WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Street photographer and Philadelphia resident Shawn Theodore’s handle on Instagram is _xst (exist), where he has 62,000 followers.
Seven months ago he left his remote creative director job for a Baltimore cosmetics company to fully commit to documenting the colorful personalities, spirit and culture of black neighborhoods. He’s had at least one gallery show of his work each year since 2013, and his Instagram posts have led to opportunities that include collaboration on an Apple commercial.
The African-American Museum in Philadelphia recently added an exhibition titled “Shawn Theodore: Church of Broken Pieces.” “A photographic exploration of the psychic, physical and technological translocation of black America,” according to the AAMP, it’s on view through April 2.
Technical translocation? As in Black Twitter and Black Snapchat?
Well, that’s part of it. “African-Americans have always been in this state of migration,” Theodore said, mentioning the antebellum south and what he says is large-scale gentrification of black neighborhoods. “It impacts your self worth and your ideas of worth. It makes you question where you truly belong.”
“Church of Broken Pieces” is a celebration of the success of different movements that stabilize urban communities, despite displacement, socioeconomic disparity and violence.
“Church of Broken Pieces,” Theodore said, dares to pose the question: “What is blackness?”
In an online Vimeo video on Theodore’s street photography, which has almost 16,000 views, he states: “Philadelphia — it’s not your normal big city, where there’s a lot of disconnect. It’s more like a town, and it’s pocketed, and there’s people that have known each other for generations.”
Church of Broken Pieces is the name of a real church in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, where Theodore grew up. He said that a pastor friend of his — “we used to ride the school bus together,” he adds — elaborated on a Baptist concept that a church’s mission should ideally thrive and grow so far outside of the church building that “pieces” break away from that church, giving birth to new churches. “Man, this is a perfect metaphor for what I’m trying to express in this show!,” Theodore thought.
“You can still break away and still be a whole member of society. That goes for any ethnic group,” he said.
Isn’t he afraid he’s going to be threatened by someone on the street while he’s walking around taking pictures?
Theodore, who was once robbed at gunpoint in West Philly, is well aware of the inherent danger in what he does. That’s why there’s pre-planning: he walks around the neighborhoods he intends to photograph over the course of a few months so those that live there get to know his face; he always gets his subjects’ permission, and the photos are staged. “That level of understanding and love and kindness that you can project prevents you from having to take self defense,” said Theodore, who has police officers as friends and always goes out into the field prepared to defend himself in the event something gets out of control.
Besides paying attention to the colors surrounding his subjects, he also looks at how they carry themselves, how they walk, how they interact (or don’t interact) with others, and how they ethnically/culturally self-identify.
Where can I find The African-American Museum in Philadelphia?
701 Arch St. in Center City.
When can I see this?
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
What’s the admission cost?
$14; $10 for children 4-12, students and seniors.
Where do I go for more information?
Call (215) 574-0380, visit www.aampmuseum.org or check www.facebook.com/AAMPMuseum or @aampmuseum on Twitter. Stay tuned for a closing night event that’s in the works for Saturday April 1.