Stetson Middle School teacher exposing students to photography

Posted: February 20, 2012

Members of the Stetson Shutterbugs stepped outside their middle school in Kensington and began sizing up the late afternoon sunlight slanting down on bustling Allegheny Avenue.

"Take a look at the way the light is now," teacher Anthony Rocco told the students in his photography club. "You get some really strong shadows."

Clutching donated cameras, the young teens set off down B Street to take pictures of the neighborhood to share with their "photo buddies" in a tiny town in Colombia.

During the school day, Rocco, 42, teaches technology and graphic arts at Stetson. But when the final bell rings, he shifts his attention to the after-school program he created a few years ago to expose students to photography.

"I'm so blessed that I'm able combine my two passions of teaching and photography," said Rocco, an award-winning photographer who has an undergraduate degree from Temple University's film school and a master's in education.

He stayed at Stetson after the School District turned it over to Aspira Pennsylvania in 2010 to operate as a Renaissance charter school under former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's academic-reform plan.

For years, Rocco has been involved with community-outreach projects through photography, receiving support from several organizations. Stetson is one of the city schools that receives help from ArtsRising, a local nonprofit that seeks to increase students' access to the arts. It has helped the club, in part by buying professional-quality digital cameras.

Rocco's latest venture - Photography Without Borders - is a cross-cultural project. Stetson students exchange e-mail and photographs and talk to peers in Colombia via Skype. The first six months will culminate with Rocco planning to take a dozen club members to La Florida, Colombia, for 12 days in June.

The Stetson students will get the chance to meet their partners, experience their culture, and exhibit their own photographs in Bogota.

"They are learning about photography and learning about each other at the same time," Rocco said. "And using photography as a storytelling medium . . . as a tool to teach each other about their respective cultures. And then, of course, the big finish is for them to go and actually experience that other culture."

He is trying to raise $25,000 for the trip.

Rocco, whose mother is from Colombia, worked with La Florida youth in the summer, set up a small computer lab and darkroom, and worked with a local priest to give the young people Internet access.

The Stetson students stay after school two afternoons a week and gather on Saturdays to learn photography. Film may be regarded as passe in today's digital world, but Rocco believes students should be familiar with film and understand the basic principles of photography.

Club members made old-fashioned pinhole cameras from discarded cartons and cans and developed the film in a darkroom Rocco set up at the school.

Students said the lessons were time-consuming but worth it.

Seventh grader Rashawn Pittman, 13, recalled his friends' reaction when he told them he had spent several minutes taking one photo with his pinhole camera.

"They said, 'Why are you doing that when you can just use a digital camera and take . . . less than 3 seconds?' " he said. "I tell them: 'What's the point of that?' "

After weeks focused on raising money for the Colombia trip, students welcomed a recent chance to go outside to take pictures.

Rocco told the group to head down B Street to where a recent three-alarm fire had gutted a warehouse. A chain-link fence had been erected around the property, but students looked for interesting shots to convey something about the neighborhood to their friends in Colombia.

Most of the Shutterbugs are Puerto Rican. Rocco wants to make sure they understand that their families came to Kensington to work in the now-closed factories that often end up consumed by fire.

"They're going to be learning how the Puerto Rican community - the Latino community here - started, and what it means to be of Puerto Rican heritage, Latino heritage in Philadelphia," Rocco said.

Sixth grader Jashira Bodden, 12, said the club already had changed the way she sees the world.

"Before, I just looked at people's faces," she said. "After I started photography, I started to look up and down, and to look closer at things."

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Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or

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