When photographer Shannon Wallace walks into the room, you notice her. She’s tall with long dreads, a piercing in her nose and activism on her shirt, which reads “Very Black.” Shannon, who goes by SHAN, is a born and bred Baltimorean whose work is as contradictory as the city itself. There are young boys on bikes raising their fists as a cop car goes by; a toddler strikes a post and flexes his arms, a young couple embraces. SHAN’s voice as an artist is clear yet she lets her subjects speak for themselves. Social justice is the thread that runs throughout. We spoke with SHAN about what she hopes to achieve, the heaviness of carrying the stories of others, and how simply existing can be an act of resistance.
Did you grow up in Baltimore?
I’m from Baltimore. I’ve been here my entire life. I’m an artist and I do a lot of things though my main medium is photography, which I use as a form of activism. It’s a way to educate and close the gap between different Black people in the African Diaspora. Most of my art is taken in the roughest, ghettoist streets in Baltimore. That’s where I’m from and where I want to serve. I have a voice and feelings I want the world to know about.
What is the inspiration behind the exhibit, While We Were Waiting?
The show provides a different lens into bus stops, benches and the people who sit on them. I want to inspire people to think about what Baltimoreans experience and learn while waiting on the bus stop. [These bus stops] highlight the heart of Baltimore and [I wanted to] focus on the everyday lives of people who rely on the system. I also have audio from the streets and this show was the perfect place to use these clips of sounds and dialogue.
Did you always want to be a photographer?
I was actually an athlete; I put that before being a photographer. I played basketball in college and had an opportunity to play professionally. Then I got a degree in journalism and picked up a camera, which was something I did casually. It was around Trayvon Martin when I thought I could tell the truth of what happened in my city and in the lives of Black people. Photography was something I was led to, I didn’t choose it.
How does activism influence your work?
I’m very pro Black. I take photographs of Black people in order to reclaim our image and rewrite our history. I will always advocate for the freedom of Black people and I do this with my lens. I want to show the world how we made it from slave ships to spaceships. America’s perception of Black people are framed by a host of derogatory images that exploit and shame us. I see through a different lens and I want to show the immeasurable efforts black people and people of color have put forth in order to continue to resist in the face of oppression.
That’s a lot to carry.
There’s always a lot of heaviness, [as well as] a lot of joy. I feel like I’m the messenger. It’s so much bigger than just taking their photograph. There are so many other things like opening up to me, people sharing their lives and experiences with me. [There are] many times I’ve cried on their shoulder or they’ve cried on mine.
Are people ever standoffish when you want to take their picture?
It’s crazy now that people are starting to recognize me. I’ve probably already taken a picture of them. Sometimes it’s even led to them asking me to shoot their family photos. It’s opened up my eyes to why images and representation are so important. I didn’t imagine photography being as intense, intimate, and necessary as it is. I’m still honestly shocked that so many people support me and believe in what I do.
I know you traveled to Cuba. What was that like?
One thing I did in Cuba is pass around pictures I’d taken in Baltimore; photographs of people loving each other, at protests, dancing. I met a woman who said, “When you leave, tell people about my story.” So I told the stories of Cubans and how economically poor they are, the dreams they have, though some of them have accepted the harsh reality of their dreams never coming true. We live in two different countries but we’re the same. These stories, memories, and narratives connect us all.
How does being a Baltimorean shape your work?
I come from the ‘hood, from Black Baltimore. The streets of Baltimore raised me. Baltimore City public school didn’t nurture my mind - it took street smarts to get here. I know what it’s like to be Black and poor in Baltimore and I know what it’s like to fight everyday to survive. Baltimore is a tough city; I’m still grieving a childhood marred by abuse. Uncertain and hopeless, we didn’t always have food on the table, bills went unpaid, our roof leaked. Plenty of times my community has felt desperation. That’s always been an emotional trip, traumatic in and of itself.
And now you’re using it as fuel to create art.
It’s shaped my perspective on life. Baltimore has taught me so much and it still teaches me. Now that I’m older, I can understand and digest these things. I now have a critical consciousness that allows me to challenge the many obstacles that happen by design. The streets of Baltimore are magic, my music, my politics, my biggest teacher.
What does this city mean to you?
First of all, people don’t really remember that Baltimore is a southern state. It’s still very segregated and I think the systematic issues are just a mirror of shit everywhere. Baltimore is like one big ass ‘hood with gentrified parts but people don’t talk about it. There were one hundred Freddie Grays before there was Freddie Gray. It took so long for people to blow up because we were so used to it; brutality, crime, violence, and silence are normalized here. Baltimore is such a small city, when something pops off it impacts everybody. Like if someone gets shot in West Baltimore, you’re going to hear about it in East Baltimore.
It can be tough to be a female photographer in an industry heavily dominated by men. Is that something you’ve experienced?
I’m a Black queer woman, so to some people I am doubly or even tripled marginalized. I’m not supposed to be here but I am. I don’t see a lot of women photographers or a Black women photographers which means I must go hard at what I do in order to open the doors for the younger Black girls who aspire to be photographers.
Are you making a living?
Sorta kinda. I’m nowhere close to where I want to be. I’m in survival mode, trying to survive everyday. There are people who can’t afford it and then there are people who simply don’t want or value Black art. The people I serve don’t have a lot of money to buy a book. But that doesn’t stop me, it doesn’t stop me at all. I try to grab all the change I can. I do a lot of things for free like teaching. I don’t want someone to not be connected to my art or me because of a price tag. I think art should be free since it changes people’s lives and impacts the world. How can you put a price tag on that? Maybe the money will come if I keep working harder.
What does being in survival mode do to you?
Honestly, it’s made me a little cold. The people I love I lost at a very young age, which showed me I am just a very small portion of this world. I realized I can take care of myself if nobody else will. Survival mode is always on, never off. I can’t afford to take anything for granted since I come from nothing so I appreciate everything. It’s a very lonely lane. There will be plenty of people who won’t ever understand survival mode, who can’t relate to the fear of going back to welfare, of being homeless, of being trapped. I’m surviving to nurture and feed my body, all while trying to get better at what I do. I always reflect on those times when we figure things out and then life changes and we have to figure it out all again.
And you continue to push.
I realized the bad things that happened in my life didn’t happen to me, it happened for me. I’ll never be mad at Baltimore for its harsh realities and merciless circumstances it offered me. I love Baltimore, it raised me. It’s a city where everyone is very connected to each other and things are very organic.
But mentioned to me that you want to move.
I know emotionally it hasn’t always been the best thing for me. I still walk the streets and the corners that have traumatized me. I want to live a healthy and fruitful life and it’s difficult to sit next to the trauma. I need to heal and it’s hard when trauma and heartache greets you at the door and then joins you for dinner.
What would help you heal?
Change will help me heal. Change in myself, positive changes within my community. Seeing my people that much closer to liberation will help me heal.