Street Photographer Shawn Theodore Documents Shrinking Black Neighborhoods

North Philadelphia native Shawn Theodore identifies and documents disappearing black communities as a street photographer.

“It starts to wear away … It’s this omnipresent force that you really can’t stop,” Theodore said of these urban neighborhoods. ”

A lot of the things you’ve become accustomed to have been eradicated.”

Theodore explained his artistic path to street photography and passion for displaying beauty in underrepresented areas to Temple student photographers in the SAC Underground Feb. 22.

Theodore’s current project, “The Avenues,” focuses on the isolation and desperation of black culture, something he said has been pushed away from urban areas since the early 2000s. Theodore considers his work a continuation of 20th century painter Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” depicting African Americans against colorful backdrops.

Philadelphia Street Photographer Shawn Theodore displays his portraits to students Feb. 22.
Philadelphia Street Photographer Shawn Theodore displays his portraits to students Feb. 22.

A Tyler School of Art alumnus, Theodore was the first guest for photography club Aperture Agency’s speaker series. He discussed his background in painting, evident in the colorful backdrops he uses for portrait photography. He has shot in Baltimore, Oakland, Brooklyn and primarily Philadelphia, capturing African Americans in shrinking neighborhoods. Aperture treasurer and junior Brian Tom said he has been a fan of Theodore’s photography for years.

“It’s like every picture is a painting, and he uses the camera as a canvas,” Tom said. “I just think it’s amazing how he sees the world.”

In Brooklyn, Theodore realized how invisible he felt as a black man living in a condominium. This inspired him to focus on race in his photography – conversing with and shooting African Americans who he said feel forgotten in the cities where they had created homes after leaving the South. Quickly after taking up street photography, Theodore learned that the best photographs are taken when an artist connects with his subject.

“You can see a frustration a lot of times on peoples’ faces,” Theodore said. “If they’re walking past yet another lego house being built, you can see it on their face when they look up, you know, and it’s right across the street from their grandmother’s house.”

The colorful walls Theodore uses as portrait backdrops are inspired by graffiti in Philadelphia, and the multicolored paint property owners use to cover it. He also said black families paint colors which represent their origins and culture on the sides of bodegas. Theodore said the walls, which he initially thought of as purely decorative, are deeply meaningful.

“In the fabric of the African American community you have other communities that are speaking through color,” Theodore said. “It’s an amazing thing to see … That’s what it’s about for me. The cultural significance of color.”

Professional photographers like Theodore are what Aperture wants to start providing to all types of photographers on campus, not just those in photography classes. Since moving away from the School of Media and Communication and towards being a student activities group on campus, president and junior Brianna Spause said the club is looking to be more inclusive of all interested in photography.

“We want to serve as a way to expose people to different types of photography,” she said. “It’s really nice to have someone else to share professional experience because that transcends what we’re able to share with people.”

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