Exhibit features photography by local seniors

At a small park at the Mitchel Houses, residents of the complex’s senior center showed that it’s never too late to learn new skills as they celebrated the opening of an art exhibit that features their own photography.

Cruz Garcia and Mike Kamber, director of the Bronx Documentary Center discuss  the exhibit “Photographing My Life,” which opened outside the Mitchel Houses in Mott Haven on June 21.Photo: Ryan Kelley. 

Workshop helps seniors connect with their past, and their neighbors

At a small park at the Mitchel Houses, residents of the complex’s senior center showed that it’s never too late to learn new skills as they celebrated the opening of an art exhibit that features their own photography.

After an 11-week class organized by the Bronx Documentary Center, the exhibit opened on June 21, showcasing 30 of the best photos taken by the senior students. Bronx-based photographer Rhynna M. Santos, who taught the class, said she named the exhibit “Photographing My Life” to help her students feel pride in their achievement.

“My goal is to have seniors understand that they can do anything,” said Santos. “They can tackle technology and use this fun tool to connect with their families, fight loneliness, and stay healthy and active.”

Eleven vinyl panels covered with the photos will line a sidewalk between two buildings at the Mitchel complex until July 5. Throughout its first day, the display attracted attention from passers-by. The photographers soaked up their moment in the spotlight, pointing out their work to family and friends while posing for photos snapped by others, and congratulating their classmates. They deserved to enjoy this moment, said Santos, because they responded admirably to a challenge.

The class met twice a week in the senior center’s cafeteria, where a wide range of topics was regularly covered. Sessions started with “camera boot camp,” during which Santos explained the technical aspects of the cameras.

History was also a key subject in the classroom. Santos said she wanted her group to understand the role photography has played for other people of color so they would feel more invested in their mission. Other topics included photo composition, connecting through social media, portraiture, how to use a light kit, nature and landscape photography, and even the art of the selfie.

The curriculum was designed with an eye toward students with no prior exposure to new technology. Santos kept it simple by teaching the basics of point-and-shoot digital cameras and cell phone cameras, avoiding the complications of more sophisticated equipment.

Susie Hairsten, a Mitchel Houses resident for more than 30 years, pulled her old Kodak instant-film camera out of her bag to help illustrate how much she learned.

“I used to take pictures before, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Hairsten. “At least with the class, it gave me a focus, and what the ingredients are that you need to take a picture.”

For the few of Hairsten’s classmates who had some previous knowledge of photography, the class provided an opportunity to see others learn what they already knew. Cruz Garcia, who moved to the Bronx in 2006 and describes himself as a photography aficionado , said he was inspired to see his classmates learn so much so quickly.

“There’s some people that believe that because of their age they can’t do something, but they actually can,” said Garcia.

But the participants derived more than just a sense of accomplishment from what they learned, said Roy Baizan, who served as Santos’ assistant in the class. Baizan, a teaching assistant for the Bronx Junior Photo League who found his love for photography studying at the International Center for Photography at The Point CDC in Hunts Point, said that the class helped the participants forge rare bonds.

“Everybody got to know each other, and we all became a little bit of a family there,” said Baizan.

Although the exhibit was the first of its kind in Mott Haven, the class was born out of similar work the Bronx Documentary Center recently undertook in the Bronx’s Claremont section. The Bronx Documentary Center’s co-founder and director Mike Kamber said that that class was so well received that he decided to test it in other low-income Bronx neighborhoods where educational opportunities are scarce. The entire exhibit cost less than $1000. Kamber hopes to continue offering similar options for underserved seniors in other housing complexes.

“A lot of these senior centers are under-resourced and understaffed,” said Kamber. “If we can stay involved and continue to do these programs, we’re helping to open up worlds and people are able to share their ideas and existence and creativity with the community. You can’t ask for more than that.”