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There’s a neighborhood in north Philadelphia that leaves a lasting impression on all who go there, and not because of the crime or the poverty or the crumbling brick residences that make it seem like a war zone located right here in the land of the free. It’s the horses. You can see them on the scarred streets, massive beasts whose pure beauty makes the urban blight around them even more shameful. For generations, this Philly neighborhood has been an unlikely equestrian outpost, a place where riding horses is not just a hobby but also a necessity for the men and boys who gather at the handful of stables there daily to care for the animals and, in the process, for each other.

At least, this is the case that Martha Camarillo makes in Fletcher Street (powerHouse). In 128 pages and 65 color photos, her book describes a unique pocket of life that few would believe in or comprehend without this visual proof—picture after picture of guys wearing Stussy sweatshirts and oversized basketball jerseys, Timberlands, and knit hats, grooming horses, racing horses or just trotting by the Dunkin’ Donuts. Even the people who live there remain in awe at the sight of their neighbors clip-clopping by. In one photo, girls have stopped their game of double Dutch to gape at a couple of riders. “It’s as if they’ve seen a ghost,” says Camarillo. “The [jump]rope isn’t going anymore.”

The New York-based, self-taught photographer has been documenting Fletcher Street for three years. She explains that in the 1930s and 40s, the area was home to numerous Jewish-owned stables, and over time it has evolved into what it is today: a rough neighborhood housing perhaps five stables and some 30 horses, all of them African-American-owned. Camarillo learned of Fletcher Street through a music-promoter friend named Peggy, who, as she recalls it, told her “there are kids who ride horses in the hood.” One night, Camarillo and Peggy drove to north Philly, looking for these fabled kids, and by chance, they found some of the adult horsemen out for an evening race. “Peggy and I always joked that she never liked for me to make a full stop at the stop sign,” says Camarillo, noting that carjacking was a very real threat. “She liked to keep the wheels rolling.”

Camarillo, who is 40, introduced herself to the men and persuaded them to let her photograph them. “They’ve never been into anyone taking their picture or writing about them,” she explains. “They like what they do, and they don’t really need 15 minutes of fame.” She surmises that they trusted her because she was genuinely interested in them. “I wasn’t just trying to make a flash story.”

Actually, she wasn’t sure what she was going to make of what she saw before her that night or on subsequent visits, of which there have been many. She simply photographed everything that unfolded before her, intrigued by the men and boys (there are no girl equestrians on Fletcher Street), their love for the horses, their sense of community and what she describes as the “street mentoring” that the men provide. Kids of all ages wander in and, by doing chores like cleaning the stable, learn about the horses and eventually earn the privilege of riding. As Camarillo sees it, the stables and the men who oversee them are an important constant for the youths. “We’re talking about an area where everybody ends up going to juvenile detention. People go to jail,” she says. In fact, one of the boys in her book has since died, in a car crash resulting from a police chase.

Part of what appeals to Camarillo about Fletcher Street, she says, is that nobody there is perfect. There’s a strong sense of community, and people look out for each other, but it’s not a movie of the week for the Hallmark Channel. People don’t necessarily learn their lesson at the end. That makes it an interesting subject for a book and, soon, a documentary; Camarillo is now shooting a film on the area that she hopes to complete in a couple of years. But it also means the work may be more challenging than some people can stomach. And the fact that these are photos of black youths, says Camarillo, is another obstacle to acceptance. “I think people are afraid  of this kind of image,” she says. “I’ve just gotten that vibe. People love it, but they don’t want it in their homes.”

Obviously, she wasn’t thinking about how her work would be received when she started the project, and she still isn’t. Her focus is on faithfully documenting the Fletcher Street experience. She notes that she didn’t light or otherwise manipulate the photos in the book. “It’s almost not a photographic process,” says Camarillo, who strove to capture what she saw but not interpret it. In that way, Fletcher Street evokes Remote Photos (Janvier/Léo Scheer), a 2005 book by her and artist Avena Gallagher for which they sent cameras and articles of clothing to various models, with instructions to for the girls to photograph themselves wearing the garments however they saw fit. Gallagher and Camarillo, who once supported herself doing model tests (see sidebar), wanted to reveal how the young women envisioned themselves without a stylist or professional photographer telling them what to do. It, like Fletcher Street, was a project about identity.

Before she fell under the spell of Fletcher Street, Camarillo spent her days shooting editorial for clients like The New York Times Magazine—her first assignment was shooting Pillsbury Bakeoff contestants around the country—and Travel + Leisure. And she still frequently goes on assignment; she recently made portraits of well-heeled art collectors in Dallas for a T+L feature. But Camarillo never stays away from north Philly for long, and she sees herself remaining a part of the community even after she completes her documentary. With gentrification creeping ever closer, she hopes her project will help protect if not the actual stables then at least the traditions of Fletcher Street—maybe result in the stables being moved to a permanent home, where they can be enjoyed by generations to come. And if that works out, her beloved urban cowboys aren’t the only ones who will benefit.

“I sometimes go down to Fletcher Street, and I don’t shoot a damn thing,” she says. “It’s gotten so in my blood, that I just need to touch base with them. One thing they have said is that I’m part of their family now: ‘You’re Fletcher Street. You’re family.’ That’s a big honor.”

(Published in the May 2007 issue of PDN.)