Dream. Believe. Do. Interview #20: Sharing your passion with others

Tony Rocco has the energy level of 100 men. Seriously! By day, he’s a schoolteacher in North Philadelphia; by night – and on weekends, and during holidays, and over summers – he teaches photography to youth in Philadelphia and in the country of Colombia. What started out as a single workshop more than 10 years ago has evolved into a personal mission, touching the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of children.

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I had a chance to visit with Tony when we were both in Colombia recently. We had just attended the opening of a show by his students in Medellin.

Tony: They spend a lot of time together. I guess they’re all different ages but I think they sort of bonded as a group because they’re grouped with the Colombo. It’s the same group I worked with last year, minus, like, two kids. Last year they worked with another couple of teachers. Now this year they’ve done a different process with a couple of others. They’re used to being the ones who work with the Colombo and they enjoy it. They transform when you see that they have tasks to work on. It’s just something that they really enjoy.

Dennis: That also becomes… if that’s a group they’ve been with for a couple of years. They share a common ground with that group and that transcends age categories and grades and other things like that. The shared experience they’ve had with you, with the other teachers.      

Tony: They probably put on a different face when they’re with their friends. Especially their age-appropriate friends when they’re not in this group. They’re sort of more themselves when they’re with this kind of group.

Dennis: There’s a security there. They have that shared experience they’ve had of going through your project, for example, with them. Learning the whole identity project, this the time five forms of skin that they were doing, whatever, and everything. There’s a security in that group, a comfort in that group that’s different from other groups. I’m not saying it’s lacking in those other groups but’s going to be different. A different dynamic.

Tony: Right.

Dennis: The other kids they’re hanging with at school or their neighbors or street or whatever it is.

Tony: Yeah. It’s a shame but at this age, it’s just a matter of time before they have to adapt. Because they get older as they go for middle school because some were probably behind as they go through high school. All of a sudden their friends are going to change; the people they’re going to see around and they’re going to have to adapt just like on the street, like street-smart wise - they’re going to just have to adapt in order to get along, look for the approval from their peers. This tends to always happen, right around that age, unfortunately. They have to stop being kids. They have to make the choice but a lot of times the choice is made for them, you know?

They’re kids, man. They’re kids. Some of those kids in the neighborhood, they’re the same age, they’re sticking people up. They’re robbing people now. They’re getting involved in all kinds of stuff. These kids are in something positive. You know what I mean?

Dennis: Yeah.

Tony: They’re trying all these different things. Hopefully some of these things click, you know? And they said, “Hey, this is something I really want to do.” With an organization like the Colombo there to help them if there’s something that they wanted to do, they can get supported. Looks like the after-school program they’re in is also really helpful.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: You do what you can do. You can offer opportunities. That’s all you can expect to do with these kids. Keep offering and keep trying to work with them. You never know when that one thing that they see is going to…

Like one of the kids actually asked me - and I was surprised - he asked me what’s the name of the paper was. The cyanotype paper. He asked where you can get it because he wanted to keep doing it. I’m like, Jesus! If I hadn’t given that paper away already, I would have given him the leftover paper.

This is the kind of things that they are asking. A 10-year-old is asking me, “Where do I get it? How much does it cost? This was really fun.” This is like cool. It’s like they want to continue. They want to continue the process and there’s so much more that you can do with them once you get them interested.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: This is how it started with me like 10 years ago when I was in Colombia. I came to do an exhibit. It was more than 10 years ago. It was more like 15 years ago. I came to do an exhibit in Cali. I taught and then they said like, “We’d love for you to do an exhibit but it would be cool if you would also do workshops.” I’d love to do that. I do that in the US, you know. I’m still in contact with those kids.

Dennis: Is that right?

Tony: Yeah! One of them is now a teacher and she teaches kids in her own community doing the same thing and I support her.

We were working together until last year basically with the nonprofit but then I was like, “I can’t pay her. There’s no money coming in.” But she really wants to do it. I said, “You know what, take all the cameras.” I left her enlargers, cameras, computer. I left her an iMac; a relatively new iMac. I left her all this stuff. Every time I can, I try to open other doors for her. She’s doing what she can do, working with these great groups of kids in her own neighborhood. The worst neighborhood in Cali.

I felt like I wasn’t in any position where I could say, “You have to do things my way.” I’m in United States. She’s my ex-student. Run with it.

Dennis: Give her the tools and let her go with it, right? Let her adapt.

Tony: Yeah. You’re on your own. I’ll be happy to help you. But it’s your thing, it’s not mine. This is never really about me. Those are the things that really makes you feel like you made an impact on one of your students -- she’s 26 now. She was 15 when I started with it; 14 or 15. She’s 26, 27 now and she’s still doing that.

Dennis: She’s one of your first students and that’s how this whole thing began.

Tony: Exactly.

