NEAR NORTH SIDE — Alice Pham thought she knew every inch of Uptown — until she saw it through the eyes of nonresidents when she and her classmates from Latin School of Chicago teamed up with students from Goudy Elementary School to photograph the neighborhood for a school project.
"I saw so much of Uptown I hadn't seen in my 16 years [living] in the neighborhood. I'd forgotten about how much art there is," said Pham, who remembered ducking through alleys for snapshots of the graffiti present littering the neighborhood to illustrate her project.
The We Are Uptown project, which began in March, brought students from both schools together for a photography project inspired by Bob Rehak's book "Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the mid-1970s." The book chronicles Uptown during the 1970s through Rehak's collection of more than 5,000 portraits of the neighborhood along with interviews from its residents.
While Pham was familiar with some of the negative aspects, like poverty, homelessness and violence, the project "gave us more insight" of Uptown, she said.
"I learned so much about the neighborhood.. [but] I think this project also helped me learn about the people," she said.
Pham was one of 16 students between the schools to participate in the weeklong project, which took place during an "alternative education" week.
After Googling "Uptown Portraits," Latin School's photography teacher Betty Ross came across Rehak's book. After receiving permission, Ross traveled to Houston to meet with Rehak and attend a Literacy Through Photography training program, Ross said.
The program empowers "students through visual literacy, photography and writing," according to its website.
"I said 'that’s exactly the kind of thing we should be doing on this project' — having the kids photograph and having them write about it," Ross said. On the trip she said she discovered "how brilliant and successful Bob is."
Rehak agreed to discuss his approach to the project via Skype with the students before they began theirs. Then the students were broken up into teams of four and given a focal point, like mechanics or restaurant owners in Uptown, she said.
The students then blogged about their portraits and the stories behind them. The best were disseminated on the We Are Uptown blog, Ross said.
On Monday, Rehak met with students at Latin School, 59 W. North Ave., and discussed how to improve their portraits. He also helped them choose the best shots to be displayed at City Hall in June.
In his speech to the school, he talked about his "experience with Uptown and overcoming the fears that were associated with that," Rehak said.
"Back when I was photographing Uptown, it was a pretty rough neighborhood. It didn’t look anything like it does right now," he said.
"Basically, the focus of the speech was how the experience of photographing changes you... You’re learning something new, you’re talking to somebody different."
While he was shooting the photos for his collection, Rehak says he was considering leaving the advertisement and business world to be a photographer. While he would ultimately stick with advertising, he applied the confidence from his empowering artwork to the business world: "it made me fearless in my business pitches," he said.
"These people felt invisible and they wanted someone to help tell their stories," he said. "When I snapped to that, it was like a life-changing thing that happened... [I realized] that every business person in the world feels the same way. Whether you’re an entrepreneur an advertising manager of a Fortune 500 company, you got awareness problems."
Rehak, who spent a year teaching at Northwestern University before realizing he enjoyed doing the work more than teaching it, says he took pride in being able to help the Chicago teachers reach students in an engaging way.
“It’s fun and rewarding,” he said. "What these guys do is really, really, really hard.
"Inspiring kids to go out and learn and triggering something that keeps them learning is a real spark. And I see that spark in some of these kids... In all of them actually."
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