‘Free Film’ project unleashes the power of photography on the Lower East Side

Elise Geschardt, Junior Designer and Free Tripp, Director of Fabrication handing out film and info on the first day of the Free Film Project
Photo by Bob Krasner

For a month, an Airstream trailer was parked outside the Lower East Side Girls Club and it was even more special than it looked. It was the source of free film for people in the neighborhood — complete with a working darkroom and a place to borrow a camera and learn from a working photographer how to shoot and develop.

It all began in a storefront on Canal Street in 2018 according to Free Tripp, who is listed on his organization’s website as the “Head of Space.” That was the start of the Brooklyn-based non-profit group “Worthless Studios” project called, not surprisingly, “Free Film: NYC.”

The idea was to give out a roll of film per person, have them document their neighborhood, and then bring back the film and make prints in the temporary darkroom. It was successful in many ways — for one, “almost everyone brought back the film,” said Tripp. The photos produced, he said, “captured that moment in New York City – it was a downtown scene as seen by a diverse group.”

The next step was to procure the Airstream trailer that would house a darkroom and allow the project to be mobile. After spending six months renovating the trailer — new axles, new floors, electricity, etc. — they were ready to roll across America. After having made stops at cities including Detroit, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Austin, New Orleans and Birmingham, the trailer was back, settled in the East Village.

12 year old Thierry spent some quality time in the Airstream darkroomPhoto by Bob Krasner
Destiny Mata with photographer/volunteer ZeroPhoto by Bob Krasner
Photo by Bob Krasner
Carmen Rosario and Elizabeth Perez checking out the informal photo exhibit inside the AirstreamPhoto by Bob Krasner

Documentary photographer Destiny Mata answered an open call and was chosen to facilitate the project for the month. She suggested that the trailer operate in front of the Girls Club, where she had spent two years as the director of photography programs, and where she still teaches. She was an inspired choice, as she lives in the neighborhood and is dedicated to documenting the endless stories that surround us in the East Village.

“Destiny has such an interest and affection for her community,” explains Tripp. “It was great to see her engage with everyone.”

Mata muses that “my art is being with my community…..my process is being with my neighbors and students.”

Mata watched people like 44-year-old Rosa Lee Rodriguez, a Lillian Wald Houses resident who was born and raised in the Lower East Side, “go from zero to sixty” with her new found passion, which she shared with her two daughters.

Nadine Ramnarine, who also participated with her two daughters, mentioned that “this photography project brought me closer to my kids.”

Organizers, volunteers, neighbors: Erikka Electra James, Kelly Adams, Lou Dembrow, Destiny Mata, Katherine Cooper, Sinjun Strom, Free TrippPhoto by Bob Krasner
Photo by Bob Krasner
Neighborhood man gets his free roll of Tri-X on opening day of the projectPhoto by Bob Krasner

Local photographer Zero has been volunteering her time daily and loving it.

“I’m a bartender, but this is my passion,” she says. “ I do street photography and film is my favorite — Tri-X developed in D-76, it’s classic!” She adds, “I loved working with the kids and the moms — it’s amazing to watch the kids slow down and get involved in the process.”

Mata concurs, noting that “when the photos appear in the developer, the kids eyes light up. They slow down into a meditative state.”

Many of the results of the neighborhood’s efforts hang on the Airstream walls, and the door is usually open for passersby to check out the work — which frequently results in the small space becoming an informal community center.

Most likely, the best pics will end up in a book to document the project; an exhibition is also possible. There is also hope that a permanent darkroom will be installed somewhere in the neighborhood (maybe in some popular community-oriented center?) so that analog photography can continue to draw more people in and have a positive effect on the local families.

Destiny Mata attracted the paparazziPhoto by Bob Krasner
Destiny Mata instructing a participantPhoto by Bob Krasner
Dr. Mollie Serena explained her art installation for the benefit of the photographers on Avenue DPhoto by Bob Krasner
This participant got serious with a medium format cameraPhoto by Bob Krasner

The variety of images are from a variety of sources. Besides the many individuals, the Girls Club high school photography class focused on Avenue D, where they made portraits and interviewed activists, artists, and families.

A middle school class photographed and interviewed a local business, Don Juan’s barber shop on Avenue C. Along with the Lower East Side Girls Club, the Dorill Initiative and City As High School students also experienced the darkroom.

Mata admits that it’s been a hectic month with “no time for me,” but she has no regrets. “This has been,” she concludes, “a magical experience.”

The Airstream is back in Brooklyn now, but you can find out more at worthlessstudios.org/projects#/free-film-nyc. Destiny Mata is at destinymata.com and on Instagram at @destiny.mata.