33 high-school students took photos to capture the everyday reality of living in North Philadelphia, where the poverty rate is 40% and life expectancy is 20 years shorter

Students involved in the photography project displayed their work on April 25 at Taller Puertorriqueño in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services
  • 33 high-school students took hundreds of photos as part of a project to assess the health needs of Latinos in a section of North Philadelphia.
  • The photos show trash, abandoned buildings, and discarded needles. Some images are hopeful, too.
  • “I looked for things that affect us in a way that people don’t really think about,” one student said.
  • You can see more of the students’ photos in the slideshow below.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Yariel, 18, walks by the trash-strewn lot every day on his way to work.

So when he had the chance to participate in a project taking pictures that show the biggest barriers to healthy living in North Philadelphia, he knew what he’d photograph.

“It was just a mess and it looked like a dump,” he said in an interview from his job at Providence Center, a community organisation where he works on projects like tree planting and neighbourhood cleanups. “It overall looks bad for your community.”

6th and Huntingdon
Sixth and Huntingdon: ‘I see this going to work every day. Would you like to see this?” Yariel N./Philadelphia Collaborative for Health Equity

Business Insider isn’t using Yariel’s last name or that of the other students we interviewed to protect their privacy.

Yariel’s photos were part of an effort by the Philadelphia Collaborative for Health Equity to assess the health needs of Latinos in a section of North Philadelphia, a particularly disadvantaged part of America’s sixth-biggest city. In all, 33 students took hundreds of photos for the project. They displayed their best work in an exhibition in April.

‘They’re the experts on their own lives’

The idea of including teens in the health-needs assessment, alongside standard quantitative analyses and interviews with community groups, was to gain a more complete understanding of issues facing the community, said Caleb Dafilou, a research fellow at the Philadelphia Collaborative for Health Equity who worked with the students. Dafilou also authored the final report.

“These kids are living the experience,” he said. “They’re the experts on their own lives. It was really important for us to come in here and learn from them.”

The Philadelphia Collaborative for Health Equity is part of the Jefferson Health hospital system and was sparked by a $US1 million donation in 2017. After conducting the health assessment, the collaborative put out a call for proposals to address the key problems it identified: mental health; trauma, safety, and violence; housing; and the built environment. The plan is to spend $US600,000 to fund a dozen projects for a year.

“We wanted to use the principle of doing it from the ground up, to go and listen and build trust in the community,” said Jack Ludmir, executive director of the collaborative. “If you look at health outcome metrics for the city, these communities have some of the worst health metrics.”

In the area of North Philadelphia targeted by the study, about 40% of people have incomes below the poverty line, Aneri Pattani of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the initiative. Overall, children born in parts of North Philadelphia can expect to live 20 years less than those who grow up in wealthier parts of the city, according to Pattani’s reporting.

Jeran, 18, said he wanted to highlight problems like the lack of healthy food in his community and the prevalence of abandoned buildings.


“I looked for things that affect us in a way that people don’t really think about,” he said in an interview.

Another theme that came up a lot in the photos was drug use, Dafilou said. This picture shows used needles in a storm drain.


Here’s the caption written by the student who took the picture:

“It’s bad for the community because there are always kids running around. My quote means that there be kids playing around and they can fall and get cut from the needle and get sick. Also there’s more in the sewers and that’s a health issue because the water gets polluted by whatever in the needle.”

Felipe wanted to make sure I knew that there was much more to his city than the images of trash, needles, and homelessness.


“Some community members in Philadelphia actually do get together,” he told me. “They do try to control the drugs and stuff, to make a better environment for the children.”

This photo that he took is titled “the sky is not the limit.”

You can see more of the students’ photos below, with titles and captions written by the students. This one is titled “My city no matter how it looks.”


“This was the very first picture I took. This picture came out nice so I wanted to take more pictures of my city and show people what it looks like when I go out of state and see friends and family. I can show them how my city looks and then I can go out and take pictures of their city and show my friends and family how it looks out there. I took this picture looking out of my brother’s window. I liked how the city in the background looks. There is trash next to the street in peoples backyards. People come and go through the bags and the trash goes everywhere. Down where the buildings and stuff is at there is not a lot of trash. There are people who clean it up. Nobody wants to clean it here.”

