Philly Photo Day returns after a 9-year hiatus

The photography institute TILT is bringing back its city-wide photo-sharing project.

Photo submission to past Philly Photo Day. (Kennedy Christopher, 2013)

Photo submission to past Philly Photo Day. (Kennedy Christopher, 2013)

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A city-wide community photography project is coming back after nine dormant years.

Philly Photo Day invites anyone with a camera to take a picture on Friday, April 5, and send it to the community arts nonprofit TILT Institute for the Contemporary Image. An online submission portal will remain active through April 14.

All received images will be printed and exhibited en masse at TILT’s gallery inside the Crane Arts building on North American Street in Kensington from May 18 – June 1.

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Philly Photo Day was started in 2011 by TILT, then called the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, and ran until 2015. In its final year, 1,412 pictures were sent in with a wide range of subjects and skill levels.

“We get pictures of people’s lunch, their dog, their babies. We get iconic landmarks in the city,” said CEO and artistic director Sarah Stolfa. “We get such a crazy range of pictures and have a crazy range of people taking the pictures. They might be 3 years old and using their parents’ phone, and we have professional photographers doing it. Everyone’s voice is equal.”

The first Philly Photo Day was held right after Instagram launched in 2010, which made sharing photos with random strangers customary for many people. But unlike social media, Stolfa said Philly Photo Day concludes with an in-person event where people gather IRL to look at each other’s pictures.

Sarah Stolfa, CEO and artistic director of TILT, with books from previous Philly Photo Days. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

“Instagram is on your phone. There are no actual humans to engage in face-to-face conversation, like we are,” Stolfa said. “We all get to show our voices, but then come together to see the physical print of a photograph, which is elusive and rare these days.”

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TILT reserves the right to exclude submitted pictures it deems offensive or inappropriate, but Stolfa said she never had to exercise that right.

Although it created a successful community event for four years, TILT (then Philly Photo Arts) canceled the program because it was a drain on the small nonprofit’s resources. Stolfa and her staff would partner with up to 40 community groups to hold workshops and public events around Philly Photo Day. But the organization had other community ambitions, such as the Philly Block Project, and money became more challenging to find. Photo Day became exhausting.

“Philly Photo Day was a really big undertaking for the organization, especially in the final years,” she said. “It was taking everything we had to do it every year.”

During the pandemic TILT shrank even further, like most arts organizations, particularly those centered on community-building. Now Stolfa is bringing back Photo Day to mark the organization’s 15th anniversary and reconnect with a public that may have drifted away.

Stolfa found a sponsor in Comcast NBCUniversal, but this time, Photo Day will be held without a network of community partners.

“It’s been a difficult five years for everybody,” Stolfa said. “It feels like this is a good time to do something fun and creative and that celebrates community.”

Another thing that has changed the world since 2015 is artificial intelligence. AI image generators are far more common than when TILT last held a Photo Day. Stolfa says there will be no attempt to weed out computer-generated imagery.

“This is probably an unpopular thing to say, but it doesn’t really matter to me, at least in this context,” Stolfa said. “There is a context where AI is damaging, but in the context of art, who’s to say?”

Because the Photo Day project encourages and honors everyone’s ability to contribute an image of their world — whether a blurry smear of a tuna sandwich or a crisp shot of the Ben Franklin Bridge in golden twilight — Stolfa doesn’t see a meaningful distinction between a camera shutter and an AI program.

“This is a very old question that’s never been answered about what photography is,” Stolfa said. “It’s one of the reasons we ended up changing our name, so that we could take ‘Photo’ out of our name, recognizing the fact that artists today and in the future are going to find new ways of making imagery. It may not be with a camera as we know it right now.”

Photo Day submissions in previous years were compiled into annual, self-published books. The number of submissions received will determine whether a book is published this year.

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