When it was time to describe his neighborhood, Nasir Garland-Harding looked into the camera and told it straight.
"Hell," the 17-year-old said. "It's like living in hell."
The interviewer probed: Just what did he mean?
"Hell," Garland-Harding said, "is a place where you don't want to be."
The teenager's admission played in a darkened room at Temple University on a video his class had made in the spring. He was talking about the Raymond Rosen Manor housing project off 24th and Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia.
When the class finished watching, instructor Nuala Cabral said she wanted to know more.
"People don't know what you mean when you say, 'Down in Diamond, it's bad,' " she said. "I think this is a good beginning."
Over the last few years, the class of high school and college students has produced television news programs on issues such as sexual consent, social media, and the criminal justice system as part of a program designed to give city youth a voice.
Now, students were turning the camera on their own lives.
Garland-Harding, a junior at Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School, was hard-pressed to give more details, other than citing crime, drugs, trash, and lack of things to do.
So the instructor suggested the class take a field trip.
These sorts of explorations are familiar territory for teens in POPPYN, which comes from "What's poppyn?" The name came to stand for Presenting Our Perspective on Philly Youth News.
"One of the things we face all the time is the disproportionate coverage by mainstream media of young black males as thugs," said Barbara Ferman, executive director of Temple's University Community Collaborative, which runs POPPYN and five other youth programs. "There are a lot of young people doing really positive things in the community, and we never see that in mainstream media."
On a sunny afternoon in April, the students packed up their equipment, loaded it into cars, and headed to the projects. When they had talked about the trip a week earlier, some, including Garland-Harding, were reluctant, fearing they would be mistaken for cops - or snitches.
"I'm not getting shot over a video," one said.
But Cabral eased their fears. She knew it would be a tricky but important assignment.
"You've got to be careful when you're filming," she said, "especially when you're in a neighborhood where you're not from."
POPPYN exposes students to filming, scripting, interviewing, and the real world. Since starting in 2010, POPPYN has featured episodes on students playing chess and squash. It also has put the spotlight on controversies such as library closings, school funding, and flash mobs. The group's productions are telecast Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. on Comcast's Channel 66.
One of their pieces last year was screened at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia, where students had their pictures taken with Spike Lee. The program won a community impact award in 2012 from PhillyCam public access TV.
Three college students, graduates of the program, mentor the high school students along with Cabral, a Temple alumna and filmmaker.
"I've been here so long, and they've helped me so much," said Terence Lewis, 19, a Delaware County Community College student, who has been involved since age 14. "I learned to be Terence. Now to be one of the mentors who helps other kids find out who they are - it's a joy that money can never-" his voice trailing off.
As Garland-Harding walked the complex, he pointed out playground equipment, a park, a place where people hang and smoke, kids playing ball, the spot where a lady sells water ice.
"She's got some good water ice," he said. "You have to check her out."
He said he had noticed that in his first video he repeated himself and was not focused.
"I see what my teachers and my mother are talking about," he said. "They say I don't smile a lot. I act too childish at times. I'm going to fix it."
He had struggled with dyslexia in school, but POPPYN - which focuses on the visual - has given him an outlet where he can excel.
Tiffani Hall, a senior at Girls High, served as his first interviewer. She says she is thrilled every time she appears on an episode and her family and friends notice.
"It's just made me very confident," she said.
Lewis, the community college student, gripped the shoulders of a high schooler operating the camera.
"I need you right here," Lewis said, steadying him.
Some day, Lewis would like to be coordinator of POPPYN. At one time, that would not have been possible. The son of a single mother with five children, he was a troubled student at Furness High, barely passing, when "the gangs started to really go crazy," he said.
But he found inspiration at POPPYN. A transfer to the Interboro School District helped, too.
With the camera rolling, Lewis asked Garland-Harding to describe where he was from.
"A typical day, it could just be chilling, and then out of the clear blue sky, you can get somebody who will just start shooting," he said.
His mother, Yvonne Harding, took her turn, too.
"The kids got to run and scatter and be in fear because somebody's shooting at somebody," she said. "That's why my children don't like it . . . I don't like it. I'm working very, very hard to get us out."
Though the video is unfinished, the raw footage already tells the story of more than just a hellish neighborhood.
"We're showing a mother who cares about her son," Cabral said. "He's working really hard. And she is working really hard to get them out of this."
Some of the Best Episodes
Breakin' It Down: School To Prison Pipeline: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-f6pzQYAhrw
March for Full Funding: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQTBYH-kf9g
Getting Test on National HIV Day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3_6zwV1M0s
POPPYN Presents: Youth Art & Self Empowerment Project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3_6zwV1M0s
Street Interviews: Let's Talk About Sex: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7K6zNwzZjtQ
Philly Youth Say No More Deportations! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49L_ecKOJXQ
What's POPPYN: Students Run Broad St. Philly Style! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMriYaoooRI
Raw footage from Nasir Garland-Harding's neighborhood: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiRwq-OxEJcEndText