Interview With Photographer Shawn Theodore XST
Shawn Theodore XST
The internet is a funny place. It's the wild west without a sherif and the filter for information was long ago snapped. Since its advent we've been subject to a barrage of tweets, links, cat memes and somehow through this astounding amount of information folks are able to connect and make sense of it all. Really its remarkable when you stop to think about it. I was first introduced to photographer Shawn Theodore aka XST (pronounced exist) on Instagram and we quickly hit it off. Shawn is a really talented photographer (on and off the iphone) and over the short time we've been aquatinted (how old is instagram anyway?) I have seen a definite narrative develop through his photos. He interacts with the street folks we pass by and spends time hanging in the mostly overlooked nooks and crannies of Philadelphia. With all the disconnection that the internet has brought with it his photos leave me feeling connected to the people and places of Philadelphia. He has stories for almost every photo and believe me he has taken a lot of photos. We caught up recently to discuss his photography, the streets of Philadelphia, and the wild things he's seen while doing one in the other. -Case Bloom
When did your relationship with photography start?
There are two ways that I answer this question; when I was first given the gift of a camera, and when I discovered the meaning and the power of photography. My first camera (which I still have and shoot with) a Pentax K-1000 was given to me by my Mom when I was 13 years old. I played with it a lot, shot some pictures of friends here and there, worked on my school's yearbook committee. I know that the Pentax was kind of a fixture in my house, something of a holdover from when we lived in Germany. My Mom had always had a penchant for photography, and it was important to her and her family. I think by 1983 we were so poor that buying and developing rolls of 35mm film was an absolute luxury, so giving me the camera was one part hope that it would amount to something, and one part a means to keep my hands and imagination busy. We still took pictures, but with cheap 110 cameras and film.
Back then I went to school downtown, Parkway Zeta, and there were arcades on 13th & Market Streets and over on Chestnut between 15th & 16th streets. These spots used to have photo booths that for a dollar or so would give you a Polaroid shot, on the spot. This was how we used to document our moments before disposable cameras were truly cheap, and way before camera phones, hell, mobile phones for that matter. Friends would gather into the booths, everyone chipping in their dollars, posing, laughing, getting the archetype of the 'selfie' down. I still have some of those photos from those days, and this was the foundation for my personal connection to photography. The faces in those photos are of people I haven't seen in over 20 years - nothing in my mind as a teen in the 80's said to me, 'this is an important time, document it, document it all' so in my teen years the Pentax only came out on rare occasions. And in that, may be my one regret because in my teen life hip-hop culture grew from a whisper to a yell, and as I saw the world change around me, people coming and going, forms of expression bursting from everywhere imaginable - I, albeit after the fact, came to realize the meaning of photography.
When did street photography enter the picture for you? How did that come about?
I was living in Park Slope, Brooklyn in 2008, and I was coming off of a long spell of working all the time, and just needing to redirect my life in some way back toward my creative self and more meaningful endeavors.
I was dating this incredibly cool woman at the time, who helped me get my mind back on track toward the creative side of things by encouraging me to explore the museums, to meet other creatives, and loosen up - a lot. She and I would walk around Brooklyn and take pictures of curious things we'd find along the way with her Kodak point-and-shoot and my Blackberry. One autumn night she said to me that we're going to an opening at the MoCADA to check out some photography, and that photographer Jamel Shabazz's work would be featured. For those who aren't in the know, Brother Shabazz is our generations Gordon Parks, our James Van Der Zee. To know that I was going to see some of the work this living legend had recently done was enough, however I didn't know that he would be there.This
was the moment 5 years ago that changed the direction of my life.
I worked up the nerve, walked over to him and introduced myself. I remember sweating from my forehead so bad because I was just overwhelmed by nervousness. I talked to him about my life up to that point, both good and bad, I told him how much his photography meant to me, as it reminded me of growing up in Philly in the 1980s. As it turned out, Brother Shabazz loves Philly, a lot! We talked about the brothers he met in the service who were stationed in Germany, how their style and demeanor influenced his own, and I told him about my family living there because my father was in the Army as well. We hit it off so well that he and I made plans to meet up again, coincidentally, on my birthday. I spent the day walking and talking with him through Prospect Park, taking in a master class on street photography, one person at a time for an entire day. I have never had a more important or memorable birthday since.
