17 years of photography workshops in the same community:
A conversation with Moira Rubio Brennan and Miriam Priotti, directors of PH15.
As participatory, collaborative and community-based photography projects proliferate, initiatives that stand the test of time stick out from the crowd. This is not to say that projects need to be long-term to be good. Rather, that in a fragmented and under-resourced field, the projects that work long-term in communities, that last and thrive over years often with very little funds, warrant special attention for the unique networks of relationships and the archives of images they build.
PH15, the Argentine youth photography project, has been going 17 years. It started in 2000 when the Argentine photographer, Martin Rosenthal, initiated photography workshops with 10 young people living in Villa 15, more commonly known as Ciudad Oculta (Hidden City), one of Buenos Aires biggest and most notorious informal settlements. Seventeen years later, workshops still run every Saturday with 10 young people joining the project each year.
Run since 2006 by co-directors, Moira Rubio Brennan and Miriam Priotti, PH15 has expanded beyond Ciudad Oculta running weekly workshops in Villa 31, another informal settlement close to Buenos Aires’s financial centre, as well as shorter-term initiatives in Buenos Aires and throughout the country. Their fifteenth anniversary in 2015 was a significant year: they ran a country wide project that involved workshops in 89 different locations; they published a book, PH15; they held an extensive anniversary exhibition in Buenos Aires and collaborated with Argentine sociologist, Daniela Lucena, to research PH15’s impact on its young participants.
I met a couple of times to talk with Rubio Brennan and Priotti in their office about the work of PH15 as part of my ongoing series of conversations with participatory, collaborative and community photography practitioners. Below are excerpts, condensed and translated from Spanish, from our conversation.
TF: How do you define the work of PH15?
MRB / MP: We are not a vocational training workshop – we do not produce photographers. Neither do we create activists whose role it is to denounce and try to change things. What we create are artists… what we do is let the young people understand that they have the potential to be an artist, that within them they have something to tell, something that it is important, something that others are interested in. Our priority is to enable them to express themselves artistically… We give them a camera first of all, and only once the kid has already started producing interesting work do we start to talk to them about composition and technique. We do not want to put limits on that expressive desire.
We do not think that we can give a young person a camera, ‘empower’ them and then expect them to show us what they see or to tell us something really important. Sometimes what they have to say is very intimate, very small, very detailed but it is not some big declaration. Out of that can grow something huge but not if there is the pressure to show and to tell a big story.
To expand a person’s language is to expand their universe. A person who gains a creative or artistic language increases their capacity to speak, to see, to tell, to look, to understand themselves and others. In the workshops we are making visible worlds that are not visible. In Buenos Aires there is a strong stigmatisation of the villas and what happens inside them. Now more than ever this view – that everything bad comes from within the villas – has become more entrenched. To let the kids who live in those villas understand they are not bad, that they are good – we believe that is a form of activism.
TF: Could you talk to me about the growth and evolution of PH15? I imagine there have been some challenges.
MRB / MP: In 2004, when PH15 became a foundation, there was tension in the team over the question of whether to grow or to stay as we were. Some of the team wanted to remain as a single workshop, delivered with a lot of care every Saturday morning, within the same community where we had built strong bonds. Others wanted to grow so we could deliver more workshops in the same community and in other places with the same care and quality. We were very dedicated to questions of practice, to the emotional and creative aspect of the work and there was a feeling that with growth we would lose this organic aspect of the work.
In 2006 Martin Rosenthal (PH15 founder) decided to leave and this was a time of crisis because many people identified the project with him. We had to re-build the project’s image and networks. We became the co-directors and we began to think of PH15 as an organisation, as something bigger that than the people involved, but without losing its closeness to its participants. To this day we work hard to ensure the most important thing is what is happening in the workshops and to the young people. Everything that we must do to ensure the running and building of the organisation – the administration, fundraising etc – comes after this.
As a team we have always had a clear sense that we were not interested in growing the formal administrative structure of the organisation. We have always been aware that this would come at a cost to our sustainability and to the proportion of funds that go towards the workshops. Our ability to raise funds is very variable and our fundraising situation is always unstable. We never know if we have the funds to keep going from one year to the next. We rely on a lot of pro-bono help and donations, sometimes staff are paid, sometimes they are not. We have taken the decision ourselves to operate like this. The truth is we really believe in what we are doing. We do not believe in the pursuit of funds in order to maintain an organisational structure… and we could not build a more formal organisational structure when there is no clear way that we would be able to sustain it.
