On Tuesday, Dec. 3, dozens of people perused photographs hanging at Philadelphia Photo Arts Center taken by an unlikely collection of artists: elementary school students.
Seventh and eighth grade students at St. Laurentius School in Fishtown last spring and this fall participated in Photo in Schools, an educational outreach program by PPAC, a nonprofit gallery based at Crane Arts Building that focuses on the promotion of contemporary photography through education.
Photo in Schools is a 10-week residency that introduces school students to the basics of photography at no cost to the school, according to Alina van Ryzin, lead instructor for the sessions.
“We bring cameras to the school, and there’s a lot about visual literacy, so reading images,” van Ryzin said. “Kid pictures are my favorite. They take some of the most interesting pictures.”
Once a week, students are immersed into the world of photography and the neighborhood around them.
Students take walks around the school and are challenged to put their skills to work through scavenger hunts and prompts such as “take something from an ant’s eye view,” and “make something big look little.”
“As the course goes on, we don’t give them as many prompts so they can explore on their own how they want to use the camera,” van Ryzin said. “And, they shoot all manual. So, they learn how to use aperture, shutter speed, ISO, which are really complicated settings for kids to use. They learn how to control their tool. We don’t let them do any shooting on auto.”
The curriculum includes traditional school subjects, too.
Students were paired off to take headshots of each other and had to write their bios in haiku form, one of the forms of poetry being taught in English class.
Tuesday’s event, titled “Treasures of Fishtown” was a culmination of the 10-week sessions, with each student choosing their five favorite photos and sketching the configuration in which they would like them displayed.
The title for the evening was generated by Duane Rutkowski, vice principal and eighth-grade teacher at St. Laurentius.
“The children are the treasures. And, it was based on our patron saint,” he said. “He brought the poor, and the children and said they were the treasures. So, it’s the perfect way to bring it all together.”
Rutkowski sat in on each Photo in Schools session.
“Photo is Schools has been a godsend. We’re promoting our STREAM program and this certainly fits that,” he said. “It’s more than just knowing how to take a photograph. The students really picked up on it and I’m just so proud of them. The artistic eye some of them have really blows my mind.”
One of those students is Rachel Szczurek, 13, who is currently in eighth grade.
“I really enjoyed it and we learn how to take photos properly such as shutter speed and aperture,” she said. “My grandfather did photography, so I’ve always had an eye for it and enjoy taking photos.”
Rachel’s signature photo was a closeup of a brick in Palmer Cemetery that read, “God Bless Fishtown, God Bless America, Bless Our Cemetery.”
“I thought really shows what Fishtown is. It’s one of our treasures of Fishtown,” she said.
Rachel walked throughout the crowd, camera slung from her neck, taking photos to commemorate the event.
Dominique Chojnacki-Silva, 13, is currently in seventh grade and finished the program a few weeks ago.
“It was really fun to learn how to use a camera,” she said. “I liked the freedom the teacher gave us to take photos and put them in our own style. I personally really like art, so I really liked how it had something to do with me.”
Connecting to the students on a personal level makes Photo in Schools a picture-perfect partnership for St. Laurentius principal Elaine McKnight.
“I get to see these kids grow every day and to see them become confident through the program, I just can’t say enough,” she said. “Some of them maybe never thought about photography and for this little area, it opened it up for them and they were able to see the world through a different lens.”
For more details about Photo in Schools and programs and classes offered by Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, visit www.philadelphiaphotoarts.org.