Dennis: You came down for a show and then they asked you to do a workshop. You started a workshop.

Tony: They asked me to do a workshop. Okay, I’m sorry, I got off-track. Then I did a workshop. It’s very similar to what I did with these kids actually. I brought disposable cameras. They still probably sell them.

Dennis: Back in the day. Yeah, yeah.

Tony: I mean they’re hard to get now but I think you could still get them. They actually have disposable digital cameras now, which is mind-boggling.

Dennis: It’s insane.

Tony: Yeah. How we just waste everything.

So I brought those down and did workshops with those and it was great. That original group, more than half of them wanted to continue to work. The project was over and I was just like… next year, we’re going to keep working together.

Alright. I got a grant and I bought a bunch of point-and-shoot digital cameras. Little guys. I came back the next year. The good thing was the teachers that were working with them continued to work with me and I had a contact with the culture, I guess, department of the city. So they provided a space to do an exhibit, which is really cool. They also provided them some of the resources to frame but I actually went out… for both exhibits, now that I remember. For the first one and the second one, my aunt was working like a photography processing place.

Dennis: Convenient.

Tony: I went up and I talked to them and I said, “Hey, I’m working with these kids. Could you donate the processing and the enlargements and stuff? We’ll give you lots of credit. We don’t have any money.” They were like, “Fine,” because the owner’s son was really cool and was into it. I ended up helping his wife out with another project the next year because she wanted me to work with a group of really at-risk girls. I ended up doing a little project with them.

Dennis: Oh my.

Tony: There’s no lack of necessity here.

So I ended up finding the resources that are needed through my own network and I’ve done a lot of that. Sometimes you just don’t realize who’s in your network until you really look.

I was looking for board members and I was like, “Wait a second, my cousin could be on my board.” I asked her, she’s like “Yeah.” Like oh my God, all this time! One of the best teachers I know is my cousin. I never asked her. Sometimes you just don’t think hard enough about who’s there. They’re so close that you don’t even see them.

When you’re thinking abstractly, “Who can I ask to be on my board?” Geez, I see her every Thanksgiving, every… somebody who’s really close to me I never really saw in that capacity. That’s what you do. I try to find resources where I can.

These are the things that you look for that you can provide and you find someone. You say, “Hey, my aunt can do it.” Really grassroots.

Dennis: Very grassroots but very clever a way to do it. Tap into the resources you have locally, family members, plug in to the community to a certain degree that you could tap into which is great.

Tony: Use the resources that you have. Sometimes you know rich people. It’s like, “Hey, we’d love to help you out.” That’s great. I don’t know any of those. I know the people that I know and you use the people that you can. You build the networks that you can. I’ve managed to meet lots of really cool people that have helped me along the way. This is what I keep doing. And just meeting you guys.

Tony: Those things just happen. Those connections.

I’m not religious but I’ve seen a lot of coincidences in my life that I don’t think you can contribute to anything else. Sometimes I just really do think somebody’s watching over me.

I think sometimes things are put in your path. You just have to take advantage. I think everybody sort of has these things put in your path but you just don’t realize it. I just try to take advantage of it whenever I can, you know. I also try to pass along the good mojo when I can and try to do a good turn to others. I’ve been really fortunate…

Who gets the chance to come to Colombia like I have this summer? I spent my entire summer down here, which I love. Meeting new people. Going to new places I’ve never been. Getting to work with kids, which I love to do. Other people might say, “Jesus, you work all year as a teacher and now you’re spending your whole summer working,” but it’s not the same. This is something I choose to do.

Dennis: This comes from the heart.

Tony: Yeah. It comes from my heart. It’s very fulfilling.

My foundation, Photography Without Borders, I founded - I’ve been doing the work for about 20 years but it became a nonprofit three years ago – is trying to build bridges between these communities using photography: at-risk communities, wherever they happen to be. I just happen to have contacts in Colombia and in North Philadelphia where I work so I that’s where I’m working. I’ve had interest in Africa, I’ve had interest in other… I just don’t have a way to get there.

I’m hoping one day, soon, now that we’re a nonprofit and now that we’re starting to get larger sources of funding, that I can quit my day job teaching and devote myself to doing this which really is much more fulfilling for me. It is still teaching. It’s just doing it my way. Working with the kids I choose to work with and doing it with the people I choose to partner with. It’s just, you know, probably a lot more than me about building a business. You do lots of your own projects.

Dennis: Done a few.

Tony: Yeah.

Dennis: Yeah. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time.

Tony: It takes a lot of work and you have to eat, you know?

Dennis: Right.

Tony: At the end of the day, you don’t want to ask people who don’t have anything to pay for what it is you’re trying to do but someone has to pay for it. And while these incredible organizations doing great work are getting paid for it. You know what I mean? They’re not doing it for free.