A dangerous walk


“People just don’t care about nature. It just makes things worse with diseases, drugs, and needles. Last time I found a shot with blood on it. It makes me sick and makes me feel scared. Somebody could have killed themselves. When I showed my mum and she told me to be careful because it could be something bad. It could be a weapon or there could be a gun … My mum takes me to my program and we take this street every time and nothing changes. Everyone should just try to recycle. We put up signs that say recycle but they just keep throwing the trash down because they are lazy. No one cares about this planet, but we might need it.”

Alley of creativity

Alley of Creativity Sergio N./Philadelphia Collaborative for Health Equity

“In this photograph I wanted to establish how a creepy alley can become ones creative outlet. I also wanted to establish how being able to express yourself allows you to have a healthy state of mind as opposed to doing drugs or something else that can become harmful to yourself or to the people in your environment. Having a healthy state of mind allows one to be themselves and allows them to be more creative.”

Community destruction


“Leaving trash around the community makes us look like we don’t love our community. My quote means that people just dump trash anywhere. People who just visit probably be disgusted.”



“In this photograph I wanted to establish how in the area of Kensington, poverty and drug abuse is a real issue … This photograph establishes how drugs can effect you in a negative way and can harm one’s health.”

Wall art


“This image is very important to me as I grow up seeing this wall art as it was the first time i ever really experience and acknowledging that graffiti can be used for beautiful art and not just to mark territories.

“The ways in which this wall helps the community is by either restoring it or just even have other artist come and add their part to the broken and torn apart section of the wall art.

“Now it doesn’t have to be a whole remodel of the wall to a exact replica but by introducing new artist to this wall then personally i would think it would be better because it would be a very refreshing art especially to the community.

“This would help out the community/neighbourhood by making sure that they do not feel like if there is a bland in their neighbourhood or just a colorless environment. By making sure that the community feel like if their community is not so colorless and bland then we can be able to give them at least pride that the neighbourhood and community that their in even though it’s not the best, is unique and has personality.

“This is important as many people would feel like they have been betrayed and living in a area in which is dirty and violent would mostly give you a small but yet important relief that their can be something as beautiful in the area.”



“In this picture I was walking by and noticed tons of trash at the bottom of my feet. So I took a picture of it. I have been walking this way for a long time because it’s my route for work. It’s been like this without anyone doing anything about it.”



“The cop cars and the big truck are such a big presence in the neighbourhood. The cars are always there and are an eye sore because I have to walk by them every day. The cops want to see if the people come back or not.”

Parking lot


“There are frequently kids running around near a dangerous building. I feel like people do not care about me or my neighbourhood because no one is trying to fix the empty lot. The abandoned building allows people to enter and cause trouble.”

Save the neighbourhood


“Pollution is in the way of my life. My neighbourhood is very badly polluted with too much trash and it smells. People see that and think it’s a bad place to live. Needs a lot of people to clean up the area. To make this place clean, we would need to put out garbage cans and also put out cameras to watch everything that’s happening.”

Secret garden


“This picture shows when I went to a flower festival. It was my first time being there, and it was fun and relaxing to watch those beautiful flower designs that they made. Sometimes when I’m home, I lay in my bed and pretend I am sleeping on flowers, like in the secret garden. I don’t feel like I am overthinking and it helps me be calm. Sometimes I want to stay in the flower bed all day.”

The memorial


“This picture is kind of sad because this shows that a lot of people are dying in the streets sometimes just for being there at the wrong time. The thing I feel we should change is people should be more strict about who they are giving guns to.”

The public garden


“This public garden is a prime example of how the environment is now. Citizens are adding more gardens but not caring for them. Gardens are important because plants give us oxygen for the environment.”



“This picture is inspiring because the lights and the colour of the sky can make somebody smile. I chose this picture because the day I took it I was actually having a bad day. When I saw this canvas it actually made me smile and made my day better. There was a nice breeze that night. The type of breeze that you can take a deep breath.”