In Conversation with Shanel Edwards: Celebrating Beauty in the Everyday
In this One + One interview, curator and writer Veronica Elizabeth Thomas speaks to Shanel Edwards, photographer, dancer, and content creator based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
VET: What influenced you to pick up the camera?
SE: So initially I didn’t start on the camera I was using my phone and I really loved flowers. I was taking pictures of flowers over and over and over again and eventually my brother, bless his heart, asked me what I wanted for my graduation gift and I was gifted the camera. Once I got to college at Temple University and I had a lot of dancer friends who wanted head-shots and dance photos. My mother was like "don’t do that for free” and I was like “oh my god you’re right"! I guess I picked up a camera because of my family, they’ve always wanted me to pursue my art.
VET: Your subjects are so diverse in every aspect- skin color, size, and gender. Regardless, you manage to capture an authentic beauty in every individual, how? How do you get the person in just the right spot?
SE: I tend to lean a lot less on models and more on people that I know through life, or those who reach out to me and want to be captured. I aim to deconstruct typical model-photographer dynamic. Where my shots are often a derivative of natural movement and conversation. If my model is posing, I always encourage it, but those shots, don’t always make the best shots for me. It’s the small natural movements and moments. The surprising movements.
"I aim to deconstruct typical model-photographer dynamic."
VET: Who or what inspires you the most? Like a photographer, or you friends, or your environment?
SE: Early on I was a huge fan of Bee Walker, their work, simple and stoic. I loved their simplistic and mysterious portrait style. Zanele Muholi, an incredible photo activist that centers her African and Queer identities in her work. That has become so important to me.
I’ve been incredibly inspired by music videos -Khalil Joseph is a genius!- and 52nd St. in Philadelphia; the way older folks always match that entire block blows my mind! It's a goal of mine to work towards capturing the street styles and everyday mundanity and beauty of it!
VET: How do you know if you want a photo to be Black&White or In-Color?
SE: I love that question because I don’t know, I’m still really grappling with how what power black and white holds and what power color holds for a photo. I have a difficult time discerning the two. I feel like I lean into what the riskiness of a black and white photo, the starkness and time of it. Like, do I want the photo do exist in a time that was like 1959 or do I want the picture to have a vibrancy of 1999 right? But honestly, I’m still working on that one!
"When I pick up my camera that’s our time together and I want to make that time together incredible, important and intentional."
VET: I understand that you also work as a professional dancer, instructor, and poet. How do you find the motivation to do all of that and still pick up the camera?
SE: I think being softer with myself is one of the number one ways that I maintain a really positive relationship with photography. I don’t do it every day. I can’t do it every day, with the kind of schedule I have, so you know being soft of myself and letting myself go a couple days without shooting or even go a week or two weeks without shooting is okay. I have to tell myself that it’s okay and it doesn’t affect the quality of my work. It is still beautiful and sometimes the time I go without my camera, I come back with a more precise and saturated idea or vision. When I pick up my camera that’s our time together and I want to make that time together incredible, important and intentional. I remind myself that I don’t have to produce a certain quantity of work, I don’t have to lean into capitalistic time and measures of worth. My photos are good because I am a good photographer, not because I produce constant work.
VET: What would you like for your viewers to take away from your work?
SE: What I want my viewers to take away from my art is that Black folks, we are alive and and feel joy. That queer, first generation Jamaican American, Non-binary Black folks make incredible, worthy art. That photos can be simple and beautiful, they can be mundane and beautiful.
Check out their portfolio to view more seminal works: