Tonya Delgado, 17, sat in the exhibition space at Artworks, Trenton’s downtown visual arts center, surrounded by framed photographs hanging on walls, some of them her own work.
“I’ve always been into all types of art, photography, fashion, writing poetry, all of that,” she said. “But I’ve never really gotten the chance to display or to show anything.”
Delgado is one of six students and eight mentors whose work is shown in COVID-Topia, which runs until the end of the month.
Collectively, Fábrica De Fotos, is described as “a photography club of students and mentors embodying different cultures and generations, building unity through photography.” Students meet once a week through zoom with a mentor to discuss different photography methods.
“It has given me a chance to broaden my horizons and broaden my idea of what art can do,” adds Delgado, a Trenton Catholic Academy student who has been accepted to the Pratt Institute. “For me COVID really put an emphasis on self-discovery.”
Fábrica De Fotos’ founder Tamara Torres, an accomplished artist, remembers sitting inside one cold day during the pandemic, photographing sunlight streaming onto a plant in her front window. Struck with the urge to talk with someone about photography she reached out to her friend Tulia Jimenez-Vergara, who works with FUTURO, an inclusive and diverse youth mentoring program for first and second generation immigrant students.
Cognizant of the pressures of lockdown living, Torres asked Jimenez-Vergara if she knew any kids who might want to learn more about photography.
In that moment, Fábrica De Fotos was born. Weekly zoom meetings were set up where mentors join the students for part of the hour to offer insights and tips on different methods and approaches to capturing moments and memories.
As the students grew their body of work, and when the plant of the club started to bear fruit, thoughts of an exhibition sprouted. Torres found ArtWorks a willing partner. And having the use of their main exhibition space for COVID-Topia is, “something I will never forget and that the students will never forget, either,” she said.
Jimenez-Vergara not only brought students to Fábrica De Fotos, but she herself participated as a photography student. Growing up, she recalls her father taking “a lot of architectural pictures in black and white” but she was never allowed to touch the camera.
She admits being nervous at first to participate as a student in this project, but it helped her connect not only with photography and other artists, but with the subjects of her pictures, too.
“Through the pictures I was able to talk about the reality of my family, for example to bring some aspect of Alzheimer’s,” she said. “One of the pictures I had was my mother and step-father talking and singing to my niece (virtually) and so it’s a way of keeping the language, keeping the traditions, in these difficult times.”
And Fábrica De Fotos has not been just a one-way learning experience.
Mentor Edgar Osorio said he learned a lot about photography from his grandfather, who left farming in El Salvador to study photography in Panama. He later went back home and worked as a photographer.
“One of the biggest things that he’s always mentioned to me is that life is nothing but art. It’s a way of living, it’s a way of art,” Osorio said. But, he added, “I think I learned a lot more of my art through explaining it to the kids.”
Fellow mentor C.a. Shofed was impressed with the work of the students.
“I remember my first couple of shots I took,” he said. “They aren’t as good as what these kids have done here. I think they did an amazing job taking the lessons they learned…and experimenting. I will say that I see a little bit of all of us in all of the shots.”
The show at ArtWorks opened on April 17 and is open to the public through May 29 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Saturday. Masks are mandatory.
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Michael Mancuso may be reached at [email protected]