Finding a Voice and Community through Instagram

February 28, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Shawn Theodore

“Masked” from Shawn Theodore’s “Future Antebellum.” The project, exhibited in 2017 at the Arts Sanctuary in Philadelphia, imagines “a future African diasporan society.” Theodore says he got his first exhibitions through the curators he found among his Instagram followers.

Many photo editors we interviewed in PDN this month said they rely more on photographers’ Instagram feeds than websites to find and evaluate new work. Shawn Theodore, the Philadelphia photographer that Bloomberg Pursuits editor Leonor Mamanna found on Instagram, says the social media platform has helped him land his first museum exhibition, two commercial assignments for Apple, and the cover of Smithsonian magazine within the past two years, before he ever created a website for his street photography.

After successfully launching and selling a technology company in New York City, Theodore, a graduate of Temple University, moved home to Philadelphia in 2011 to hone his street photography. “I didn’t have an idea how to place my work or a good idea for where to have critiques,” he says, but he liked the sense of community on Instagram. He photographed in historically African-American neighborhoods, showing people on the street, many of them dressed in their Sunday best. By 2014, he says, he was hearing from “media sources, blogs, media outlets wanting to do interviews.” Based on the interviewers’ questions, “I had to consider that what I was doing on that channel was new.” He was exploring issues of gentrification and forced urban migrations, by making “an artistic statement, rather than [photographing] with a documentary eye.” He was making graphic, stark compositions. “The esthetic drew the media to me.”

Hoping to exhibit the work, he began contacting curators and gallery owners he found on his followers list. “Before I got to 65,000 followers, I was able to comb through it and go to the gatekeepers.” He sought their advice on how to move the work “from mobile to museums,” he says. Though he was trained to shoot film, he had shot his street photos with a phone. Gallery directors and curators convinced him to switch to a DSLR to create larger, richer prints.

They also talked up his work to colleagues, and one opportunity led to another. “I’ve discovered the curatorial world is small,” he says. In 2017, the African American Museum of Philadelphia exhibited his project, “Church of Broken Pieces” alongside a show of work by Dawoud Bey. “That show led to so many other shows after that, it was the snowball effect.” “Church of Broken Pieces” was shown at Richard Beavers Gallery in Brooklyn and at Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago in its Ctrl+P space, which is devoted to artists the gallery finds online.

Theodore now shoots two to three assignments a month, which allowed him to quit his job in marketing in 2016. That’s the same year that he finally created a website. Until then, he says, “There was no burning need to have it to interact with editors, clients, curators [or] buyers.”

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