When Gilberto Gonzalez started getting into trouble as a kid in South Kensington, his father responded by getting him a camera. Peering through the viewfinder gave him a new perspective.

"I saw a bigger world once I had my camera," said Gonzalez, 51, still an amateur photographer, and now a designer for Community College of Philadelphia. The photos saved him, and he saved the photos - for years, though he wasn't sure for what.

"But I found the need for them now," he said recently. "That's pretty cool."

He had contributed the images to the Philly Block Project, an initiative that aims to tell the story of his neighborhood through photography, from old family photos to recent selfies to new works by well-known conceptual artists.

The ambitious and sprawling yearlong project - run by the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, based in the area at the Crane Arts Building - includes community-engagement events, block parties, and photo-scanning salons. (Next up: Family Photo Fest on Saturday invites South Kensington residents to bring in old family portraits to scan, and get new ones taken free.) It will result in a series of exhibitions, including an introductory show, "Preface," on view through April 30; a show of residents' archival photos opening June 9; and an exhibition of new works that opens Sept. 8.

Sarah Stolfa, executive director of the six-year-old Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, said she had been looking to build relationships with her neighbors. The center already offered free and low-cost classes for teens and families, but Stolfa wanted a big, artist-driven project that would engage the whole community creatively.

There was only one artist she thought of for the job: Hank Willis Thomas, a New York conceptual artist and photographer with family roots in Philadelphia.

He was eager to help residents reclaim their own narrative, a counter-story to the neighborhood's gentrification.

"Philadelphia is going through a lot of changes, and, as cities change," he said, "a lot of things are not recorded or remembered."

Recording the diversity of the neighborhood was no small project. What started with one photographer and one city block grew to span four blocks, six high-profile professional photographers, curator Kalia Brooks, and, so far, 20 to 30 community collaborators.

In the fall, they threw a block party to kick off the process. On a recent weekend, Thomas and collaborator Wyatt Gallery went door to door with the goal of photographing every resident on the four-block stretch.

It's a simple idea. But these are delicate conversations, Thomas said.

"Some people have welcomed us into their homes, which is an act of faith," he said, "and gives us as artists a responsibility not to compromise that trust."

Persuading residents to crack open their photo albums isn't much easier.

"Going from an organization that didn't have any relationship with the neighborhood to asking for these photos is a big jump," Stolfa said.

So far, members of her team have connected with civic organizations and have visited places of worship to collect photos from residents who live between Girard Avenue and Berks Street, and between Front and Sixth Streets.

And they've built relationships with block captains, residents, and business owners, who've become unofficial ambassadors.

Recently, photographer and Philly Block Project coordinator Lori Waselchuk met with these advocates and asked for ideas about how to proceed. "There are a lot of reservations in the community about contributing images," she said.

Zinka Hoxha, 64, had been trying to spread the word, with mixed results.

"I talk to certain neighbors, they don't want to expose their family. We're talking about family history," she said. "My neighbor said, 'Why do you let them take your picture? Who are they?' "

But she keeps trying. "I want to show everyone how we can get together and help each other, and show how proud we are of our neighborhood."

Carmen Fernandez, 60, a block captain on North Third Street, hesitated at first: She's not interested in representing a statistic.

But after talking to the artists, she realized "it wasn't about taking pictures and making a story: It was about people telling their own story."

She decided to participate, with her son in mind.

"I want people in the future to see that this community had a heartbeat," she said. "There was love here."

People have contributed photos of their grandparents and their children, of their weddings in churches long since demolished. Fernandez submitted a photo of herself in one of the fancy dresses her mother spent hours sewing. The operators of a mini-golf course in an old warehouse submitted photos from Instagram.

There still are a lot of open questions: what form the exhibitions will take, what the future of the photo archive will be.

Stolfa said community members would have to decide together the fate of the archive.

In the meantime, Thomas said he would continue to treat his subjects with care.

"It's rare that you do an exhibition in such close proximity to the people who it's about," he said. "The judges of the quality of this exhibition will be the residents in the community."

Philly Block Project events, all at Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, 1400 N. American St., 215-232-5678, philaphotoarts.org.

Family Photo Fest: For South Kensington residents, bring a family portrait to scan, and get a new one taken free. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.

Preface: Exhibition of photography by Philly Block Project artists, through April 30.

South Kensington Community Archive Exhibition: June 9 to Aug. 28, with an opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m.

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