Walking down Master Street in Kensington, it’s almost impossible to miss the Crane Arts building. Located in front of the building, two light brown doors lead to the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, a space that provides the community with tools and exhibits to expand their knowledge of photography.
It wasn’t that long ago – six years to be exact – that Sarah Stolfa founded the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center in hopes of ensuring that artists could continue to be educated and have a place to grow within the field.
The mission of the nonprofit is to be devoted to the study, practice and appreciation of photography in the Philadelphia region. According to its website, the organization offers the local community programs, photographic exhibitions, lectures by practicing artists and affordable access to high-end digital equipment.
Josh Brilliant, education coordinator at the PPAC, started off as an intern in 2009. After receiving his master’s degree in studio art from the Mason Gross School of Arts, Brilliant returned to PPAC and transitioned into a full-time staff member focused on education.
“I love every day of it. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s a dream job,” said Brilliant. “I get to interact with people who love photography as much as I do. I get to be involved in exhibitions, education and printing. Even though we all have our own specific departments, I get to intermingle in all of these things and I get a little taste of all of that.”
Brilliant added that visitors don’t have to be members to use the photo lab and participate in the workshops, but that being a member has its perks. Members receive discounts, and the center holds special member events such as photo sharing and artist talks.
Members also help keep the organization alive. The money made from memberships goes toward providing events for the center.
Last year, the center reported revenue of $590,164 and a total of $558,826 in expenditures. Most of the money made was from contributions and program services. The money spent went into program services that the center holds.
One of the programs that PPAC offers is a free after-school teen photo program that is open to any Philadelphia public high school student. The program provides students with digital cameras to take home for the school year. The students then share their images and create a book of their own pictures.
“I’ve been having a great experience. There’s great support and they support you in any way you visualize your art,” said Sharine Eldafrawy, who attends Philadelphia High School for Girls. “Whether it’s focusing on how aesthetically pleasing your photography is or how it relates to you – it’s how open and how much freedom they give you with all the artwork.”
The center also took on a new venture this year when organizers decided to really get to know the community they live in.
In September, a project was launched called the Philadelphia Block Project, where the PPAC and conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas and curator Kalia Brooks partnered up for a year-long collaborative to provide a visual narrative of South Kensington. Other collaborating artists include Lisa Fairstein, Wyatt Gallery, Hiroyuki Ito and Will Steacy.
The project will go through stages where it shows the past and present through photographs. The Philly Block Project began in October 2015 and will end in November 2016; however, there is hope that it has the potential to continue even after the deadline.
Stolfa, who also serves as executive director of the PPAC, hopes that it not only creates a visual narrative of the South Kensington neighborhood but builds stronger ties with the community, too.
The project’s current phase is photographing the neighborhood within a three-block radius and working out from there. Team members are taking a short break from the project during the winter months, but will continue in the spring and summer and include an exhibition in September that will present those photos and archives.
“We are asking people to submit their personal photographs, and building that relationship and building those trusts is really a person-to-person endeavor,” said Stolfa. “Hopefully, going through this process will help incite dialogue about the future of this neighborhood that is very much influx at this time.”
John Moffet School, located in West Kensington, is one school community the PPAC is collaborating with for the Philly Blocks Project. Team members are teaching students about the power of photography through games, scanning events, and even developing their own photographs in order to learn the process.
Max Dugan, program coordinator of the Arab Arts Program, participated in the picture-scanning event at Moffet. The after-school program is run through Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, which is a nonprofit organization based out of West Philadelphia dedicated to educating and presenting Arab culture.
“This program started about two years ago, and one of the biggest parts of it is that we collaborate with the community partners” said Dugan. “We’re going to show images of this on March 4 at a big art and musical exhibition for our program, and I imagine, at that moment, parents will see that this is a really cool thing.”
Keith Yahrling, master printer and lab manager at PPAC, wants the community to see the organization as something more than just a place with traditional photography.
“I hope people wouldn’t have any after-thought of us being so high-minded or even that we wouldn’t talk to anyone that walks through our door. We work really hard to talk to every person that enters this space,” said Yahrling. “Regardless if they are from halfway around the world or from a block over – we’re interested in conversation, we’re interested in people from Kensington and, like I said, people from anywhere else.”
– Text, images and video by Raya Abdelaal and Emily Ganser