All these wonderful charities, all these wonderful nonprofits, you just have to get to the point where you can, I think, get the attention of these big organizations. I think its corporation, I think, going after grants, fighting over those small grants. It’s not something I want to continue to try to do. I want to try to build the organization to the point where we can get one big or a couple of big funders that see the value of what I’m trying to do and what the organization’s trying to do.

Build the network that I’m continuing to try to build. Through that, try to get to the point where I can do this, work with kids all over the world. Teaching them photography, how to tell their stories, and sharing their stories with other kids.

Dennis: You’re teaching photography. You teach the photography skills but it’s beyond that because you’re trying to get them back in touch and have them tell their stories, share their lives, understand more about their identity, who they are as individuals.

Tony: Yeah. That’s, I think, one of the things we get caught up with sometimes. I mean photography is so technical. One of the things I realize here in Colombia, they love the technical stuff. They really… it’s like they dive into it. I find that the kids and the students here are actually technically superior sometimes to their counterparts in the US in that they’re all into it.

If they don’t know what it is, they’re on YouTube trying to figure things out and it’s great. But a lot of times… I don’t know if you’ve seen this with some of your students that you work with at the university level, just like on an artistic level, sometimes they’re a little lost.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: They’re so caught up with the technical. Especially the digital photography today. Geez, how many megapixels and all this stuff. It’s a photograph.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: It’s a photograph.

One of the things I’ve learned… because when I originally started teaching, I did most of the black and white process which is really complicated in itself. It’s only later, and only really recently, then I started going with the super basic first going to pinhole photography and using point-and-shoot cameras to teach the absolute basics first. Breaking it down to its most basic forms for what I can do.

Doing cyanotypes, doing photograms, and then building up on all those concepts. Then as the kids have the solid foundation - when you have the time to do it - when you introduce 35mm and digital, they have all that background already. They know they don’t need this fancy camera to take a photo because they already done it with the crappiest cameras possible.

Now that they have this amazing tool, now they can start taking more advantage of that stuff because they’re not concentrating as much on all the technical. They still know they need to have a good composition…

Even before that, what are they taking a picture of? Why? To me the most important question… not even “What?” is “Why?” Why are you taking a photo? “Because I have to for class.” Well, okay, that’s one reason but of all the photos you could have taken, why that one?

I had a bizarre photography teacher as an undergrad. But what I loved about him that was different is that he empowered the class to help an individual student pick their work and find meaning. He tended to try to fade into the background.

Actually, maybe to a fault, but it was really interesting when you’re looking at - you’re an undergrad and you’re looking at the class. It depends on the dynamic of the class. If you’ve got some vocal people in the class, they can keep a conversation going; you can have some really cool critiques.

But the idea is that we had to come up with our own meaning; he couldn’t give it to us. That was something that always stayed with me.

With the kids sometimes, you just have to point them in the right direction and I find that that’s really cool when you’re… and encourage them. Sometimes it’s something… We’ve had arguments with the kids when I - and these are friendly arguments - because I always tell them you’re going to pick the photo for the exhibit. Sometimes I’m not crazy about the picture that they pick but ultimately I said that they can pick it so…

Dennis: That’s it.

Tony: That’s it. Guess what? More often than not, when their photo’s on the wall, I’m proven wrong.

Dennis: Yeah?

Tony: I’m proven wrong and they get all kinds of incredible feedback because it was meaningful for them. When the person’s asking them about it, they could say, “This is why I took the photo.” And then all of a sudden if it wasn’t evident when you first saw it, it’s like, “Wow!” Whereas if they had maybe picked a more technically interesting photo that I picked, there was a reason they didn’t pick it. They didn’t have anything to say about it. It didn’t really mean as much to them.

Dennis: Yeah, they didn’t connect with it. The one they chose, they bought into it. There’s equity in that from them. They chose that picture for a reason. As opposed to being told the other one is a better picture, right?

Tony: When you’re building them up to do that, you can’t undercut them. You can’t undercut them and say, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t like that photo. You’re going to put this one in.” I undid all the stuff that I told them I would do.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: I learn a lot too. We’re all different, you know. The photographs that I - we go to a gallery - the photographs I’m drawn to might not be the ones that you’re drawn to. That’s what’s wonderful about art at the same time. If we all like the same stuff, it will be pretty boring, you know? The same exhibit over and over and over.

Dennis: Exactly. We’d have one museum, period. Right?

Tony: Yeah.

Dennis: Take me from… you had your first workshop. You came back a year later, did another workshop.

Tony: Mm-hmm.

Dennis: Then you came back. You’ve been coming back every year and on holidays. Like Christmas breaks and everything?

Tony: That’s pretty much it.

This is totally different from what I’ve done in Philly. That’s where it started.

