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The McPherson Square branch of the Philadelphia Free Library is buzzing Tuesday afternoon. Children hop around. Adults sit, talk, and read. Others snack on soft-pretzel bites and make name tags while people tape photographs up along the stairwell and throughout the building.
It isn’t just the usual afterschool activity. Kensington Voice, a community-driven newsroom that aims to amplify traditionally unheard voices and produce stories relevant to neighborhood residents, is preparing for the opening of its photographic exhibition, Through Our Eyes. Kensington Voice’s first issue should be online this week.
Photographer and Temple junior Maggie Loesch, 20, conceived the idea of handing out single-use cameras to Kensington residents and asking them to consider what “home” means to them. Then she and others involved in the project sent them out to shoot. Fourteen of the 26 cameras came back, and the photographs were stunning.
“Because the cameras were plastic, there was an element of whimsy and fun,” Loesch says. “Kensington is not a war zone. Do bad things happen here? Yes. But life can exist here. This was a way to show that it’s not as bad as all the talk about drug use.”
In one photo a child took, displayed on the stairwell to the basement, a giant stuffed duck sits tilted sideways on a bench, as if worn out from the day’s fun. Other photos show children playing on the playground. Kensington Voice staffers and librarians asked children to label their favorite pictures. “That’s my sister,” reads a sticky note on one.
Looking at the big picture
Jim “Bear” Katona Jr., 61, one of the photographers featured in the exhibition, is proud of a picture he took of the sign for the Last Stop, a longstanding Kensington recovery house. Another he pointed out was a streetscape under the El.
“The El coming in from Frankford draws you into Kensington,” Katona says. “It’s really neat to experience the diversity that exists in Kensington. It has everything in it. It’s all here. Some come to get their drugs. They also come to save their lives. Some come here to die and some come here to live. There’s no faking it here.”
Rakee Starwind, 26, a volunteer security guard at the McPherson Square library, also participated in Through Our Eyes. One of his favorite pictures is of pigeons invading a local “chicken farm” on Rorer Street. “Most people don’t know there’s a chicken farm in Kensington,” Smith says. “It’s urban, and the snow effect getting in the background makes it nature, too.”
Smith says he aimed to show a “different side of Kensington, not just the drug-ridden side.”
Claire Wolters, 21, a junior journalism major at Temple, works on the Kensington Voice and helped Loesch mount the project. Wolters said that a goal was to change the narrative of news organizations portraying Kensington in a “wrongful light."
“It’s been really eye-opening and really sweet,” Wolters says. “We’ve been really welcomed by the community.”
Alongside a picture adult photographer Dennis Payne took of his friend Chuckie, standing in front of the Kensington rowhome where he has spent his life, a child has posted a sticky note: “I like it because it’s an old picture.” That makes Payne laugh. Although Chuckie is one of the “original Kensington residents still here,” Payne says, he had just recently taken the photo.
“I’m tired of hearing about the opiate crisis,” says Tuesday Chalmers, a librarian at McPherson. She calls her place of work a “little diamond in the rough” and was eager to help Loesch make Through Our Eyes happen.
Kensington Voice will maintain the exhibition at McPherson Library through mid-February. Then it will travel to another location in Kensington, to be announced. The goal, Loesch said, was to keep the exhibit moving throughout the city. She hopes to do another workshop in the spring with residents.
See the Through Our Eyes exhibit at McPherson Library (601 E. Indiana Ave). Visit the Facebook event page for more information.
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