In conversation with photographer Shawn Theodore

The profile reads “Life within a vanishing landscape of Black neighborhoods”. It is a perfect description of Shawn’s vision, a poetic, visual tribute to the streets and the people of Philadelphia. Somehow he captures majesty in ordinary spaces, while his subjects pass through them in heavy silhouette, bathed in the sunlight of a large, cloudless sky- his lens catching a mere moment before they disappear behind doors, around corners and into the shadows. Mysteries looming in clear sight, technicolor ghosts, Shawn sees all but the ordinary in his passers by.

I had to know more. A DM or two later I got his email and along with his eloquent answers, Shawn did the shoot below especially for this site.

Thank you Shawn. X

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Where were you born?

I was born in Germany, my parents are from Philadelphia. We lived overseas while my dad was serving in the Army before returning to the USA. My mother and her family lived in rural Devon, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. My father is from a historically Black neighbourhood in West Philadelphia known as ‘The Bottom’. Throughout my childhood in the late 70’s, I was hustled back and forth between my mom’s bucolic world and my dad’s urban one. In my mind, I thought everyone had this kind of diverse and disparate life.

What did your parents do? Was your upbringing artistic in any way?

My father was an electrician, a regular blue collar type of guy, and my mom was a special education teacher for over 20 years, she is very conscientious and caring; her kind approach to people shaped how I interact with people. I have an aunt who is an artist, she studied at Boston University College of Fine Art and she taught me about painting and colour theory.

My high school had a great art program, and my instructor was Philadelphia artist Allen Edmonds, the founder of the Brandywine Workshop. He encouraged me to pursue my talent, and that lead me to go to Tyler School of Art after graduation. But where I truly learned about the real power of art I learned outside of the classroom doing graffiti. During the 1980’s Philadelphia’s streets were alive 24-7. Fortunately for me my high school was downtown, so I didn’t miss anything.

When were you first inspired by photography?

My first camera (which I still have and shoot with) was a Pentax K-1000; my Mom gave it to me when I was 13 years old. I shot some pictures of friends here and there, and worked with it while on my high school’s yearbook committee. Photography back then wasn’t as crucial to me; I spent a modest amount of time shooting my life as it was evolving around me; teenage parties, girlfriends, cars, guys and girls hanging out on the steps. The cool thing is that I still have all of those photos, and looking at them has helped me to be a better photographer in the present. The thing I love most about all of those photos is the relaxed demeanour of whoever is in the shot, no one was concerned with their ‘face’; there was a genuine sense of cool going on. I try to capture those types of feelings in my shots now.                                                                                                            You may like to check best foot massagers of 2020.

After I left art school (I left because I was unsatisfied with the lack of diversity in the curriculum) and then graduated college, I went into my career in public relations in the tech sector. And it was rewarding for a while. I started a business with some college friends and burned the candle at both ends through my 30’s. By the time I was 36, I was ready to explore the creative life I left behind. I moved to Brooklyn in 2008 and gave myself enough time to find my way back to my creative self. The crazy thing is that I believe my calling found me, I had no idea that I would be doing what I do now back then.

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 21.20.01When I started street photography, I would take photos of curious compositions I would see in decaying buildings, chipped paint, just odd things that struck my eye. This exploration manifested itself in 2011, when I began working on what would eventually become my project ‘The Avenues’, a body of work partially inspired by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and my own experiences while I was living in Park Slope. My preference for this project has been to photograph my portrait subjects in solitary, introspective moments or candidly from a distance as they move within the ever-changing neighbourhood, and often depicted in shadow to symbolize the sense of growing invisibility when faced with larger transformative socio-economic forces. Through the seriousness of the subject matter, the most important thing to me has been to show my people in the most beautiful, realistic, light possible. I let my work speak from an ‘activist as artist’ point of view, one who embraces the Black Lives Matter movement, however I’m not out to create an ideal image, just a truthful one.

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How/when did you learn the technical aspect of photography?

