Shedrick Pelt

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On January 6, 2021, hearing that Trump supporters were descending on the U.S. Capitol, freelance photographer Shedrick Pelt grabbed goggles, a respirator and his Canon 5D Mark 4 and ran to the scene to document the event. The arresting images he captured on that terrifying day constitute “Attack on Democracy: Through the Lens of a Black Photojournalist,” a traveling exhibit that opened at Gallery O in Washington, DC one year after the attack on the Capitol. 

Shedrick’s instinct to run towards the danger of that day was based in a bone-deep commitment to community and local storytelling. Moving to D.C. in 2017, he quickly embedded himself in that city’s artistic community, working with such organizations as Exposed DC and Dupont Underground, where he serves as cultural ambassador. He currently sits on the board of Focus on the Story, an internationally recognized non-profit dedicated to promoting the work of leading photographers and providing education and resources for visual artists. 

His work has been featured in Washingtonian magazine and in exhibits at such institutions as the International Center of Photography in New York and at the Phillips Collection in D.C. He also curates the Look Hear Gallery, which is a revolving gallery that features the Black experience in DC through the lens of Black photographers. And as of 2022, he is a contributing photographer for Getty Images.

In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Shedrick describes the artistic journey that led him to the Capitol on that fateful day and makes a case for supporting hyper-local artists and storytellers.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: Take us back to young Shedrick, picking up his first camera. What got you into the field?

Shedrick Pelt: I think for the earliest part of my life, I was always a “jock.” I played sports, I played baseball, I played a little bit of football, basketball, so in the earlier part of his life, young Shed was always into sports. There were definitely rumblings of an artistic side to me as well. I used to draw the Cleveland Indians logo all the time. Every single notebook had the Cleveland Indians logo on it. So that was a little bit of my artful side. 

Then as I got older, as I got into my young-adult life, I was in the bar business, and at that point I didn’t really have artistic endeavors. I was young, and I was making a lot of money. I was into that life. Then I moved to New York in 2009. That’s when I really got bit by the artist bug. I was just coming out of a little bit of a turbulent time in ’09. We were coming out of the recession, and it was the first time as a young man that I’d ever been exposed to the hardships of something like that, being a young man who was working and had things that were affected by the recession. Coming to New York, I was just looking for a way to just be reinspired.

If you’ve ever been there, the city, every single corner, is something that is just like … you’re in awe. It’s so much bigger than you. The way I absorbed that whole experience was through art and photography. In ’09 there might have been some kind of archaic version of the camera phone. I remember getting a Rebel Film camera. I had no idea what I was doing with it, but that was my first actual camera.

Pier Carlo: What would you photograph?

Shedrick: I was just absorbing the city, these huge skyscrapers. I was also working for a streetwear brand called Mishka. They were based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so I was taking this train from Harlem, New York all the way to Brooklyn every single morning, and I would just snap so many shots all the way there. 

Soon after, I quickly went into the digital world because with film you don’t get that feedback right away; you’re waiting. Then also, as somebody who didn’t have very much money, I wasn’t able to develop the film as fast as I wanted to. I did the film thing for a few months, and then I quickly went to digital so I could get that immediate gratification.

Pier Carlo: I gather that the beginning of your career in photography was doing live-music work.

Shedrick: It was, but I would honestly say too, it was just a little bit unexpected that I would gravitate so much towards the photography side of it because even in the music world I was a graphic designer. I was working on a lot of album art. I was working on a lot of flyer work because the company Mishka that I worked for, they were heavy into the upcoming DIY SoundCloud hip-hop community. They were supporting artists like Action Bronson, a New York-based artist, artists like that. They were really supporting these upcoming artists, so I really had access to these artists because they were always coming through the warehouse, always coming in to pick up gear or whatever. I would connect with these artists and say, “Hey, can I come to your show and take some photos?” 

I was in this graphic-design world, but then I was having access to these artists, so I was taking photos of them as well. So that’s how I kind of transitioned into music photography, from that streetwear-brand underground hip-hop world as a designer.