The change from analogue to digital was another huge challenge. We had to adjust our methods and ways of working, the extra equipment, the need for computers and then how to manage the archive, it is very costly to make prints. With digital there are so many more images, the archiving takes more time. It was also a challenge to make the change to digital in terms of the process of taking photographs. In the early years, until about 2007, the young people that started the workshops in general had never taken a photograph in their life. They never had family pictures because they did not have cameras. Now everyone has cameras on their phones and they have taken thousands of pictures. They have a certain notion in their head of what makes a photograph. They come with all these ready formed opinions – on how to take a selfie, on how they should pose their faces, on what kind of filters they should use – that we have to deconstruct and so we can try to start from zero again… Social media facilitates but it also complicates the whole thing.
TF: Core to PH15 is the team of volunteer workshop leaders who run the weekly workshops in Ciudad Oculta and Villa 31. Could you tell me about the team and how you organise yourselves?
MRB / MP: We have a close team of 10 trusted ‘talleristas’ (workshop facilitators). It is mix of people, mainly photographers but we also have someone who is an art restorer, a film-maker, an educator. We don’t all come with the same vision, there are different worlds that cross which make it interesting. We have Friday team meetings. We talk about what is going on in the main workshops and the projects that we have been approached about and decide if we want to move forward with them. We have a Facebook group so discussions continue online.
The workshop leaders in Ciudad Oculta have always been volunteers – for the last 17 years – and it is important to keep incorporating new people into that group. We get a lot of volunteers but we don’t have a formal or set volunteer training. We interview people, try to understand their motivation for wanting to do this work. We are very cautious about who ends up working in the communities. People volunteer in the office for about six months before they begin to assist in workshops. Through this work they start to understand the dynamic of the classes through seeing them in action.
T.F: Can you describe the workshop process in Ciudad Oculta?
MRB / MP: Ten new students join the project every year. They enrol for a year; some stay on for a number of years. Every participant has a camera and with that camera they are free to take photos whenever they want. In general they do their photographic production on their own, in their own free time outside of the workshops and then in the workshops we analyse those photos.
In each workshop every participant shows their pictures from the weeks before, everyone observes them and talks about the images, the photographer explains why they took them and everyone together then selects and edits the pictures and decides which images go into their main body of work and which don’t. When it was film based they had small prints, since we started with digital they project them onto the wall or on a screen. There are moments when within the workshops they do photo outings and take images as a group as part of the workshop. For example when we are experiment with different analogue forms such as super 8 or Polaroid.
TF: You published a book for your 15th anniversary. Can you tell me about the process of the book? Who was involved in editing?
MRB / MP: ‘We had wanted to do a book for many years, a book that showcased the great value of the images, their high photographic quality. We did a crowd-funding campaign to raise the money.
The process of editing the book was intense because it involved going back over 15 years worth of the negatives and files. It made us re-look, re-evaluate and re-discover so many images that had been lost in the shadows. It reminded us how many workshops we had done. When you are doing the work there are always things that work out better than others. It reminded us how we had developed and what we had forgotten about that process.
The team of talleristas did the editing work and drew on their experience of many hours of discussing their images with the young people. The majority of participants featured in the book are now no longer in the project. We are in contact with them but they are busy with their own lives and do not have the time to dedicate to the work of editing and producing a book. When time allows we get the participants involved in the editing, curating and mounting of exhibitions. It is much more enriching. The ideal scenario would be that they always did this work. But is a question of time and capacity.
We are a small organisation and we always have too much to do. We worked out that to make the book happen and to finance it we needed to do it in less than a month. The pressure to get the job done and to make the pictures look perfect was the priority.
What we did with the editing was to respect the selections that participants had made when they were actively part of workshops and at the time when they were producing their pictures. The photos we selected are all photos that had been previously selected by participants in their workshop edits and for previous exhibitions.
TF: There is a strong PH15 aesthetic that comes across in the book. Many of the images are black and white. What criteria did you use when you edited?
MRB / MP: We have modified many aspects of PH15 but something that we have never altered is our dedication to doing photography workshops that enable the young people to generate creative work as artists. We believe that their work needs to respected and treated in the same way as the work of professional artists. What we tried to do with the book was to show the images that were most powerful as images in and of themselves, as works of art. We did not edit the book thinking ok now we need to find an image of a child next to this one of a house, or by that participant. The opposite: we let the image lead us, not its content. It is something that is very subjective.
