Fifteen miles southwest of downtown Buenos Aires lies Villa 15, which is known as Ciudad Oculta or the Hidden City. It was given that name after the government built a wall around the shantytown to hide the poor from journalists and tourists attending the 1978 World Cup.
The Hidden City is home to some of Buenos Aires’ poorest residents. Many moved there from rural areas or migrated from neighboring countries. Residents live in the shadow of the wall, struggling to find steady work and enough food for their families. Gang violence, petty crime, and trafficking of stolen goods are commonplace, as in other slum areas of Buenos Aires.
In such an environment, young people have few options. Many drop out of school because they see no future for themselves. Some turn to drugs or crime.
Photographer Martin Rosenthal sees an alternative for these young people. Through the visual arts – especially photography – he believes young people can learn to express their feelings and develop important life and creative skills. He founded Fundación ph15 para las Artes (ph15) in 2000 and then submitted a proposal to the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) five years later to fund photography classes for 400 young residents of Villa 15 and two other nearby villas. The program aimed to encourage students to tell their stories and become more involved in their communities. In 2006, the IAF awarded ph15 $111,100 for two years, and subsequently provided another $64,500 to extend the program another 18 months. In addition, Ph15 contributed $68,060 of its own money and other sources allocated $156,291.
The results of Ph15’s project were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework (GDF). The GDF measures results on three levels: the individual or family level; the organization or grantee level, and the community or society level.
Ph15 used its IAF grant to train more than 1,000 students in photography, more than double the original goal.
Five years after IAF funding ended, ph15 continues to operate. Students who were surveyed said the highlights of the program for them included building relationships, especially with peers, and learning skills to tackle controversial issues of violence, sex, drugs, and discrimination.
Violence in the Hidden City is worse now than at the time of the IAF grant, but former ph15 students report that the workshops helped keep them off the streets, stay drug-free, and provide some structure in their lives.
At the Individual Level
Ph15 staff knew that jobs in the field of photography were scarce, particularly with the proliferation of digital phone cameras. Still, staff members stressed that teaching photography was an effective to reach young people in the Hidden City and help them deal with their feelings of exclusion. Students were able to connect with audiences by exhibiting their photographs in community centers, art galleries, schools, and other venues.
Photos were taken with rudimentary pinhole cameras constructed from discarded cardboard boxes or tin cans. However, the students’ photography was so impressive that it led to successful exhibitions in Argentina, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Five graduates of the program have been hired by ph15 as teaching assistants. Two others became professional photographers. Another student credits her experience in the ph15 program for her success in obtaining a dance scholarship in Spain. She now works as a dance instructor.
At the Organizational Level
Ph15 built a meeting space for its young students where they can share their hopes and concerns.
Five years after IAF funding stopped, ph15 revised its focus from adolescent and young adults to younger children, developing new activities and strategies accordingly.
Ph15 also has developed strategic alliances with other organizations such as Centro Conviven, a community center focused on helping young children, and Fundación Crear Vale la Pena, a social organization that aims to improve the lives of poor children through art and cultural projects. Teaming with these organizations has helped ph15 provide children, adolescents, and families in the Hidden City get involved in more activities and access more services.
At the Community Level
Through photo exhibitions at various venues – including Buenos Aires’ renowned gallery at the Palais de Glace – ph15 broke down barriers and provided its students with a window to see what lies outside their impoverished neighborhood. The interaction between students and professional artists and photographers, along with the enthusiastic public response to the students’ work, has bolstered students’ hopes and self-esteem. For the first time, these young Argentines see that people are interested in hearing their stories and listening to what they have to say. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires has repeatedly invited ph15 students and staff to share their stories with the diplomatic staff.
Students say they valued ph15 courses because the experience helped them improve their communication skills and gave them a way to discuss their common struggles with peers.
Instructors and former students also say the courses helped keep young people off the streets, and away from gangs, crime and drugs.
The alliance between ph15, CONVIVEN, and Crear Vale la Pena increased the range of opportunities for work and other activities for the students.
What Did Not Work?
Although expected, it was disappointing that more young people were unable to pursue a career in photography.
A lack of diversified funding sources hurt ph15’s plans to continue providing its original level of services, resulting in fewer instructors being hired.
Selling student photographs as a means of fundraising for ph15 proved unsuccessful in large part because of an Argentine law that assesses a tax on small organizations, which made the endeavor unprofitable.
Ph15 accomplished the goals set out in its proposal. The workshops continue to be held every year in different communities of Argentina. What began as a single workshop with a handful of students in Villa 15 has now been held in 11 Argentine provinces.
Managing a project demands a lot of energy, patience, and commitment. As the number of young participants from impoverished shantytowns grew, so did ph15’s commitment to spark their imagination, mobilize their communities, and draw attention to the needs of young people in those communities. Ultimately, the goal is to make these young people feel more socially connected and help them become responsible members of society.