Pier Carlo: I wonder if you can draw a line between your work in New York, taking pictures of live music acts, and your going out to take pictures of the January 6th insurrection.

Shedrick: I think a lot about this too. I’m always analyzing my own journey because everything I do is running parallel with my own story. I can tell you, “When I did this photo, this was happening in my life.” My work is as much about the subjects or the moments that I’m capturing as it is about my own journey. 

And with that, I would say that being so far away from home, wherever I’m at, wherever I’m living, I always try to tap into that community because it makes me feel like I’m at home. Coming from a Southern upbringing, home is everything, community is everything, and being away from that, wherever I go, I want to find that community. Even living in Harlem, I was very much a community kid. I was always out in the streets, always riding my bike around. Sometimes I’d be just hanging on the corner, eating a sandwich.

Whether I’m in the community, documenting everyday moments or everyday struggles or everyday uprisings, I just want my work to read that I’m there, I’m part of the space. I have blood, sweat and tears in this space, you know what I’m saying? I find that people appreciate somebody like that, regardless.

Yearning for that community experience, transitioning over to D.C. — which is certainly a very tight-knit community once you’re inside of it — my ethos for my work is be there in the moment. Whether I’m in the community, documenting everyday moments or everyday struggles or everyday uprisings, I just want my work to read that I’m there, I’m part of the space. I have blood, sweat and tears in this space, you know what I’m saying? I find that people appreciate somebody like that, regardless.

January 6th is just another moment where I knew that as an artist, as a journalist, as a community person, I needed to be there. That’s what put me in that space initially. Did I know what I was really going into? Absolutely not. None of us knew. We hear this type of rhetoric, and it seems so unfathomable. You can hear somebody say, “Let’s take the Capitol,” but when you live in D.C., you understand how sacred that building is, you know the security around that building, to say the least, and you never fathom that could happen. So going into that day, I knew I had to be there, and I wanted to be there just to document these people here, but I did not know that that was actually going to happen.

Now, I will say this. There were examples of, “It could possibly happen.” Prior to that happening that November, the Proud Boys were in town for a weekend, and I think somebody got stabbed. There were definitely a lot of violent encounters with counter-protestors, counter-MAGA people. As journalists or as people of D.C. in general, we all know that there’s a possibility, but there’s not a possibility that something like that extreme could happen.

Pier Carlo: One of the things that you’re very passionate about is making sure that lens-based workers are diverse, that we who absorb daily news don’t see current events just through literally a white lens. As you were navigating that incredibly dangerous event, what do you think you might have captured through your lens that perhaps a white colleague would not have?

Shedrick: I wouldn’t necessarily say that I would capture anything necessarily different in that space, but I will say that me being in that space, I had a completely different experience than my white colleagues. So even in my own head the experience was different than those colleagues. 

Well, first of all, as a Southerner, I went into that space not really shaken by that kind of crowd, because I grew up with those type of people, you know what I’m saying? So that part really didn’t shake me. That only heightened my awareness of the space that I was in and how dangerous it could potentially be. Spending the day there, I had a lot of introspective moments of like, “This is where this country is at. I’m here attempting to document this, and I need to be able to step outside of just being a journalist, whereas these other photographers around me, I don’t think they’re feeling that kind of pressure.” Something that I recognized in the moment is that I felt like I was running around a little more frantic, trying to not be pinpointed, but I feel like a lot of my white colleagues, it looked like they felt very comfortable or relaxed in that moment.

Pier Carlo: You mean because you felt you were more in danger.

Shedrick: Yeah, yeah. Even the line that was drawn about going into the building … I really wanted to go into the building, but I knew that once I got into that building, I could be recognized as an “enemy” by either side, you know what I’m saying? That was a potential there, so I didn’t even enter the space.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that we captured anything different, but I surely had a different experience.

Pier Carlo: What happened to you when you got home safely that day, when you had this trove of images and were just kind of recovering from the day? Did you know what you had in hand and what you wanted to do with it?

Honestly, I describe the day in the moment for me as the frog in the boiling water. We didn’t really know how hot it was until we were already boiling. That feeling was throughout the day.

