When Rhynna Santos speaks about teaching photography, it’s hard to tell what excites her more: the craft or the people she teaches it to. As coordinator of the Bronx Senior Photo League for the past four years, Santos gushes with pride at watching her students learn and grow by practicing the craft.
“Older adults can learn new things, given the opportunity and the time. They have incredibly unique points of view,” said Santos, whose challenge of introducing seniors to the world of photography during the pandemic may have been her toughest so far.
Santos was already an accomplished photographer when her elderly father’s illness required her to become his caregiver several years ago, making her uniquely qualified to run the program through the Bronx Documentary Center, where the students’ works are on display through July. But nothing could have prepared her or her students for the health risks and the isolation COVID imposed.
Another obstacle most of the students faced while learning to capture images on their iphones was the achingly slow internet connections most had to contend with to attend class and follow Santos’ instruction.
Faced with those challenges, Santos adapted her curriculum accordingly.
At their end-of-year class, held via Zoom in June, the room was so jovial and the mood so light that an observer couldn’t have guessed how much the students had overcome during the previous nine months. They were giddy as they logged on from the students’ two locations, the Borinquen Court Mitchel Senior Center in Port Morris and the Kips Bay Castle Hill Senior Center, joking, complimenting one other and discussing each other’s work.
Renowned photographer Eugene Richards, whose work has been exhibited in major institutions around the country, joined the Zoom as guest invitee. He lauded them for carrying on during the trying times of the pandemic and the George Floyd protests.
“In all the ‘isms’ that are out there, ageism is probably at the bottom of the list for anybody,” said Richards, who is 77. “But it’s real. And you reach a certain point where people don’t pay attention to you anymore. They don’t think you can do the job. But we know that you can do the job. You all know you can do the job. You just have to do it differently.”
Santos later recalled the angst-filled early days of the pandemic, when infection rates kept climbing across the city, particularly in the Bronx, leaving elderly residents at highest risk.
“Some of my students live in senior citizen building. At the beginning of COVID, there were ambulances. I was getting a roll call of who passed [away] from the center,” Santos recalls. “The fear of losing one of my students—that was horrific.”
The students had little choice but to self-isolate. Logging onto the Bronx Documentary Center classes represented a lifeline to the outside world.
“COVID-19 has forced us all to stop and it’s been a real drag,” said Virgilio Carballo, who at 81 is the class’ senior member.
Along with the physical separation, reliance on Zoom posed its own challenge.
“It was really, really, really hard,” said Santos. “At that point in March, we couldn’t be online because our students didn’t have any equipment. I had one student with a computer, out of 12.” Because many of her students did not have email addresses, she and her team created slides to share via WhatsApp, and called the students individually to conduct lessons.
The ordeal left an impression on Santos, who rejects the stereotype that seniors can’t adapt to new technology.
“I really do encourage people with older adults in their lives to take time to teach them about tech and to teach them about computers because it makes their life so much easier,” she said.
The Bronx Documentary Center ramped up its service to the students, lending them iPads and NYCHA donated tablets.
But the spotty internet connections in the students’ NYCHA facilities remained an issue throughout.
But despite—or because of—the logistical problems wrought by the pandemic, Santos said, “This is the tightest class I have ever had.”
The group has plans to meet in person to visit photography exhibits in the city, and each has expressed a desire to continue shooting photos.