The disposable cameras were handed out at the McPherson Square library with one request: use them to answer a simple question:
“What does Kensington look like to you?”
The 26 people who took them were a cross-section of the neighborhood: Some grade schoolers who play in the park. The teens who come for the library’s computers. A volunteer security guard. A public-school teacher. A neighborhood man who lost two brothers to addiction and volunteers at recovery centers.
The Kensington they brought back was one that doesn’t often make the news.
The question was posed in November by members of Kensington Voice, a community-driven news project started by Jillian Bauer-Reese, an assistant journalism professor at Temple University. They call the Voice a pop-up newsroom, because in its infancy, it doesn’t have a physical office. The neighborhood — its libraries, parks, storefronts, and corners — are host to their writing sessions, workshops, and editorial meetings. Their mission is simple: At a time when the country is watching Kensington, and often reducing it to nothing more than a staging ground for a crisis, they want to help Kensington tell its story. The whole story.
“It’s not that community members don’t want drug stories told,” Bauer-Reese said. “But they are interested in other stories being told, too.”
The photos were one way do that, an act of art and agency. An $8.95 camera became a step toward reclaiming the narrative.
And it was a reminder to reporters like me, who come to this neighborhood to tell stories, to shed some light, who try to get it right but who can do better. (I still cringe at having called McPherson Square “Needle Park” in an early column.) And the ones who come for an hour and do nothing but hold up misery.
Rakee Starwind, a library volunteer, took images of pigeons and chickens feeding in a trash strewn lot, wanting to capture a “peaceful scene.”
Theresa Farrell, a neighborhood preacher, photographed a rusted, antique Ford pickup perched in front of the home of a neighborhood mechanic.
“It’s beauty,” she said of the jalopy, “and it can be restored.”
Jim “Bear” Katona Jr., who volunteers shifts at a recovery center on Kensington Avenue, took a long, early morning shot of the avenue. In the quiet, the avenue seems to be pulling the viewer in, like a portal. That’s the point, Katona said.
“How the neighborhood draws you in,” he said. “Whether you’re coming to get high, or get well at a recovery center, or now coming to buy a $750,000 condo.”
The photos, said Bauer-Reese, tell a “stronger story” about the neighborhood.
“I think they achieved these smaller glimpses into the everyday life of the neighborhood during times when the media isn’t there,” she said. (For its part, Kensington Voice plans to launch a bilingual website next week to serve as a community news platform, along with its first online issue, a collaboration with residents that will focus on vacant housing and homelessness.)
Then there were the photos taken by children. Most of the kids returned their cameras in the first hour. They’d gone through all their film before they even left the library park, said Maggie Loesch, a former Inquirer intern and one of Bauer-Reese’s students. She organized the neighborhood workshop and the art exhibit, which is called “Through Our Eyes,” along with McPherson librarian Tuesday Chalmers. It opened Tuesday and runs through February.
The children took some of Loesch’s favorite photos: a photo of a large stuffed duck slumped sadly on a bench in McPherson Square. Some levity.
“Inexplicable,” Loesch said, laughing.
And a powerfully intimate, if crooked, shot of a stretch of rowhouses that appeared as if it had been taken accidentally.
“It’s just what you see walking down the street — just a casual glance around,” Loesch said.
Dozens showed up at the library for Tuesday’s opening, to see those other Kensingtons, the one that their neighbors, the security guards, their pastors, their kids viewed through their cheap camera lenses. Even though it’s become such a rote phrase, it’s still accurate to say McPherson sits in a heart of a crisis. Library staff had to save two people overdosing in the bathroom in recent months. The weight of all that hung in the library. But so did the photos, and in them, a wider view of a neighborhood.