In Philly, a couple of years before I’d had my first experience here, I started working in a school. I started teaching in a school. I was working at the same time. I had just started a non-profit darkroom with a group of friends. Basically a bunch of kids that wanted to keep working but didn’t have a darkroom. We kept talking about it.

We finally built it in the first floor of my house that I bought in Philly. My best friend did construction so we spent two years building it. When it was done, we had our club, photo club. It’s called The Light Room. People used to call it the Photo Club because that’s where we always spent our time.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: One of the things when we talked about forming this photo club, we always talked about teaching photography to kids. Passing it on; the spirit of what it is that we were doing having an outreach program. I was the only teacher so I was like I recruited kids out of my school.

So I picked ten 7th graders and out of those ten 7th graders that first year, five or six of them continued for five years.

Dennis: With you in the club, in the darkroom.

Tony: In the club.

Dennis: Wow!

Tony: Twice a week. At least twice a week for five years. I saw those 7th graders graduate high school.

Dennis: That’s cool.

Tony: Yeah. That was it. Right along when that was in its second or third year is when I started doing my outreach in Colombia. But that was where I spent most of my time was Philly. Nine months working with my Philly students and then my summer vacations working with the project that started in Cali in Aguablanca with Carolina in that first group, then the second time working with them, and then every summer continuing to work with them. So they were running parallel.

Dennis: Okay.

Tony: Then what happened about five years ago was I changed schools in Philly and I began with a brand new group of kids. That same year, I made a contact in Colombia with a Spanish priest who has was head of a foundation in Cundinamarca near Bogotá in a really small town. I met him while I was visiting a university in Bogotá and I saw what a great group of kids. I said, “Wow! It’d be great to work with him.” He said, “It’d be great to work with you.” He invited me the following summer to come down and start a program with these kids.

So I saw an opportunity to make a connection between two groups. I was going to start in the new school in Philly and I was going to start a new program in my summers with this priest and his kids. They’re going to begin at the same time. They’re going to be the same age - why don’t I connect the groups? Right? Why don’t I teach them the same, more or less? Have a continuation since the priest can continue to work with the kids. He agreed to provide a space for them to continue to work.

I built a darkroom in the priest’s house, built a darkroom in my school, and started an exchange program between my shutterbugs in North Philly – at John B. Stetson Charter School where I started to work – and with these kids, they formed a group, the call themselves Groupo Flormorado which is a flower that’s very particular to that area. I started a three-year exchange program between those two groups.

Where in the second year I took a group of my students from Philly to the town where we spent two weeks and they all had an exhibit in Bogotá in a garage, okay? But it was an exhibit in the capital. Those kids were the happiest kids. The Philly kids were happy but the kids from this little town, for them to have an exhibit in the capital - garage or not - where people are going inside and looking at their photos, with their parents there looking at them, was like amazing.

The following year, I took the kids from Philly again. This time we had an exhibit at the US Embassy, which was great. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let anybody in but me so the kids couldn’t see their work. But it was nice to have…

Dennis: Oh, no!

Tony: Yeah, because it’s the embassy. So it was nice to have the exhibit there.

That year I got the embassy to sponsor the program so I could afford to take the kids and bring kids from Colombia to the US, which was, to me, something I always wanted to do.

Dennis: That’s great!

Tony: So I brought a handful of these kids from a farming town, like a thousand people, in Colombia to Philadelphia. They got to go to New York and they got to go to the beach - they’d never seen the ocean - and give them that kind of experience. And they had a really amazing exhibit, like in a first class gallery in the Latino community in Philadelphia. The highest attended event they’d ever had. It was amazing to give them that opportunity.

The idea is then trying to make those connections if I can. I’m lucky enough to have met these wonderful people so I can provide those connections because, ultimately, it’s making a difference for all my kids in Philly and all the kids that I work with here. If I could be the one just to make that connection and then let it go from there.

Dennis: Sure.

Tony: Once that project stopped I continued to work with my kids in Philly. But this year we’re planning to expand the board that I’m on. Now I’m the president of the board, and the Executive Director for Photography Without Borders. We decided to focus more on Philadelphia since doing these international trips, it really uses a lot of our resources. We don’t have a lot.

Dennis: For the exchange programs.

Tony: The exchange programs. They say, “That’s great what you’ve done with the kids but…” We don’t have money like that to do this Kickstarter project and do all these things that basically spend every cent that we have doing an exchange program and drain our bank account and our energy and then start the next year over. They’re like let’s build a solid foundation working in Philly, expand what we’re doing into other schools, and look for solid streams of income. Because right now I’m technically providing these services to the students of my school for free.

Dennis: Right. You’re spending your time down here for the summer.

Tony: Right. In Philadelphia - for free. In Philadelphia they’re basically taking 10 to 12 of my 5th, 6th, or 7th, and 8th graders and providing them the opportunities there to do everything with the money that the organization raises but the school doesn’t pay anything.

