Artist Profile / Arts Education / Guest Author: Series / Philadelphia

Back to School – An Interview with Sahar Coston-Hardy: Guest Author Series

Guest Author Sarah Rene interviews Sahar Coston-Hardy (pictured below)


Photo of Sahar courtesy of the artist: Sahar Coston-Hardy

“I am a photographer interested in the life that I see”

Sahar Coston-Hardy is a photographer from the Philadelphia area. She has an undergraduate degree from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, with her senior thesis being a documented collaboration of Chinese Sto’. Since then she has continued a journey through imagery. In her professional career she has worked for Philadelphia Museum of Art and at Olin, a landscape architecture, urban design and planning firm. Personally uses the camera for portraiture, wedding and street photography that narrate themes of singular issues that the artist finds important. I wanted to talk with Sahar about her most recent work “Back to School”, a series that focuses on the unused, under supported and repurposed buildings of the Philadelphia School District’s plight for educating youth. Along with Marco Hill she has been shooting this ongoing series for over a year.

Give the world a bit of information about yourself – who are you?

I am a photographer interested in documenting the life that I see. I am interested in looking at everyday issues that people deal with in urban life. Whether that is issues around race, culture or economics my interest is in photographing that kind of work.

Knowing you for over a decade I would put your life in the order of wife and mother, photographer and creative, but now have added the title of educational advocate to your roster. Do you think that is accurate or not? please elaborate.

Number one would be wife, mother and photographer all together.  I think my family to me is as important as my creative outlet, and without my creative outlet I would not be able to live.

I don’t know if I can claim being an educational advocate but want to advocate for Pennsylvania’s school, especially areas such as Philadelphia where I am from. I have volunteered with educational organizations such as Public Citizen for Children and Youth. Through this organization I have gone to Harrisburg-to sit and speak about topics relating to school funding.  The talks centered on the necessity to have a funding formula; Pennsylvania is one of three states in the nation that does not have one. A funding formula provides equity across the school districts so that every school gets a fair share of resources. This is so the wealthiest districts do not receive all the funding and poor areas receive close to none. That doesn’t exist in Philadelphia and that is why we have the largest wealth gap in the nation. These are things that are important to me, but to call myself an advocate for education I need to do much more.

(“Marco and I) wanted to document a moment in time”

How did the series “Back to School” happen?

Some of it was that I wasn’t making personal work anymore. I wanted a new series to begin my personal journey again. Marco Hill, a photographer and friend wanted the same thing, which led to the idea of collaboration. As we were discussing things over lunch the Philadelphia School District was one of the overarching topics of conversation and right away we thought “let’s document this change”. In our journeys and research we found that some of the buildings are being torn down, converted into charter school or lofts. We definitely wanted to document a moment in time of what Philadelphia school structure looked like and it’s surrounding community.


Photo courtesy of the artist: Sahar Costan-Hardy

What surfaces, images, text etc. were you searching for in your journey?

Lots of people have photograph the Philadelphia’s schools districts decline but for Marco and I it is more about the school in its original context, and for me the community as well.

We both try to tell a story, so details are important and we have similar details too. So you will see a sense of repetition in both of our work. For example, ‘signage such as the huge proper availability signs are seen on many of the building. These are things you cannot miss. But we are also, even though we are collaborating, staying true to our personal styles. As a street photography I most often go to photographs that have people in it. In my work you will see figures walking by and they don’t always have to be recognizable. My story includes ideas around the ghosted landscape, which shows details of subject matter (i.e. No parking signage during school hours) left behind. For Marco I think it’s a bit different and you will have to ask him. His work is more architectural based, abstract figure/ground sorts of descriptions.

Tell me about the show at the Gravy Studio & Gallery and the other artist who showed.

The past September 2015 the show at Gravy Studio & Gallery happened to be a show that featured two separate sets of collaborators. Marco Hill and I were already underway with our project when we met Lendl Tellington and Sarah Milinski. I went to an artist talk with cinematographer Bradford Young at the Scribe Video Center. He’s a favorite of mine. Visitors were encouraged to talk with each other and it so happened I sat next to Lendl and Sarah, who were filming a series on the Philadelphia’s public school educational crisis. Both were from Baltimore, which is where my husband grew up so we had that in common as well. They told me about an exhibition opportunity upcoming in September and this led the opportunity to share space at Gravy Studio & Gallery.

“This is sort of full circle, I was fighting for what I thought should change for the better then.”

Sahar, you grew up as part of the Philadelphia’s educational systems in the 80s/90s. What do you remember about it? How has the view change or enhanced as you are now a parent?

In high school I went to Creative and Performance Arts (CAPA) high school in the city. (As a student) we had walkouts then. I petition with the group Philadelphia Student Union. I took pictures and videoed these walkouts with friends of mine. I always was fighting for things to be better. We always needed more then, but now (Philadelphians) are getting less. We are getting less from the state and that (is why the) funding formula needs to happen now.

I love my city but because of the lack of funding I had to leave it. Hurtfully I moved my family out of the city to provide my children with more opportunity. Luckily I had the option to afford a home right outside the city, but for others they cannot. We need to change this.

When you think of your photography work  “Back to School” what is it you want people to take away?

I want people to understand that our school system in Philadelphia needs to be changed. We cannot keep converting these building into lofts or charters for monetary purposes. Philadelphia district cannot be just a charter-run district. I want people to be upset and moved you know. I want people to react.

 What is the overall goal of this work? Where do you want it to leave you as a photographer? What is your personal takeaway?

The goal is to finish it, but also Marco and I want to go back to photograph the progress as well. For example, William Penn is being demolished as we speak and we photographed that area when the building was there. So with shooting these ideas for over a year ideas are now evolving. Documenting the constant flux is also important. It’s not just the standing buildings, they are going to be gutted, or knock down for something else to take place. We definitely want to photograph the overall process.

My personal takeaway is just to create work for myself. To work on projects that to make myself happy overall.

Article by Guest Author: Sarah Rene

Sarah Rene is a visual artist and educator from the Philadelphia area. Her artistic practice surrounds ideas of nature vs. nurture, usually one taking precedent on a 2-dimensional surfaces overall.

She has been teaching in a public school system for over 10 years, starting a career right out of undergraduate school. She has a Master of Fine Arts in Painting, a degree in photography and currently teaches the Advanced Placement course at Upper Darby High School. She is a Donors Choose recipient, honored for June 2015 Teacher of the Month and is currently a committee member of The University of Arts Alumni Council. Her approach to teaching art heavily relies in history to support current application of materials and lesson objectives. As a mentor and lecturer her current initiative is supporting reading and writing, based in art criticism, within the all-inclusive elective classroom.

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