Shedrick: Honestly, I describe the day in the moment for me as the frog in the boiling water. We didn’t really know how hot it was until we were already boiling. That feeling was throughout the day. I didn’t really know that I was capturing history like this, because when we were on the Capitol for those four or five hours, we were really isolated. We had no communication; they had cut all the cell service.

Pier Carlo: I didn’t realize that!

Shedrick: We were really isolated from the news. Even right before they cut the cell service, I’m having a slew of text messages: “Are you OK? What’s happening? What’s going on?” Everybody knew I was there. My mother had texted and called me like 10 times at this point. 

I was able to quickly Google, and then I saw that the news were talking about, “They’ve stormed the Capitol.” I’m just like in it, so I don’t really see it as a storming of the Capitol. I certainly didn’t know that people were entering the building at that time, so that little news clip gave me a reference point as to why people were so anxious about calling me. Then soon after that happened, yeah, they cut cell service. Then we were just kind of isolated on this island for pretty much the remainder of the day. 

Coming home, I knew that A, I needed to get the images out as quickly as possible, and B, I needed to really try to take a moment to digest what had happened. But I really couldn’t digest at the moment because I was just in edit mode. I was looking for powerful images, not necessarily dissecting the moment at that time.

Pier Carlo: Did you immediately scroll through your roll when you got home?

Shedrick: I’d been scrolling through my roll throughout the day, so I kind of knew what was going on, but I absolutely immediately took that card out, put it straight in my computer and started looking through those photos.

Pier Carlo: What were the two or three images that right away let you realize that you captured something remarkable about that day?

Shedrick: There was an image where we were coming down Pennsylvania Avenue, and just to see the sheer wave of people that were coming … . I mean, as far as I could see up and down Pennsylvania, it was just a sea of people, and it was so striking because it just showed the commitment to the message. I’d been seeing people, the anti-Trump supporters, I’d been seeing this thing slowly wane because now Biden was in office and everybody felt safe again. So I note that the commitment to that cause was a stark contrast to the commitment to their cause. I mean, tens of thousands of people, all marching in the same way, in the same branded colors, with the same flags, all the fish swimming and swimming upstream. That was like, wow. It really put in context what we are up against. So that one shot there is very, very striking. 

Photo of January 6 insurrection

Photo: Shedrick Pelt

There’s another image where I’m actually at the door of the Capitol at this moment. There’s a man on the right-hand side of the frame; there’s another two or three gentlemen on the left side. The man on the right side has a railing that he’s torn off of the building, and you can see him loading up to smash the door. At that time, there were three or four U.S. Capitol officers in this alcove inside of this door, and they’re spraying tear gas out of that door just to get these people back. This guy is smashing this door, and one guy on the left side is holding the door open so that the officers can’t ... . There’s one guy just ducking; across the back of his helmet you can see “U.S. Capitol Police.”

That moment really encapsulated the event. That was burned in my mind too because in that moment, I’m just kind of diving in to get the photo, but I’m also getting some of that contact from the pepper spray that they’re spraying. Also on my back there’s 100 people just clamoring, screaming, shouting at these cops over my back. I feel the weight of that pressure behind my back, I feel what’s going on in front of me, and I feel just sandwiched in between the two. After I did my thing, took my shots, I just grabbed my camera, ducked and just ran out of there. It was really a powerful moment for me as well, but that shot catches my attention.

Photo of January 6 insurrection

Photo: Shedrick Pelt

Then there’s also a moment where there’s a young man standing at the top of the wall that surrounds the Capitol. He has some of these neo-Nazi flags on his back. He has his military vest on that says “Deplorable” across the front. He also has two colored smoke canisters billowing out of his arms, and one is pink and one is blue. It’s almost like a very victorious moment. But for me, it was very comical because to be showing so much bravado and trying to be The Man, he was using these baby-shower colors, like pastel. Baby-blue and baby-pink-colored smoke is spewing out of his arms, but he’s trying to be so rawrrr. It was very, very comical.

Not to mention that they were scaling ... . In the photo, you see ropes. They were literally throwing these ropes on the wall and scaling the wall, like in the movies. You see the top of ropes under his feet, but what you don’t see off the frame to the left is a staircase that they could have happily walked up. Am I looking at a Jim Carrey movie or satire at the same time? 