Dennis: Are you doing this out of school or you’re doing this during the school.

Tony: This is not during the school.

Dennis: It’s after-school.

Tony: It’s in the school and the organization, which is called Aspida, is kind enough to support everything that we do. And the school is kind of enough to support everything we do. But it’s free. The kids don’t pay. Nobody pays. We raise the money for everything and, thank God, take a look at the cameras that I brought down here that are from there. Everything I have is donated. These point-and-shoot cameras, luckily, I’ve gotten a reputation for doing workshops in Philly so people now contact me instead of me putting Craigslist ads, which is what I used to do.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: Now people randomly email me. People I don’t know. “I Googled you. Someone told me that you work with kids. I have an enlarger if you need it.” Even before we were nonprofit, I would get the school to send them a letter and how they can take a write off of their taxes.

Dennis: Right. So you’re taking donations for point-and-shoot cameras, darkroom equipment.

Tony: I take stuff I don’t even need because then I could barter it sometimes for stuff I do need.

Dennis: There you go.

Tony: But I would like to have a nice even set of little Beselers, trying to get all my enlargers the same so that I can use the same parts. So I barter back and forth with other people to get what they don’t want and I ended up… I like hoarding things. If someone’s giving something away, I’ll eventually find someone who could use it just in my network.

My basement is full of stuff and my classroom is full of stuff, the darkroom in our school is full of stuff. I know that, eventually, I’m going to start a new program and I’ll… I had all these point-and-shoot cameras sitting in a box. When I got the opportunity to come here this year, I had all the cameras ready. I had the opportunity to bring 15 point-and-shoot cameras with me this summer to work with my students in Colombia. So it paid off right there.

Dennis: Point-and-shoot film cameras.

Tony: Point-and-shoot films cameras, correct.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: Who uses those anymore?

Dennis: No one does.

Tony: But it made sense to use it here.

Dennis: They’re sitting in drawers, in closets, and boxes in basements and stuff so why not put them to use.

Tony: I mean if you sold one of those… what do you get? $5 for this?

Dennis: Max.

Tony: Max.

What’s great about this especially… and I’ve learned to sort through some of these. Some of these have those crazy lithium proprietary batteries; they cost like $15. I don’t use those because it costs more than what the camera is worth. But these used AA’s… I have a huge battery charger there. I got rechargeable batteries. Costs absolutely nothing except for the film.

Except for the film and to develop color film in the US is expensive but here, for $3, I can develop a roll of 36 color and scan the negs.

Dennis: For three bucks?

Tony: For $3.

Dennis: That’s crazy!

Tony: Yeah. There’s another teacher in Cali told me about it. He goes, “You’re going to go through all this? You’ll only have a week with the kids. How are you going to teach them how to develop black and white in a week? Are you going to develop all their film?” I was like, “I don’t know.” He’s like, “Get cheap film cameras and have them developed and scanned.” I was like, “They do that? In the US, I don’t know how much that would cost.” First of all, no one’s going to do it.

Dennis: And where, yeah. That’s another question.

Tony: Yeah. He goes, “No.” He told me a guy and that’s what I did. I did that a couple of years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since. It was a great piece of advice.

So, for instance, for this workshop I just did for La Presentación, a school here in Medellin: 15 girls, let’s say $5 a roll of film and $3 to develop it. So for $8 a kid, they each got a chance to take a camera home, take personal, intimate, meaningful photographs that are going to end up being part of this international exhibition - because I’m going to take some of them back to Philly with me - and it only cost $8 a piece.

And I don’t feel like I’m putting them at risk by giving them this fancy camera to take home which basically puts a target on them when they’re going to be walking around their neighborhood and someone’s going to want to try to steal it.

Dennis: Right. You hang a nice digital DSLR on their necks, it’s gone, right?

Tony: Actually, I’m lucky enough to have a handful of those. I use them with the kids when we walk together but I’m not going to put a kid in the situation where they’re going to have to take this thing home. And then end up getting robbed and then having to try to tell them that you have to pay for this camera, which probably costs what their parents make in a couple of months, you know. Just doesn’t work out.

Dennis: No, no, no.

Tony: So it just works out that these donations end up being really useful especially here in Colombia. These same cameras we’ll use in Philly but with black and white as I’m teaching because I have the darkroom there, I see these kids every week so they’ll be learning with the same cameras, similar cameras.

After they do pinholes, they’ll move on to these and they’ll learn the entire development process, which is complicated in itself, without having to also learn of all the SLR terminology. Once they’re comfortable with this, which could take a year. Luckily, I see these kids, hopefully -- that’s why I try to get them young. I try to recruit my 5th and 6th graders so I have them through 8th grade. By the time the 2nd year comes along, I’ll feel comfortable enough giving them manual SLR’s which now we have a whole set.