The fact is, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I’ve never really come to a place where I’m 100% satisfied with the output of my work, in painting, collage or photography. Since most of my photographic work derives from my sense of painting and collage, I approach using the camera in a way that would complement what I have in my imagination first. I look for shapes, figures, and familiar occurrences that one my find in classic paintings. Yet from a completely technical standpoint, I’ve never had a photography course or anything like that, I’ve learned a lot of practical technique along the way. I pull from my knowledge of all three artistic practices to create my own style.

Your photographs have a clear voice, can you also explain in words how you see the people you photograph, what is it you’d like to say?

My current project, ‘The Avenues’, is an examination of life in an ever-changing and vanishing landscape for African Americans. In my opinion, a ‘vanishing landscape’ is a shrinking neighbourhood; circumstances perpetuated by a decreased availability of housing due to gentrification, increasing property taxes, closing or closed schools, a lack of jobs, inadequate police protection, food deserts — a particular combination of challenges with far too many variables to mention here that are currently reshaping Black America and historically black neighbourhoods more broadly. To that end, my photography underscores the notion of ‘being invisible’ to society at large.

Most importantly, the individuals I choose to photograph are African American, and frankly, ownership of our image, what we project and what we care to protect is vital to my work, my community and legacy. My passion is driven by the influence of a near century-long photographic history within, and of, Black American life.

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My subjects and their stories, serve as a continual affirmation for those who, while often overlooked, are in no way unsure of the power of their image. The people I encounter, all of them, stand in defiance of a monolithic, easily stereotyped notion of ‘blackness’. What’s at stake in my work is the historical preservation, on-going cultural context, inclusion, empowerment and continuity of the Black American story as I see it, day to day, while I’m fortunate enough to continue in this tradition. I’m proud to be among the thousands of photographers alive who feel that this story is important.Jamel Shabazz

What else do you do for work?

My current job title is that of Chief Technology Officer and Brand Manager of a black owned cosmetics company based in Baltimore, MD.

Which photographers inspire you?

Definitely Jamel Shabazz. His kind and calm approach toward teaching me and how he spoke to people impressed me so much. Over the years, he has served as a mentor too much of what I’ve endeavoured to accomplish. A few other photographers who inspire me are Gordon Parks, Louis Draper, Viviane Sassen, Herb Ritts, Thierry Le Gouès and Helmut Newton. An odd mix, admittedly, but I like what I see in their work without trying to draw too many comparisons or common points between them.'The Migration Series' by Jacob Lawrence

I’m also deeply inspired by artists, Romare Beardon, Aaron L. Douglas and particularly Jacob Lawrence. His body of work known as ‘The Migration Series’ (right) informed and inspired my project ‘The Avenues’. In many ways I feel like the work I’m doing with my current project is a continuation of what Lawrence began.

Another strong influence on my work is that of Roy DeCarava‘s photography and how it comes to life with Langston Hughes‘ poetry in their book ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life’. This book inspired me to consider the importance of the narrative accompanying the photo, so lately I have been more creative and poetic with my titles and captions, allowing myself to open up and emote has been creatively liberating.









Tell us about your future projects..

I’m currently working on a book with spoken word vocalist Ursula Rucker. This project will be available by the summer of 2016, I’m really enjoying the process between us, she’s an incredible talent and I’m proud to be working with her. I have another exhibition planned for late summer; this exhibition will feature work unlike what I’ve previously shared with the public, and if all goes according to plan, it will be in Los Angeles. I also have a museum show in the works for 2017 where I will explore my themes through collage.

How would you like to see your photography evolve, both commercially and artistically-is there an ideal subject?

Seeing images from my project’s narrative included in client advertisements such as Bailey’s Hats, EOne Time, Louboutin Homme, to name a few, has been greatly satisfying. It’s like, yeah, you all get it, and I dig that when it happens. I like when a brand isn’t afraid to embrace the aesthetics of their black customers, I’m there for that, truly. If I have an ideal client in mind, it would be the one who doesn’t run away from brown and black skin. And believe me, there have been very rude refusals of my work based solely on racial prejudice. I guess the best thing about me is that I’m not locked into any one style of photography, so my work can be commercial, documentary, editorial or artistic. As far as the ideal subject, I meet that person every day I’m out shooting.