​shawn theodore's street shots shine a light on america’s black neighbourhoods

The photographer’s captivating images document the changes, politics and people photographic history often ignores.

by Felix Petty
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08 July 2015, 9:05am

Growing up in Philadelphia, during the golden age of hip hop, and blessed with a camera from an early age, it was only a chance meeting with Jamel Shabazz that brought Shawn Theodore onto the streets and started his relationship with documenting the African-American neighbourhoods he spent time in and thought were changing and disappearing, whether through poverty or gentrification. We talk to the photographer about about politics, representation and black urban cowboys.

When did you first pick up a camera?
My mother and her family lived in Devon, PA, then a rural suburb of Philadelphia, but my father was from the city, West Philadelphia to be exact. Throughout the 70s, I was hustled back and forth between my mum's bucolic world and my dad's urban one.

My first camera--which I still have and shoot with--was a Pentax K-1000; my mum gave it to me when I was 13. My high school was in the centre of downtown Philadelphia, at 13th and Cherry Streets. It wasn't the downtown of today; it was the post-manufacturing era, dirty downtown. But I grew up during the Golden Era of hip-hop, in one of the most creative cities one could live in at the time. Graffiti was everywhere, every neighbourhood had its own style of clothing, we had our own style of rap music. Every morning I couldn't wait to get out of the house to head to school, even though most of the time I didn't stay the whole day. There was just too much happening.

What drew you onto the streets, to become a street photographer?
In 2008 I went to an opening at MoCADA to check out photographer Jamel Shabazz's work and to my surprise, he was there. I worked up the nerve to tell him how much his photography meant to me, as it reminded me of growing up in Philly in the 80s. We hit it off so well that we spent the day walking and talking through Prospect Park, taking in a master class on street photography, one person at a time for an entire day. Brother Shabazz took a photo of me while I was taking my very first street portrait, and my second shot is a portrait of him. His kind and calm approach toward teaching me, and how he spoke to his subjects, impressed me so much that it ignited my desire to get back into shooting again.

Do you talk to the people you shoot? Do people generally like being photographed?
Every portrait shot is a conversation starter, I give them an open ear and an honest point of view, and then people open up about what they're feeling in the moment. For a street photographer with a goal, a project, these kinds of interactions are crucial. People are fine with being photographed for portraits as long as you approach them with kindness, love and respect. They are giving me their time, their story and their image, I have to give them love in return, it's only right.

There's this incredible image you shot, of the man on the horse, in Philadelphia.
Yes indeed, that strikes many people as unusual, but here in Philly we're used to seeing black urban cowboys. There's a rich, long tradition of African-American equestrian sport and camaraderie that seemingly has no end. The gentleman in the photo, Robert Davis, rescues horses and owns a kid-friendly petting zoo. I met him while he was out for a casual ride on his mare, Shelby. I was driving by and asked where his stable was and met him there for his portrait. But like I said, that's not uncommon, I had a photo of a teenage boy riding down the middle of my street on his horse, and another photo from a few weeks back of a pair of young men riding through Kelly Drive.

Can you talk us through your recent project, The Avenues, documenting African-American neighbourhoods?
It's a personal journey through neighbourhoods, familiar and unfamiliar, local and distant, witnessing and recording the subjects I encounter as existential actors connected by certain, but often unseen circumstances. It's a visual soliloquy framed within the broader story of a race of people who are living in a shrinking landscape. What I see is that racially homogenous neighbourhoods and their respective cultures are on the brink of vanishing in America due to economics, gentrification, urban decay and migration. However, I see beauty in every place I go. I see hope and joy, and I find these things in multitudes. I've been fortunate to have travelled frequently enough to witness a common visual language that exists in all African American neighbourhoods. What I've seen and recorded so far connects to my soul, my memories. Seeing kids draw in chalk on the sidewalks, older folks tending to the traditions, teens reviving fashion trends from a generation ago, or gentlemen of leisure strutting about in their finest clothes; my desire is to capture moments like these, to match those in my memory.

How have your neighbourhoods you've lived in changed since you started photographing them?
The neighbourhoods I visit are always changing, the biggest change is that the people are being pushed out for one reason or another, or several at once. The biggest indicator of this change is the influx and added weight of new people into a neighbourhood. Houses that just last year used to host barbeques and parties are now dormant, three-story tombstones for entire generations of families. Corner stores that once stood proudly, once owned by families who live in the neighbourhood, are shuttered overnight and within weeks replaced by taco restaurants with ironic names. The landscape may change, but my routine does not. I go back to meet my subjects again because I've stayed in touch with so many. The people who are the most engaging and memorable are the ones who've connected with so many, and share the greatest concern for their neighbours. They are the teachers and protectors of the neighbourhood folklore, all we have to do is listen. The benefit to me is that I have a connection or a friend anywhere I go, and they know as much about me as I do them.

Is simply the process of documenting African-American communities political?
When I go out to shoot it's not intentionally meant to be political, what I'm doing is from a love of art and a love for my people. But I do feel as though I'm documenting the effect of a political agenda on a people; it's akin to trying to take pictures of the wind, you only see what's swept up, twirling and pushed about without mercy. With that being said, the positive image of everyday black people, not just in America but all over the world, is a political statement. In some people's minds, it's impossible to see black people and see art, it can't be done.

Do you think there is an under representation of black American life in street photography, and the history of photography in general?
There was, for a while, an overarching social media trend that had a tendency to exclude positive images of black America and the photographers who create these images. I remember seeing nothing but old, black homeless people living a derelict life for way too long on social media, and it was depressing. That 'poverty porn' has had it's day, but you still see the holdout shooters, who only know how to capture the worst elements of the street, and their audiences chime in and cheer on, many with racially-encoded, snide commentary.

What I see now are dozens and dozens of black photographers working hard to create a plethora of positive, beautiful, inspiring, smart, sexy images to fill a long standing void. History has only given us a small set of names to look back and reflect upon and to learn from. Even though that's great to see, that path is narrow - there were hundreds of African American men and women photographers during the 1900s, and many of their work is lost on millennials and baby boomers alike. Even I only recently discovered Roy DeCarava, and I was moved to see that his photos are grand predecessors in form and style to that of my own.

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