I have enough for every kid now. I managed to save them up. I have Nikon F’s: F2’s, F3’s, Minolta X-700, Canon AE-1’s. Like really nice cameras that people donate. I probably have enough. So all my kids would have a really nice manual camera to be able to take home.

Now that I’ve got all this, the idea is to build on that knowledge, to just keep giving them better tools to take photos with as they develop their artistic skills at the same time.

Dennis: My next question is where do you see this going?

Tony: Where this is going is… I mean you saw today what it was like seeing the results of like a small workshop with these kids.

Dennis: You had the cyanotypes up on the wall; they did these tapestries with the other artists they’d worked with. Did these self-portraits or portraits of their classmates or whatever, wearing clothing that was important to them - as I understand - in the pictures.

Tony: Right. Because they’re talking about those different layers of identity.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: Which is interesting starting with the skin. That was something that the director of the gallery, of the program here, wanted me to focus on. I wasn’t really sure what he was talking about when he mentioned it to me but he gave me the idea anyway. Now that I see it in the context of everything else, it makes a lot more sense.

I’m always up to trying things if it makes a difference with the students, with the kids. The whole idea is we’re giving them a good experience. I know I’m not the best teacher in the world. There’s always somebody better. But I see myself more and more as a guide. Maybe someone to inspire and to facilitate and to point the work that those kids…

In the last couple of months that I’ve been in Colombia working, some of these kids put together some really good work. Amazing work. Amazing photographs, especially for their ages. There’s no way I could have taught them that much in the short amount of time that I’ve been working with them but sometimes it’s not the amount but it’s just… They were saying the right thing, pointing them in the right direction, inspiring them and supporting them. Sometimes, that’s all a kid needs to get motivated and to get started and you build on that.

Dennis: One thing I learned is that, just in life, is you never know the impact you have on others. Right? And you said you’re not the best teacher but you said you try to be a guide.

Who are some of the most major influences in your life? Did they teach you a skill or a talent or did they teach you or did they inspire you? Did they show you a way to think about things? I think you’re underestimating yourself, to be honest.

Tony: I appreciate you saying that. I guess it’s just that sometimes you get caught up in some of these… I mean I’ve met a lot of really wonderful photographers; very acclaimed teachers as well. I just had my first experience this year teaching university level kids, young people. Something I always sort of shied away from because I usually with grade school kids. That had to be one of my biggest successes, working with them.

One of them was a professor. He teaches photography. He’s a college teacher. But it just happened to be that the process that I brought was totally different than what he’s used to. He’s teaching digital to these – I mean that’s what everybody teaches today. Actually, he teaches 35mm black and white too. He’s one of the few. Manizales is still doing that.

But the idea of me going and doing pinholes with him and then doing disposable 35mm cameras just was something different than he’s seen before and he got really into it. Because he was looking for low cost ways to work with kids and it’s always, “Who’s going to pay for that? Who’s going to pay for that camera? Who’s going to pay for that process?” You’re bringing a can from your house to turn into a camera, you don’t have to pay for that.

You had to pay for some chemicals, you. Convert a space to a darkroom and put a couple of red lights up and now you could take photos. And some photo paper. But relatively inexpensive.

Now he says that that’s something he wants to look into. Actually, some of my former students now in Bucaramanga are forming a group and they want to go ahead and start teaching kids in the at-risk communities - just after the couple of weeks that we spent together. They’ve been meeting and I told them, “This has got to be you. You have to take charge of this. But if you need… I want to be part of the group. I’m not here but if I can help with resources, I will.”

Dennis: Perfect.

Tony: But it has to come from you. I had all these ideas but I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut because they’re always going to be looking to me and I’ve got enough stuff to do besides running a program in another country where I will not going to be most of the time. But if they get it together, they find the people within the group of 16 or 17 of them to run the program and do what they need to do, and they have the partnership with the Colombo in Bucaramanga, which has agreed to create a permanent darkroom in their Colombo that they could use.

The one that we created, I don’t even know what that room was. It was a closet. They had water outside. They had electricity. That’s all you need. That was the darkest darkroom - those kids got up on a ladder and they covered every hole - that was a great little space they have. So they have their darkroom.

Dennis: There you go.

Tony: And they have everything that they need. So hopefully they follow up on what they said they were going to do. I’m confident they will. And I’ll find them when I come back in December. I think I’m going to have a suitcase full of photo paper, cyanotype paper for these kids here. If that’s something I can do, I’d be more than happy to do that.

One of the things I’m learning to do though is to try not to use my own money. Especially as I’m trying to save money to quit working so I can do this stuff. Other people kind of see this kind of stuff that I’m doing and like it, is ask, obviously, to help. If that’s something that they really want to do and they get everything together, I’ll do like a little GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign for them and say, “Help me help these former students start a program in Bucaramanga where they can pass on what they learned to at-risk kids.” I think that’s really worth…

We really don’t need a lot of money. They need couple boxes of photo paper and some other materials to get them going, at least at this point. So a couple hundred dollars for them would go a long way. And I don’t have any problem being the pack rat to bring everything here since I’m going to come every couple times a year anyway.

