Photophilanthropy: Nema Etebar's Community-Service Organization
by Marni Prichard Manko
Twins Champayne and Charmaine Barfield re-create their photograph, shot by Nema Etebar, currently displayed on a Wilder Street wall.
Growing flowers where garbage once lay, providing guidance to neglected youth, honoring unsung heroes—these are all part of the vision behind Photophilanthropy, a local charitable initiative begun by six twenty- and thirtysomethings who banded together in an effort to redefine traditional notions of civic duty.
Headed by local photographer Nema Etebar, the organization’s first project was inspired by a series of portraits of rape victims in Sierra Leone—those images were posted on public walls and ultimately helped the victims regain dignity. Etebar says he and his friends wanted to take cues from that project by harnessing the power of photographs to bring healing to Philadelphia’s struggling communities. “Our goal was to find some positive role model from that neighborhood, photograph that person and then wheatpaste those images on neighborhood buildings for everyone to see.” In honor of that individual, they would also take steps to beautify the neighborhood: cleaning, painting and gardening.
Combining the resources and talents of this seemingly motley crew of do-gooders—members include an artist; a singer-songwriter; an ear, nose and throat surgeon; a risk-management project manager at Vanguard and a social worker—they approached various city organizations, looking for nominations to honor that one special community leader. Through the City Year program, a national youth service organization with a chapter in Philadelphia, they found their first muse—Tonja Bell, a 42-year-old cancer survivor and surrogate mother to the children of Philadelphia’s Wilder Street, located in the Point Breeze section of the city. “We went out to meet Miss Tonja, and you could just see it,” says Etebar. “Not just from her words but by the way the kids react to her: They flock to her house, they listen to her; when she raises her voice they stop. They give her respect. It started from there.”
With Bell’s guidance, the Photophilanthropists spent three labor-intensive and emotionally draining months cleaning lots, planting butterfly gardens and painting walls in bright, cheery colors. The endeavor culminated with a no-holdsbarred party, celebrating not only the completion of the project but also the selflessness and importance of community leaders. But it was a 15-by-20-foot portrait of Bell and more than a dozen kids wheatpasted on a previously decrepit wall that gave the people of Wilder Street a palpable sense of pride.
“You can say something to someone 20 times and they don’t necessarily hear it. But when you see it, that changes everything,” says Etebar. “When we were doing this, there were tons of ups and downs, but that picture speaks a thousand words. For the kids to see [it] themselves—to this day the picture is on the wall—it means everything to them.” For more information visit photophilanthropy.org.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NEMA ETEBAR