Those three images are three that encapsulate the day for me.

Pier Carlo: I know part of your ethos is also making sure that your art is visible to your community. What were your thoughts about how you would get the images seen in the community?

Shedrick: The new way of thinking that I’m going into for the future is that I want to create work that outlives the algorithm. A lot of my work, you’ll see it; I post it; one day later, it’s forgotten about. 

When I did this outdoor piece — this was on the year anniversary, leading up to my exhibition that I was having — I wanted to create something that was in your face, unavoidable and extended the conversation. So I did some wheat-pasting street art in Adams Morgan on the side of a building.

I did two 42” by 36” pieces that were individual frames that I pieced together in an entire photo. We pasted that up in Adams Morgan in Washington D.C. I really was able to engage with the community because people were walking by that space all the time and reading the words that I had attached to it. Also it just kind of popped up overnight, so I think people were really caught off guard by that as well.

Pier Carlo: Talk about how your work was received, interpreted, felt by those who saw it.

Shedrick: Not being connected to a mass-media organization really worked out in my favor because I have ownership to that entire moment. I don’t have to ask for permission to show my work. I own the rights. Most people that were there documenting that moment in the way I was documenting, they were probably attached to a media outlet, right? They don’t own that story. They can’t tell the story that they want to tell, but I was able to tell the story. I was able to tell the story from a Black perspective and tell you about the moments of violence that I incurred while I was there on the Capitol. 

And especially at the exhibition, people were actually able to engage with somebody that was there in that capacity. I think that was very ... because people asked me a lot. The first question out of their mouth was, “Did you feel safe? What was it like?” People have been hearing about this thing on every news network for the last year, but nobody has had an opportunity to sit down and talk with somebody that’s been there. That was an advantage for me in my work and also, again, being able to tell the story the way that I wanted to. I didn’t have to worry about who was managing behind me. I just told it exactly how I saw it and how I felt that day. I think that made it very special and made it interesting to people. 

Also, I brought this element of the story about Black journalism being part of the fabric of journalism, even though we are grossly underrepresented by the mass media. Our stories are still there. There was the young lady that filmed the George Floyd thing. She wasn’t necessarily a journalist. She was just a voice on the street, capturing a moment. That kind of grassroots energy is very important for media, I think.

Pier Carlo: How has that experience shaped the way you’re thinking about your career henceforward?

Shedrick: I think this comes full circle back to why I’m even here right now in Lancaster, PA, taking photos. That moment really committed me to being a storyteller and being there to document places and things in an ever-changing world. So much changes. Even me, being away from home for a week, I’ll go home and something has changed. Being that person to document an ever-changing landscape is very important, even if we want to talk about the cliche, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve come from,” kind of thing. Even if for that reason alone, I’m really at a place where I want to document things in a way that’s not only interesting and beautiful but also represents timelines. I want my work to be one of those little time capsules that they bury in the ground.

I want my work to be one of those little time capsules that they bury in the ground. Maybe nobody sees it now, maybe nobody knows it now, but in 30 years people will come back to this work and say, 'This is what the world used to look like. This is the man who captured it.'

Maybe nobody sees it now, maybe nobody knows it now, but in 30 years people will come back to this work and say, “This is what the world used to look like. This is the man who captured it.” Yeah, that moment really pushed me to really settle in, also really dissect these moments that I’m capturing, not just capture them but really understand what’s happening, how you’re changing, how the world is changing. Growth. As a young man, obviously, every single minute, every single month, year of my life is about growth. That’s just the window of life that I’m in right now, right? I’m just at a place where I’m documenting moments and just watching this growth for myself and the rest of the world that I’m capturing.

Pier Carlo: Now, you mentioned that there was a great advantage to being freelance, but of course, a staff journalist, a staff photographer has a lot more literal job security. Are you looking to get hired by a news outlet, or do you like the idea of really making a career for yourself as a freelance artist?

