Temple students help Kensington residents ‘reclaim their narrative’

Through Our Eyes is a photo exhibition that held its opening reception at the McPherson Library Tuesday evening.

Photo by Bear Katona

There’s a lot of talk about the opioid epidemic in Kensington, and there’s no denying it’s a big part of what makes Kensington Kensington, for better or for worse. But it’s not the only thing that makes Kensington Kensington, and that’s what representatives from Kensington Voice tried to change.

They did so with Through Our Eyes, a photo exhibition that held its opening reception at the McPherson Library Tuesday evening.

Temple University professor Jill Bauer-Reese, who heads Temple’s student-run Kensington Voice, a new media outlet dedicated to covering Kensington, said the exhibition was to help the neighborhood’s residents “reclaim their narrative” of the neighborhood. It was done in collaboration with McPherson Square library.

Residents from Kensington and beyond check out the Through Our Eyes photo exhibition at McPherson Branch library, which will be up until Feb. 5. Photo by Tom Beck

“In August, we started tabling and surveying the community,” Bauer-Reese said. “We asked them a ton of different questions, but one thing that we heard from them is that they felt like Kensington had a stigma attached to it, and that they would hope that anything we build would help them reclaim their narrative. So, the idea for Kensington Voice was to create a platform for the community to give them more direct access to narratives and control over narratives that are coming out of here. Good and bad.”

Among the photographers was local pastor Theresa Farrell. One of Farrell’s pictures featured her neighbor, Donna Hawins, holding a feral cat.

Photo by Theresa Farrell

“I chose that picture because she was one of the residents on my block,” Farrell said. “She loved animals, so she cares for the stray cats in the community.”

Jim “Bear” Katona was another photographer. One of his photos depicts Kensington Avenue at 4:30 a.m. through the driver’s side of a car windshield. The road is barren except for an oncoming car’s headlights way off in the distance.

Photo by Bear Katona

“The headlights coming this way were like the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, likening the photo to a drug user’s potential fate. Another one of his photos shows a one-way street sign near Kensington Avenue.

Photo by Bear Katona

“A lot of people come here to get drugs,” he said of the photo. “A lot of people come here to get a fix and a lot of people come here to die. It’s a dead end. You’re either going to get fixed or you’re going to die.”

Katona, who lives in Roxborough, finds photography therapeutic — especially after losing two of his brothers to addiction. One overdosed. The other committed suicide because he couldn’t deal with the throes of addiction.

“I tried to kill myself on prescription meds in ‘09,” Katona said. “They were prescribed to me. I wasn’t a drug addict, but I was taking too many anti-depressant medications and I was mentally out of balance from the medication and I tried to OD on it, and I wasn’t successful. I’m glad I wasn’t.”

Temple student Maggie Loesch is Kensington Voice’s Community Storytelling coordinator. She organized the event.

“It’s been awesome to see everyone else see [the pictures] because I’ve been looking at them for months,” she said. “I’ve been sitting on this secret treasure and now everyone else gets to see how gorgeous it is.”

What especially motivated Loesch to complete the project was an article released in the New York Times Magazine in October of last year called “The Walmart of Heroin.” The article was widely criticized in the Kensington community for stigmatizing drug use. It was lambasted as “addiction porn” by many on social media.

The article “just fueled the fire even more,” she said. “We need to show what it actually looks like and not just the stigmatizing [aspect of it].”

Bauer-Reese echoed Loesch’s sentiment.

“We were having a meeting at Impact Services the day the article came out, and people who work for Impact were interviewed in the article and…they felt that there wasn’t any positive response shown in that article,” she said. “One thing we have heard is that there’s not a lot of positive coverage in Kensington. So we’re just providing an opportunity for people to share whatever their positive perspectives are and also negative perspectives.”

Kensington Voice was set to launch this week. All of its articles, which will include news features and opinion pieces written by residents, will be available in English and Spanish.

The exhibition will be up at McPherson Library until Feb. 5.