Argentinian Arts Organization PH15 Brings Photos & Social Justice to Warner Gallery
If you visit the Warner Gallery right now, you'll be treated to a show of photographs—mostly portraits, some still-lifes—all taken by teenagers, but not the adolescents of St. Andrew's. Each of the photos was snapped by a kid living in one of the shantytowns of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The images made their way to St. Andrew's Warner Gallery thanks to the Argentinian arts nonprofit PH15, which hosts photography workshops for at-risk youth in Buenos Aires and throughout Argentina. PH15 co-directors Moira Rubio Brennan and Miriam Priotti were on campus for the show opening on Friday, January 13, along with alum Mary Craig '09. Mary had volunteered at PH15 while on a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, and initially connected St. Andrew's with the organization.
"My sophomore year at Brown," Mary recalled, "I went on an exchange program with Experiment in International Living to Buenos Aires, and they were working with PH15. We participated in workshops and we also went through the city taking our own photos. So when I applied for a Fulbright and they placed me in Buenos Aires, I reached out and reunited with PH15 and got a more in-depth view of what they do, the neighborhoods they're in, how they expose kids to photography, and the people who make up the PH15 family—"
"Poor Mary was scanning a lot of negatives and photos in our office," Miriam interjected. "We have all our workshop leaders start out there. Then they go in as an assistant in the classes. If we see they can manage a group, then they start teaching. But it's a long process."
"It's a pretty cool thing to get to know the kid through his photos before meeting them," Mary continued, "I finally called [Arts Department Co-Chair] Mr. McGiff and said, 'You know, we could have a show at St. Andrew's...' It's kind of this full circle, for me."
"Peh-ache-keen-seh" is how one properly pronounces PH15, co-director Moira Rubio Brennan explains between sips of yerba mate. "Peh-ache-keen-seh. The PH comes from the English word 'photography'. And 15 is the number of the first neighborhood where we worked."
"In Buenos Aires, the shanty towns have numbers," Mary notes. Villa 15 is also known as Ciudad Oculta (Hidden City), in reference to a wall constructed by the Argentinian government in 1978 to hide the shantytown from foreigners visiting Buenos Aires for that year's World Cup (the highway connecting the city and the airport passes through Villa 15).
"Our origins are interesting," Miriam says. "We got started in the year 2000. The photographer Martin Rosenthal was doing a photojournalism project on the community centers in Villa 15. A small group of kids started to follow him and asked him questions about what he was doing. They wanted to touch the camera, see how it worked. They told him they had always wanted to study photography, but this was impossible for them because it was so expensive. So Martin talked with other photographers and they decided to bring these kids a photography workshop. They held in one of the Villa 15 community centers, and that's how it all started."
"I think it's important to note," Miriam added, "that PH15 started because the children were looking for an expression tool."
PH15 workshops in Buenos Aires are three years in duration (with an optional fourth year for learning video), and each is tailored to the needs the specific neighborhood in which it is being held. Students use both film and digital cameras, and learn both photographic technique and expression, as well as the science of photographic printing. Between classes, students take photos in their homes and neighborhoods throughout the week, sometimes under the direction of a specific theme, then critique each other's photos in the next class session. Students must be between the ages of 11 and 25 to enroll.
"The methodology gets adaptations," Miriam explains. "It depends on what the community is looking for, and the fundraising we can do for that particular workshop. In Ciudad Oculta, the workshops are weekly, and the kids each have their own cameras, and the classes are mostly critique classes. Whereas in Villa 31, the kids don't keep their cameras—they receive their camera in every class, and they have one class every three weeks. And if we're going to give a workshop not in Buenos Aires but in another province, we'll have a different methodology there, too."
"It also has to do with the relationships we can make with the students," Moira added. "If you're going to leave him [with] a camera, you have to be sure that he will be coming back for a couple of classes at least, and will continue taking pictures and making art."
"You have these kids who are desperate to frame their world," Arts Department Co-Chair John McGiff said, "and when they get the chance to do that, people begin paying attention to that world. It gives the kids this monumental confidence to go out and dream a life for themselves."
At the time of PH15's founding, Miriam and Moira were students in a school run by Rosenthal. They began working for PH15 in 2001, and took over for Rosenthal as co-directors when he left PH15 in 2006. PH15 celebrated its fifteenth anniversary last year with, fittingly, a retrospective exhibition of photos taken by Villa 15 over the year. A portion of this anniversary show is what is currently on display in the Warner Gallery, along with drawings, paintings, and etchings inspired by the photos and created by Argentinian artists for PH15's 2013 "3 historias en 1 clic" project, and a few large format photos taken by children enrolled in a PH15 workshop in Paraguay.
A number St. Andrew's faculty, teaching in a variety of disciplines, utilized the PH15 gallery show in their classrooms. Students in Viviana Davila and Ana Ramirez's Spanish 4 (Latin American History) and Advanced Study Spanish (Latin American Literature) classes wrote poems and narratives, drew and painted, and even composed music in response to individual photos, then presented the works to Moira and Miriam and discussed Argentinean history and culture. Will Robinson held his Global Studies classes in the Warner Gallery that Friday; students talked with Miriam and Moira about their work at the intersection of art and social justice.
"It was particularly interesting to see the connections between the impoverished community they work with in Buenos Aires and that of Annawadi, India, which we recently explored through Katherine Boo's non-fiction book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers," Robinson noted. "Both communities are ravaged by poverty, but overflow with humanity and love, a vision the rest of the world is able to see thanks to the work of women like Miriam and Moira."
"Meeting the women of PH15 continued our running theme this year that it takes little more than initiative, intellectual curiosity, and concern for others to build a life of meaning," he concluded.
PH15's operations have expanded well beyond the boundaries of Villa 15 in its decade and a half of existence: the organization now hosts workshops in neighborhoods throughout Buenos Aires and in communities throughout Argentina. In 2014 and 2015, PH15 hosted four-month workshops in 121 different Argentinian towns and cities. "When the government offered us the chance to do this project, we said yes very quickly because we believe that cultural development must happen all over the country," Moira says. "Argentina has a very strong centralized structure; everything happens in the capital city, or Rosario or Córdoba, and the rest of the country has not a lot of [access to] cultural or artistic projects. But there's a lot of talent there. If one artist wants to progress, she has to move to the city—and this doesn't help the country develop."
PH15's goal for all of its workshops is to give students the space and resources they need to engage in artistic expression, and to allow students to frame and share their own oft-overlooked, or even literally "hidden," lives and experiences in the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. The organization's mission is rooted in the belief that art is a tool for social change—that art is, in the word's of the show's gallery card, "in it's nature, an act of human liberation that allows us to manifest who we are outside of our daily existence... even within situations of great adversity."
"Tad's hope for our students is to give them confidence and courage to affect change in the world," said McGiff. "It's not just their responsibility—it's their privilege to be deeply involved in the lives of others for good. If anything represents this vision for our students, it's this: an alum comes back to campus six years after graduating with these amazing women who are helping the poorest of the poor in the Hidden City, who are helping children to use beauty and humor and art as a tool of empowerment. It left me speechless."
To read more about PH15, visit the foundation's website at http://www.ph15.org.ar/en/. If you have a used camera you'd like to donate to PH15, contact Mary Craig '09 at firstname.lastname@example.org.