Street photographer Shawn Theodore primarily captures, as he defines it, the “vanishing landscape of black life in America.”
The Philadelphia-based artist, known as xST on Instagram, is drawn to predominately black neighborhoods and communities that are, in some way, disenfranchised ― whether subjected to gentrification, violence, or neglect. And yet, despite the often unjust and maddening realities of their circumstances, Theodore’s subjects embody and evoke a strength that is, or at least appears, unwavering.
“They serve as a living testament for those who, while often overlooked, are in no way unsure of the power of their image,” the photographer explained.
This power, however, takes no one particular shape. Rather, the people Theodore documents challenge, amplify and proliferate the archetypal images that define black culture. “The people I photograph, all of them, stand in defiance of a monolithic, easily stereotyped notion of ‘blackness,’” Theodore said.
Theodore, who got his first camera at the age of 13, has been shooting candid street photography for six years. Yet more recently, the artist has delved into more conceptual, dreamlike works, meant to dig beyond the appearances into the psychic realities and deeper nuances of being black.
“An interesting subject to me now, as it always has been, is someone who fits my ‘story line,’” he said. “It could be a look, the walk ― mannerisms that communicate blackness outside of stereotypes, from within the culture.”
The resulting images bring real life into a space resembling abstraction, with gestural bodies and colorful backdrops creating surprising contrasts of color and shape that more resemble painting or collage than typical street photography. Like his subjects, Theodore’s medium defies expectations, pushing the boundaries of what street photography can and should be.
Although technically, Theodore is self-taught, his inspirations are among the most influential artists in recent history. He listed Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Thierry Le Gouès and Herb Ritts as some of his favorites.
“I am mostly influenced by contemporary African diasporan artists, writers, musicians, activists, photographers and academics,” he said, “who are creating a new ‘renaissance’ for lack of a better word ― one that is not specially tied to one black metropolitan area, rather a movement that has fewer or no physical boundaries, one that moves with or ahead of the trends of technology or politics for that matter.”
Theodore’s images transport real people and spaces into an almost dreamlike space, in which their bodies and movements speak volumes ― though in a language that can’t quite be understood.
“I want people to see my work as a photographic exploration of the psychic, physical and technological translocation of black America,” he said. “The depictions of my subjects weave together the corporeal elements of black identity, consciousness and neighborhoods in flux to create a visual language which conveys the rich enduring spirit varied cultures, histories, and most importantly, the future of black life.”
Theodore’s work will be on view at PRIZM Art Fair in Miami during Art Basel, Miami Beach from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, 2016. His solo exhibition “Church of Broken Pieces” will be at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, from January through April 2017.