that usually excludes them as artists, it re-enforces their self-esteem and shows them that they are capable of anything.”
But: What do the kids think of all of this? Do they see the big picture? Brennan and Sosa believe it is hard to measure. The success of the program is driven by the belief that every person wants to leave a mark in this world, and that something as tangible and sensory as photography surely helps them do that. Some of the change may be unconscious, but through the exchange of ideas, they become aware of what they are trying to say through their images, and create bonds with their classmates that reinforce social ties.
Not all of the kids are the same. In the Ciudad Oculta, some of them want to leave; but others are proud of where they are from and want to help improve their community. The most noticeable changes are in the ways the students communicate with the rest of society, especially in Brennan’s case. Some of the most visible clashes between the students and the society they are struggling to exist within are at their own exhibitions, Brennan says.
“When a kid comes in at first, the first time they have an exhibit, they stand in the corner timidly, not wanting to talk to anyone, although their huge pictures are hanging on the wall and everyone is telling them how wonderful their art is… then they start talking to journalists, artists, their own friends. Sometimes prestigious artists come, like Stephen McCurry, and the kids see his photographs and discuss and question them the way they question their own. The kids just say it, the way nobody else would. I love that. They don’t care who is in front of them, at this point, because in their eyes, everyone is equal.”
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