Looking back at the two months that I’ve spent in Colombia, having a wonderful time in Cali with a wonderful group of kids that potentially can now… My former student’s working with them so I made that connection. They’ve also have interest to do a distance learning project with my kids in Philly. That was one.

Dennis: Cool.

Tony: Number two, Bucaramanga, that’s where they’re organizing to teach other kids because they’re older; those university students and adults that took the class with one professor are trying to organize to teach. That was two.

Three, in Manizales, the Director of the Colombo there loved what we did and wants to do a continuation working with that same school and that same group of kids. She’s even agreed to give them partial scholarships to continue taking English at the Colombo and also doing a continuation of the project, writing a proposal together for next summer.

Dennis: Crazy.

Tony: And now here in Medellin, the fourth stop. I’m working with… which you’ve got to see a lot of the wonderful stuff with these kids. Unfortunately, the Colombo’s going to stop working because they do cycles with the group of kids that you saw today.

Dennis: Right.

Tony: But with the girls that I’m working with at La Presentación, tomorrow I’ll be meeting with their teacher after we pick their photos to talk about continuing to work together at another program at the high school level. We do something I’ll be able to pitch to my superiors in Philly as a wonderful program to be able to do, high school level, with a teacher in Colombia and a teacher in Philadelphia. It’s like four different places, four different possible impacts and continuation. Instead of just a two-week thing; something that can continue afterwards.

I guess the inspiration thing is powerful.

Dennis: It’s huge!

Tony: Sometimes it’s just saying, “You know, you guys can do this. You need a little help maybe. I’ll be happy to give a little help. But you guys are capable of doing other things.” Sometimes you need to hear someone else say that before you believe it yourself.

Dennis: True.

Tony: Yeah.

Ultimately, what I would love to be able to do is continue to do projects like this - hopefully longer. Ideally, for me… I wouldn’t redo what what I did this summer. But for next summer, for instance, to do one. Instead of doing four more and spreading myself thin in four different places, I would love to find one. I mean continue helping how I can wherever I’ve worked before. Continuing those relationships but develop one. Really develop one and say, “I’m going to spend all summer working with you.” Or longer depending on how my stuff works out back home.

Dennis: Sure.

Tony: And say let’s build a wonderful program here that’s going to continue. I’ll work with your staff. I’ll work with your students. The Colombo, if they’re building partnerships with other organizations because I found that that’s something that’s vital. I guess I was little… I don’t know of the word… I guess conceited, I guess, a little bit. You kind of want to do it on your own like when I first started this.

Dennis: That’s not unusual.

Tony: Yeah. I think we all have an ego. “Oh, I don’t need anybody’s help. I’m going to do this on my own.” Definitely, when I started, I felt that way. I think there were times when people offered to help and I was like hesitant because I wanted to do things myself. I think it was a learning process for me as well. You have to be slapped down a little bit. You have to fail which I did at some things in order to be able to see things differently.

It was only later that I said, “You know, it’s so much easier to work with other people.” Why build a wheel every time when there’s other people who already have resources. You just have to find the right ones, which isn’t easy sometimes. That people you can trust; people who have the same vision.

Dennis: It’s critical.

Tony: They want the same things. They don’t have their own agendas. Everybody has their own agenda but that it doesn’t conflict with anything that you’re trying to do. I find that it’s so much easier and, hopefully, that’s what I’m going to continue to try to do. Because ultimately what happened before was some of my first projects here in Colombia was that not a lot happened when I wasn’t here.

Dennis: Okay. Yeah. So you were here, got it going, you left, and it shut down.

Tony: They got a teacher to come in and volunteer. The teacher worked for a little while and then quit. I had parents come in and volunteer to teach but they only could teach so much. I mean I would train them for a while but then they can’t teach something they haven’t learned. They’re not teachers. It’s unfair to have them… they could supervise, which they’re good at, but ultimately they weren’t good at really teaching and pushing the kids.

Building those partnerships with an organization that has a space that they can develop that’s safe where the kids can work. And also that can provide… provide a teacher. Provide someone that is going to continue working with the kids when you’re not there. Also provide those wonderful cultural exchange opportunities. Right now we’re going to be looking - if everything works out - to build exchanges that could lead to kids actually traveling in the future but not in the short term.

It was wonderful what you shared today with us at lunch about how you use the Internet in order to find people to work with and collaborate with.

Dennis: It’s a great time for this, right?

Tony: Yeah.

Dennis: It’s perfect.