What are you using to shoot?
For street shooting it truly depends on my mood, the sunlight, or lack thereof. I will always have my iPhone 4S (I haven't cared to upgrade to the 5 as of yet), a point and shoot Samsung ST66, a Canon t1i or 7D, and of course my trusty Pentax K-1000. Rarely do I have all of these out at the same time.
Can you describe your style? What is your favorite subject matter to shoot?
I only care to shoot people, in uniquely isolated situation, I prefer candids, even though I am known for my street interviews. My personal challenge is to create images that evoke the feeling of collage and painting. I am known for eliminating the details of faces and bodies with absolute blackness of a naturally occurring shadow, while boosting the colors of the backdrop or background. I do it to anyone who is in an isolated state. I look for a mood in that person, and try my best to draw it out in deep, saturated colors and deep dark shadows.
I attended Tyler School of Art, and I was always a fine artist who worked in either oils or acrylics. In that sense, my influences are Aaron Douglas and Barkley L. Hendricks, they have different ways of expressing black existentialism, one abstract, the other deliberate. Somewhere along the line I discovered collage, and Romare Bearden's style with the aforementioned artists gave me a unique way of seeing things.
You are out and about (often late at night) taking photos of people. What is the most wild encounter you have had on the street?
There have been three really crazy situations that stand out:
- Being in Philadelphia late at night during a shooting, ducking behind a car while the guy who was being shot at was running by.
- Once I was in The Tenderloin and a prostitute tackled me while I was being forcibly escorted out of a 'private' Korean pool hall.
- Walking into a diner where a consortium of gangsters and dealers were working out some business 'issues', and they basically accused me of being a cop until I showed them my website. We're all ok now.
How has instagram changed the way you work? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Instagram has both helped expose my work to a global audience of appreciation and a global forum for critique. I find that Instagram, at its core, is a fantastic thing. The bad comes in the form of cottage industries, like Instacanvas. Also, I personally do not like seeing any exploitative photography of the homeless or the mentally challenged or disabled. That's not cool, and I see plenty of accounts that make light of dreadful situations in the name of a 'joke'. Other than all the memes and goofy junk from time to time, I love that it has provided an outlet for discussion and real connectivity.
What are you carrying with you on these adventures?
Ha! A pen, a pad, and a means of defending myself if necessary. Often, it's unnecessary but I'm nobody's fool. The streets are always watching.
Whats next in the cards for you?
A new website, more exhibitions and shows in galleries (domestic and abroad), collaborations, street art, a book and many, many more photos.
"Meet Esau Coleman, Jr. 90 year old WWII veteran on his way to church, bright and early (6:30am) at 57 & Woodland sts. We had a great conversation, most of the time he was poking fun at me for getting his name wrong, and for not knowing "enough about jazz", he said. Mr. Coleman was a 'simple Alabama boy' until he had to join the Marines as a teen to escape southern justice for 'slappin a white boy upside his head' (as pictured here lol) for calling him a nigger. Mr. Coleman, Sr rushed Esau off to enlist the next morning, and it was the best thing that happened to him he said. He learned how to play jazz piano and would often sit in on gigs when he could. He loved jazz and would have stayed into it if he had the chance, but the war, and family and a real job created the life he has today. Mr. Coleman Jr was curious about my phone and what I was doing pointing it at him, so I explained to him what and why I do it. "So wait, you can talk to people all over the world, and show them your pictures too?" He busted out with a laugh, "man the things you all can do today... I never would have thought to see anything like that in my day, at your age. Let me say hi to all your people, take a good picture, ok?" So this is his moment everyone, Esau says 'Heeyyyyyyyyy!'"