Often the pictures were tied to incidents that happened. Stories that came with particular images have stayed with us. The viewer is not going to know that story when they see the image but we believe that the image will say something to them. When I was a workshop facilitator and I gave the camera to the kids I would always ask them to show me photos that came from their gut. You don’t have to think about the perfect framing, the perfect angle, I am interested in hearing what you have to tell me, from inside you. In the book we tried to capture that spirit.
The focus was always on black and white initially for budgetary purposes. Until we made the change from analogue to digital in 2013 it was more affordable for us to do black and white because we developed the film and made work prints here in our darkroom. It was cheaper. We only did colour when it was really impossible to do a particular project in black and white. But then when we started with digital everything changed and now it is all is color.
TF: There are no captions with the images? Why?
MRB / MP: We have never done caption writing. It was a conscious decision. We do not believe that just because the photographer is a child that they need to explain the photo they have taken. They are talking with their new artistic visual language. When it is a prestigious or professional photographer having an exhibition they do not have to put a caption below to explain, ‘This is a picture of my dog. I love her very much’. It is our view that if photos coming from these types of projects need an explanation it puts them back into a vulnerable position.
TF: PH15 has worked for 17 years in Ciudad Oculta, for two years in Villa 31. What are the implications of working long-term in the same community?
MRB / MP: ‘Working in one community over a long period brings both good and bad things, benefits and problems. A benefit is that within the community of Ciudad Oculta everyone knows about PH15. Many of the youth in the barrio have been a part of the project. Everyone knows that on Saturday mornings are the PH15 workshops. We have worked from the same cultural centre in the barrio for many years and when we are out photographing everyone knows who we are. On the flip side the interest has plateaued. We have noticed that it is not the same starting a workshop in Ciudad Oculta as in say, Villa 31, where we started running workshops last year (in 2015). There is a different spark, a different kind of intensity, the students are always waiting there for us to arrive. You could say there is a stronger energy than in Ciudad Oculta.
In Ciudad Oculta the energy is different, the workshop is more mature. What they produce has more depth. We are starting to build the digital archive and through this process realising how the Ciudad Oculta archive is an incredible historical document, of the heritage of the community. Every year, for the last 16 years, there have been 10 young photographers photographing everything that happens in the barrio. It’s incredibly rich. There are photos of babies who are now participants. Generations of families recorded. You can see all the changes in the barrio, in the houses, in the buildings.
In a long-term project you can tackle all sorts of things and incorporate new initiatives into on-going workshops. It creates lots of possibilities. For example one year we were working on the significance of creating public spaces. Another year we worked around issues to do with nutrition and food, eating at home. It enabled some health specialists to understand what was happening around food in the homes. Last year we worked around reproductive health.
It is good to do both things – long-term, sustained projects and short-term projects which have a defined timeframe. They can compliment each other. We are always very clear with the participants about how long a workshop is going to last. In Ciudad Oculta some of the participants now are photographers, others have started workshops in other communities. There are other things and processes that happen like this when you work over the long term.
TF: As practitioners, what are the key things you have learnt about community and youth photography work?
MRB / MP: For us, the most important thing that people need to understand is that their role is important but the protagonist is the participant. The work is to bring them a tool in order to enable them to become the creators. You have to have strength to move these projects forward, you have to become a leader, to appropriate the idea, live, breath and sleep with it at all times but also have a generosity of spirit to be able to let it go.
It is good to always have a plan with the people you are working with, a discussion about what the possibilities are, where you are going to get to, what you have, what you don’t have. Make it concrete what is on offer in terms of materials and time. For example: we have eight cameras, and we are going to run two workshops, and leave five cameras behind – so that the participants know and are clear.
You have to be willing to change and let go your plans. We all arrive with an idea of how we are going to do things but what is important is what the community says they want to do. When we arrive at the place we are going to work if we discover we cannot do what we hoped or said the way we imagined, it has to be re-negotiated, re-formulated and re-written down so that it is something that makes sense to and is possible for the community. We do not believe that you can arrive with your project all mapped out and decided. It is a process of constructing it with others. In our case those others are the people who run the space we are using, be they a community group or committee, and the participants – the two things. It is fundamental to have a strong relationship with the community who is receiving you.