Shedrick: It’s a little bit of a Catch-22. Of course, you love your freedoms, but when we’re speaking about growth, there’s still so much I need. I need mentorship. I need to be in more situations so I can understand how things work. I need to experience more so that this dialogue that I’m creating has more depth to it. The more you see, the more you can understand, the more you can digest and dissect.

I’m somebody that grows from pressure. You put me in a situation of pressure, I become stronger coming out of that, so I invite moments of pressure because that’s where I have the most growth. So I need more high-pressure situations, more important moments in my career, more mentorship so I can understand, grow, learn people. That is what those types of opportunities really give you. Then obviously a lot about what we do is also who you know and your connections and things like that, so I need more connections as well. 

I’m on the fence, but I think there’s a way that I hope that I’m establishing myself as somebody that offers a unique point of view or a unique narrative. Maybe somebody that wants to buy into me as a staff person can appreciate my work in a way that I still feel I have the freedoms to create like I want, if that makes sense.

Pier Carlo: You belong to a couple nonprofit organizations that are really dedicated to getting stories from underrepresented communities.

Shedrick: Absolutely.

Pier Carlo: I’m sure you yourself are a mentor in those situations. I know you’re on the board of at least one of them. Is there not an opportunity for you to gain mentorship there?

Shedrick: Mentorship comes from all angles, every moment, you know what I’m saying? I talked to a guy for 20 minutes at the gas station the other day. We were not even talking about anything specific, but I think it just kind of rolled into talking about growing up as men, something like that. I gather so many jewels from even just a quick moment like that. I definitely gather the moments from my fellow board members at Focus on the Story here in D.C., especially when it comes to how they recognize and support those people that don’t necessarily have all the opportunities in front of them.

Yes, I have been doing a lot more — and I enjoy doing a lot more — mentorship myself. I’ve amassed a skill set, an understanding of the world that I feel I need to be able to offer back to younger people. You can’t take so much and then not give back. 

Pier Carlo: What could change or be reinvented so that we could all see more of the world documented by photographers of color?

Shedrick: I think you have to actively seek those out. With such a saturated community of people, I think you could definitely fall into just recognizing the “big players” in journalism. I would definitely say, tap into your grassroots communities, watch the photographers that are out there documenting protests and things outside of just people with badges around their neck. That’s where you find a lot of people of color because we are on the frontlines for these social causes because we feel like we are at a place where we have to lead the way on change in a lot of aspects. So I would definitely say, yeah, notice your grassroots organizers. Follow people with less than a thousand followers. Yeah, I think those are a few of the things. 

Even draw a line from some of our elders in the profession. Start at a Gordon Parks and draw the line back to people who have said they’re inspired by his work and people who have been influenced by their work, somebody like Devin Allen in Baltimore, a young up-and coming artist who is working with the Gordon Foundation. He is one of those Black artists that are really documenting current moments in such an important way, and people are really gravitating to what he’s doing. Those are a couple things you could do to help you connect with Black journalists.

Pier Carlo: You’ve mentioned mentorship. What else would have been most helpful to you as you were coming up as an artist? Is there anything you think you might have done differently?

Shedrick: Let’s see. I think I would have … . I always look at artists that had the opportunity to be educated in art. I’m always a little jealous of that situation because they learn so much of the definitions of art and the technical sides in a way that I necessarily didn’t learn, being a YouTube-taught photographer and artist. There’s things about going to art school that are just harder to absorb and understand as somebody that didn’t. I would’ve been maybe more focused on trying to do some type of further education in the field earlier, and that may have provided more professional opportunities to me or just more understanding on how to navigate the industry. 

I think in the beginning, I took the usual setbacks, just learning the hard way, that maybe I could have circumvented by just understanding how the world works in general. I kind of just dove into the world without even any research. It’s just like, “I’m just getting into this scene because this feels right. This is my culture, this is my community, I’m gravitating towards it, but I don’t necessarily know what it’s about, especially if we’re talking about how to make money off it or how to make a career off it.” I was just doing it for the love, and that’s OK too. 

Yeah, I would’ve definitely wanted a little more of further education. That would’ve been cool.

August 15, 2022