On assignment for Education Week, photographer Mark Abramson writes about the challenges and rewards of photographing a school for gifted and talented youth in economically depressed Paterson, N.J.
I was assigned by Education Week to photograph a story about the Paterson Academy for the Gifted and Talented, a school for advanced students grades 2-8 in Paterson, N.J. The hook of the story? The school is located in one of the most crime-ridden and impoverished neighborhoods in the city, and the kids who attend the school are from all different backgrounds and socio-economic classes. I had just one day to complete this assignment. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous. I wanted to do the best job I could to represent the school, and also to show the neighborhood in a respectful light. From the stories I was hearing, the neighborhood, Ward 1 (also nicknamed by some as “down the hill”), has received a lot of negative attention due to the high crime rate and drug activities occurring within that area.
The first part of the day I spent focusing on the kids within the school and specifically teacher Tai Matthew’s 6th graders. Ms. Matthews is a native of Paterson, and grew up and went through the city’s school system before getting her teaching degree. After achieving such great heights, she decided to stay in her city and teach in Paterson rather than moving away and working somewhere else. The kids I met in her class were super enthusiastic, cheerful, and excited to be there. It made my job really quite easy as a photographer, as they were vibrant and involved in many activities.
Then came the tough part. School was over and it was time to capture some images that illustrated the contrast between this school and its surroundings. Without knowing too much about the area, I just began walking around. In all honesty I was quite nervous because I had no clue how I was going to get the point of this contrast across in my photographs.
What I realized after walking around was that it is never best to be the photographer parachuting in, not knowing what he is talking about or not seeming confident. I feel as though people can smell that on you from a mile away. It is best to come into a situation honestly and be open to the situations and people that present themselves.
I ran into Deashon “Scotty” Moore and his daughter, Ava, on a nearby basketball court as he was shooting hoops. There was something really magical about them and their connection. I explained to the native Paterson basketball coach that I was a photographer from out of town who was sent to work on this assignment, and that I didn’t know much about the city and wanted to learn about it through the eyes of residents in the neighborhood. And then the rest of the day just began clicking. I began making frames of daily life and portraits of residents to give a “feeling” of what the neighborhood was like.
Rather than portraying the neighborhood in literal terms, it made sense to go with the flow and just photograph whomever I met and situations I came across along the way. How does one make a commentary on the impoverished state of a community without doing it disrespectfully, especially when only spending one day there? Luckily everyone I came across was quite open to me being there. Rather than trying to capture the neighborhood formulaically to try and illustrate “the story,“ it became apparent that just capturing people’s emotions and their daily lives within the backdrop of their neighborhood would give a better sense of life and activity in the vicinity of P.S. 28.
I wish I had had more days to shoot this assignment. Many of the residents and folks in the neighborhood had interesting stories, are really resilient and have a beautiful pride to them. In some ways it felt like many of them wanted their voices heard. Paterson is a really intriguing corner of the world. I look forward to going back.
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.