We always look to find grassroots community spaces that have an established leadership, whose people are known in the community, who have strong ties and are looked to as community leaders by those around them. We always come back to the importance of this when we have experiences of working with spaces and partners that are not well established in the community. It recently happened we were going to work in a community and we started working with a space which we realised did not have strong roots in the community but we thought lets try. It was not good. It did not work. For us there is no way of doing this work if we are not working with organisations or spaces that have a strong presence in the community. There is no other way.
You have to be prepared to make partnerships and be prepared to deal with everything that comes with working in partnership, the good bits and the hard bits, because it is not easy. Others will always bring different perspectives, different ways of working, other agendas …
TF: For the young people involved, how much is PH15 about photography?
MRB / MP: ‘The photography is always present, it is always a constant but we are clear that the motivations for the young people to get involved and to keep coming are very diverse. They have to do with belonging to a group, having a space to regularly come to, a group to be a part of, doing something different to what they have on offer at home or at school, a place where they are listened to. They often talk about it being a respectful place where they can debate without arguing or without there being violence. A horizontal space, where the participant is on an equal standing with the teacher, where they have a different kind of relationship in contrast to the other educational environments that they are in. A space where they can learn and debate in another form. We are very focused on what the participant can bring to the space rather than on what they are going to gain and acquire. The young people see this and value it.
There are some who come because they want to be photographers, not so many but there are those. Or because they want to pursue some other kind of creative or artistic path, not necessarily photography. For example Maria Gonzalez who now is a dancer and dance teacher, has always said that it was through PH15 that she understood the importance of art as a transformative tool that can help you to move forward, be expressive and develop technical discipline.
It is very diverse. When young people first apply the only thing we try to find out is whether they are coming out of their own genuine interest and desire rather than because their parents think it is a good thing for them to do. Their motivation, whether they want to be photographers for example, is of less importance, they key thing is that they are coming out of a genuine personal interest.
Members of the PH15 team members chose their favourite photos:
Miriam Priotti, PH15 co-director:
I remember this photo from 2004 from the moment in the workshop when I saw it. Evelyn took the portrait on her first roll of film, it was her third or fourth picture. The finger is in the frame but it doesn’t matter, it’s a wonderful portrait. And it was one of the last ones we found in the process of going through all of the negatives for the book edit. So many hours looking and there suddenly it appeared. For me it was an incredible moment, that feeling that with the book we were re-discovering and rescuing these images from those early roll of films taken by the young people who participated up until 2007-8. They were kids who had never taken pictures. It was magical to see these incredible images on their first rolls of film; to see the amount of potential that these kids had inside them to tell a story in a single image.
Moira Rubio Brennan, PH15 co-director:
This is one of those occasions that we were able to give out color film and Carlos took it when he was visiting family in Paraguay. What is special about this photo is that it was selected in a competition held by a distinguished gallery here in Buenos Aires, Galería Ruth Benzacar. It is a prestigious competition for emerging artists. Carlito was one of youngest selected artists in the history of the competition. He was 16 years old. We went to the opening and he was so proud. Everyone was looking for him, the youngest ever winner.
Always in participatory photography projects there is a debate over whether the pictures generate attention because they are good or because of who took them. In this case the competition was totally anonymous. We never said it was a kid from the barrio’s photograph. They just knew his name and his picture. It was chosen for the quality of the image not because of who the photographer was.
Ailin Gho, PH15 facilitator:
It is one by Nacho. He was someone that came a lot but he didn’t take many pictures. We tried to encourage him. He took the most photos during the holidays when he had time to breathe and create. I stopped working with PH15 for two years because I was doing something else and when I left in 2012 it was one of the last years we were working with film. This was one of the last pictures that came out of that time. For me it was like the goodbye to black and white. It is special because I know it was hard for him to take photos.
David Acosta, PH15 facilitator:
I started working as part of the team at the beginning of 2015. I was a little in love with all of the photographic work and Ph15 was celebrating its 15th anniversary. This was one the images that I most loved when I was researching the project. And when I started as a facilitator I found that I was working with the photographer and it had a great impact on me. To think that I was the teacher of a participant who created this incredible image. I got to know the artist and her sister, who is the girl in the picture. When I think of Ph15 I think of this image.