Tony: It’s like FaceTime. Hello! It’s nice to be able to travel. It’s nice to be able to say, “You know what, I want to take these kids to experience another culture and that’s a great goal - and it’s still a goal that I have. But you could start small, you know? You could start small and say, “Hey, we could Skype.” They could email each other. You could just send photos to each other. We can do assignments together, we can share the same curriculum and the kids can start their exchanges in that way. That’s something that the teacher here is very interested in doing.

I had bad luck the first time. Actually having kids directly pair together. But, I think, part of it was because I didn’t have the teacher on this side. If I’m the teacher on the other side, making sure that my kids are writing their pen pals and that everybody is doing what they need to do, and there’s someone on this side doing the same thing, it’s going to turn out better.

Dennis: A little more control, little management of it. Kids get distracted, other priorities in their lives. Both sides of the…

Tony: I would write my kids, “Oh, I wrote such-and-such and he didn’t write me back.” This was all the time. Like oh my God! But also the difference is that she’s got 10th graders so I would be working with high school kids or maybe my 8th graders. More mature kids. Pairing them and hopefully working with another teacher. I think there’s some really dynamic things we’re going to work on some curriculum together.

Dennis: Advice you have for other people wanting to do something… Maybe not the same thing but people who want to do something in their lives to make a difference.

Tony: I’ve found that once I meet people… One of the great things is taking my kids to events. Because when they get a chance to interact with people just like… People see what they do, people fall in love with them and they say, “How can we help? How can we volunteer?” It’s great. I think a lot of people want to do some similar projects to this. It’s just they didn’t happen to be teachers like me.

If I hadn’t worked in the school and had access to all these kids and be able to basically say, “Alright, I’m going to pick ten of my best kids and work with them.” I mean how would I ever have had the chance to work with kids?

Dennis: Right.

Tony: But there’s opportunities no matter what you do. Believe me.

Speaking as far as working with kids, which is what I guess I know the best. Schools are desperate, absolutely desperate to have really knowledgeable professionals work and mentor our students, in any way. Especially men.

Every school needs it but especially schools in the inner city. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, or if you’re Latino, if you’re not the same race. It doesn’t matter. If you have an expertise and you’re looking to volunteer, you should reach out to a school or community center near you - you’d be surprised. And tell them what it is that you have to offer.

Our high school, I’m sure if you were an engineer, if you were a professional in the sciences and you wanted to do some cool stuff with the kids, give them some real experiences. Be able to mentor and then possibly show the kids what it is that they can do with what they’re learning. Those are some of the things these kids can’t see because they just don’t see far enough, “Why am I learning this stuff?” Why are you teaching me all this math? What do I need this for?”

If they can have someone who’s in the real world come in and show them, “Listen, I’m making $200,000 a year with this math that I didn’t think I needed in school” and ended up leading to this really interesting career that they might not be able to see right now. Or maybe just someone that they can contact with; they could say, “Hey, stay the course. Things are tough.” Even the whole big brother just mentoring thing. There’s things that you can do to make a difference for a kid.

If it’s not in a school, there’s after-school programs - sometimes that’s even better. Because in the school environment sometimes there’s not a lot of time. But after-school programs are some of the most important, I think, are overlooked programs that affect kids. Getting excited about whatever it is that you’re excited about. If you’re excited about something, you can excite a kid about it!

If there’s another interest that you have - if you’re a photographer, reach out to a local group. We were lucky enough to work with four different photography clubs in the Philadelphia area and they all support our students. So you could support kids in different ways. You don’t have to work directly with them. They help raise money for us, they donate equipment to us. You don’t have to work directly, work with the kid to support them.

I even started a Comic Book Club in my school. Put an ad on Craigslist, I had people sending boxes of comics to the kids.

Dennis: There you go.

Tony: You have a box of old comics in your basement. You think they’re worthless because they’re not in good condition. Guess what. In the school, those are gold.

Dennis: Still valuable. Yeah.

Tony: So there’s lots of different ways that you could make a difference in the life of a kid. Even if you don’t have the time. Reach out to a school. Reach out to a community organization that works with kids in your neighborhood.

If there’s something you really want to do and work with kids, maybe start off small. Don’t get in over your head. Let them know from the beginning what it is that you’d be willing to do. Maybe it could lead to something bigger down the road.

Dennis: Cool.

Tony, how can people get a hold of you if they want to contact you? What’s the best way to reach you?

Tony: My email is chicodecali@yahoo.com. Chico is for boy, from Cali. Not California. Cali, Colombia, which is where my mother is from. You could also find me on Facebook. Look me at Tony Rocco on Facebook. My organization is Photography-Without-Borders.com.

Dennis: Perfect. Thanks.

Tony: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Dennis: This is great. Great story, man. Thanks.

Tony: Thanks a lot.

Dennis: I’m Dennis Hodges. Dream. Believe. Do.

Dennis Hodges
Dennis Hodges


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