Harry Montas, a 21-year old continuing student at Guttman, was in the Atrium proudly presenting his photos and video from a recent trip to the Dominican Republic. A closer look at the small exhibit showed schoolchildren featured in photos that were hung up on a fishing net. Harry, a photographer and filmmaker, went to the Dominican Republic with Guttman alumnus Hector Castillo to take photos and videos to build awareness of the poverty and poor learning conditions children in Las Barias, Bani deal with on a daily basis. Their goal is to raise money to provide transportation, uniforms, and better breakfasts for the kids in Las Barias.
Las Barias is a small town in the southern Bani region of the Dominican Republic where Hector Castillo grew up. A Kaplan Scholar and Class of 2018 President, Hector has always had an ambition to go back to the Dominican Republic and help his community. Friends since high school, Hector asked Harry to join him on this trip because he knew Harry’s skills would be a great asset to his mission.
Hector influenced Harry to attend Guttman. They both attended Bronx Haven High School, and while Harry didn’t plan to go to college, Hector told him about Guttman and all it has to offer. Harry thought that the Guttman model could be exactly what he needed to help him get a college degree.
Harry’s hesitancy about college did not come from a lack of ambition. While still in high school, he was approached by New York Times photographer Michael Kamber to join the Bronx Junior Photo League program at the Bronx Documentary Center and hone his talent as a photographer and filmmaker. The Bronx Documentary Center is a non-profit organization founded by Kamber that focuses on bringing documentary photography, film and new media to underserved communities. It offers public programming for middle and high school kids. As part of his tenure there, first as a high school student and now as a student teacher and a member of the inaugural documentary program, BDC Films, Harry is able to put on exhibits of his work and share his valuable experience as an artist and social justice documentarian. He’s also traveled to Japan to participate in a multi-national friendly photography competition. As part of a program with another non-profit, the East Side House Settlement, he’s led a trip to Europe as part of an international youth photography program.
Lessons he’s learned at Guttman have also helped him become a better filmmaker. As an example, Harry brought up his Ethnographies of Work class. In the class, Professor Nicole Kras explained the concept of the Hawthorne Effect, where a subject of a study will alter their behavior due to the awareness of being observed. Harry said this was on his mind the entire time he was documenting the daily routines of students in the Dominican Republic, and had planned to make himself and all his equipment as inconspicuous as possible in order to achieve the most authentic results.
Harry also credits Professor Valdon Battice with helping him improve his writing. Professor Battice, an artist and photographer himself, told Harry that while the art itself is important, it is crucial to be able to write about it in such a way as to give it the proper context, delivered in a meaningful way.
Harry has also been involved with UMOC and is a member of the Muslim Student Association at Guttman. Outside of school, he cares for his brothers and grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
Community seems to be at the center of everything Harry does. His work at the Bronx Documentary Center, all his extracurricular activities and concern for those at home show that helping one another and creating an environment of support are ingrained in his philosophy on life. Community is also Harry’s favorite thing about Guttman. He said that community “orients the space” at Guttman, and students are encouraged to be a part of it. Harry said that Guttman is a place that cares for students, one where they are pushed to do well not just for the sake of graduating but to become better students overall.
A sense of community is also what struck Harry during his trip to DR. When he and Hector arrived there, they traveled to Las Barias in a car. Driving through the very rural area, they noticed a pickup truck filled with children. Hector’s uncle, who drove them, told them it was the town’s mayor taking the kids to school. Because there was no other way for the children to get there, every morning the mayor would drive his own pickup truck and transport the kids to ensure they attended school to learn, and often get their only meals for the day.
When Harry arrived at the school, he was shocked at the conditions he saw. The building did not resemble the learning environment he’s been used to seeing at home. There was paint peeling off the bare walls, and the classrooms were a “just a box with a few tables and a teacher.” The kids’ breakfast consisted of a piece of bread and chocolate milk. Harry said the whole scene made him feel spoiled.
But he also said that he was in awe of the kids’ attitude. They were all happy and seemed unaware of the hardships they’re facing. They were appreciative of what little they had, and made the best out of it. When they were playing in the schoolyard, one of the children showed Harry how to make toys and games out of the flowers growing in the yard.
Harry also made an effort to spend time with the kids outside of school. Two students gave him a tour of the town and showed him their daily lives. In his reflections of the trip, Harry wrote: “We swam in ancient watering holes that have been shaped by running water, we climbed powerlines, made toys out of plants and played basketball barefooted with a ball that wasn’t inflated. These two kids gave me a tour of a lifetime and showed me that Dominicans do with what they have. Just because they are in a rough spot doesn’t mean they won’t find a way to have a good time and get through rough times.”
The days spent in Las Barias made it clear to Harry that the community needs help to improve the conditions for the children. “One can only imagine what these children of Las Barias, Bani would be capable of if they had better support for their education,” Harry wrote. Harry and Hector want to do that by showing the photos and video they took in a gallery space in Washington Heights, which has a large Dominican population. The exhibit is meant to raise funds that will go back to assist the Las Barias community. You can support the fundraising efforts by donating to the Go Fund Me campaign Hector organized.
As a tribute to the wonderful people Harry met during his trip to the Dominican Republic, he stayed up until 2 am the night before his exhibit at Guttman to hand-make the net where he hung his photos. The trip had a big impact on Harry. “These experiences such as the one I had in Las Barias, Bani are the ones that keep me motivated in my documentary pursuits. I am merely a kid from the Bronx, statistics suggest that I shouldn’t have made it this far in life, but because of my education I am here today and through their education they will still be here tomorrow,” he wrote.