Through the lens of justice: Photo course works alongside Philly’s homeless population

By Ryan McLaughlin
November 29, 2012

Various students in Linda Panetta’s Photography for Social Change ECG class collaborate with homeless residents of the Bethesda Project in Philadelphia.

“Photography for Social Change,” a class offered by the communication department, goes above and beyond the expected norm with life-changing experiences for the students and those they work with.

“The ‘homeless’ are no longer nameless ‘drunks, drug addicts and bums,’ as many would choose to label them; they are Bill, David, Rayford, Michael, Phil and Jordon. They are educated and compassionate, talented and funny,” Linda Panetta, the course’s instructor, said. “Sure, they are struggling; some emotionally crippled by the loss of their wife or mother, others by mental illness, but they are also desperately trying to turn their lives around.”

Working with Bethesda Project, a shelter in the lower north section of Philadelphia that provides a temporary home for around 200 men, Panetta and her students offered homeless shelter residents a photography class as part of a healing arts project.

Every Thursday, the class travels to Philadelphia to work collaboratively with the homeless.

Students travel from Cabrini (A) to the Bethesda Project (B).

Although photography is the major focus of the course, social change is what defines it. Negative stigmas following homeless people only weigh them down even further. A goal of this class is to break those negative perceptions and stereotypes.

“It’s easy to look the other way or feel judgmental when we see a homeless person on the streets,” Panetta said. “Stereotypes sway our thoughts and cloud our judgment. But, for those in this class, those typecasts have been shattered.”

Panetta became passionate towards helping those in need during her years as a student here at Cabrini. She told a story of her driving through Philadelphia on the way to her mother’s house and getting lost. While trying to find her way she spotted a homeless man lying on a bench. Panetta pulled the car to the side of the road and offered the man her sandwich. The man hadn’t eaten in days and upon being handed the sandwich was moved to tears by Panetta’s generosity.

The class started out as just that: a class. As time went by, however, the residents weren’t the only ones learning.

As a member of the class my perception of the homeless completely changed. Week after week, as trust and relationships grew, many of the residents began to shed light into their lives and how they ended up in the situations they are in.

Every one of their stories was different and yet society tends to look at them all the same. Each person participating in the photography class had a goal or dream they wanted to achieve in their lifetime.

“The class made me realize how lucky I am and opened my eyes,” Christina Spadavecchia, senior communications major, said. “It made me thankful for what I have.”

Upon starting the course, students were asked to watch “The Soloist” by Joe Wright. The film is based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers. Ayers was attending Julliard, the institute of musical art, when he developed schizophrenia. Unable to cope or manage his mental illness, he wound up on the streets.

The students of Photography for Social Change quickly made the connection from residents of the Bethesda Project to “The Soloist.” Students learned about many residents that held college degrees or were former small business owners.

This course offers something nearly unattainable anywhere else: a completely life-changing experience that could never be found in a traditional classroom.

Fast Facts about Bethesda:
• It’s different from any other homeless shelter, treating its residents as family.
• It strives in helping individuals reach personal goals.
• Residents pay rent and participate in chores.
• Bethesda operates in 15 different locations.
• They love volunteers!

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Ryan McLaughlin

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