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Meet Shelby Poor

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shelby Poor.

Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I come from a working class family in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was greatly impacted by the effects of globalization. Both of my parents were active in their aerospace union during their employment with McDonnell-Douglass throughout the 80’s and 90’s. My mother passed away when I was five due to a brain tumor that was caused by chemical exposure as a result of her employment. Without financial restitution, my father persisted through the various layoff cycles while raising two out of three children under his roof. He passed away when I was fourteen, which was also the same age that I used heroin for the first time. I lived out of suitcases and stayed with chemically unstable relatives for almost two years. At sixteen, I slept on couches and floors belonging to my friends’ parents, piss stained apartment floors, back seats of cars, porches and – as a last resort – alleyways. I was sentenced to complete a rehabilitation program at seventeen for nine months and I’ve been sober ever since. I attended the University of Tulsa for my undergraduate degree, a private college located in the center of the crumbling working class community that I am from. My father told me as a child that the institution didn’t accept students with from our zip code. In 2016, I became the first person in my family to obtain a college degree and began to contemplate how to move into more exclusive arenas, places that I was never intended to belong to.

I received an MFA in photo-media from California Institute of the Arts in 2018 and I am currently a Doctoral Candidate. My work is directly informed by my sociopolitical position and creates space to discuss topics that are disallowed by polite society due to their “offensive” nature. Subjects such as addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, deprivation, stigmatization of class, gender and sexuality.

Please tell us about your art.
Throughout my artistic practice, I have explored the social documentary genre in photography with an emphasis on the representation of the working class. It was my disgust with the depiction of poverty that attracted me to photography. I loathe beautifully composed images of destitution that are enjoyed by privileged members of society. With my photography, I stand in opposition to poverty pornography and I present images of the working class as an active participant through a stark lens. I challenge the form and function of the social documentary genre in its present state by forcefully directing the audience to witness a personal experience that prevents them from taking pleasure in the image. This method also attempts to prevent the viewer from placing assumptions about the space and destroys any notion of spectatorial subjectivity at work. Social documentary photography, in my opinion, has an obligation to educate its audience with its foundation in social activism, in establishing empathy, and promoting change.

I was provoked by Larry Clark’s series, Tulsa—which takes place in my neighborhood about twenty years before my birth—and began utilizing photography in 2013. The spectacle of addiction, violence and fetishization of poverty in the series functions as shorthand with the intent to disseminate stereotypes. This, in turn, serves as a tactic implemented by the social elite, to reduce the visibility, cultural heritage and humanity of those who reside outside of polite society. The decontextualization, along with the emotional distance from the subject and emphasis on degeneration, is key ingredients for such misrepresentations and the amputation of empathy. Following Clark’s insulting testament to my community, I found comfort in Walter Benjamin’s insistence on ground context through the use of the caption with the image as an attempt to overcome the beauty in photographs of destitution. Meaning is not universal, nor is language definite; however, attempts to provide further context, social understanding and garner agency to the subject photographed is an overdue gesture for more democratic representation. In addition to the implementation of text with the image, I was informed by Bertolt Brecht’s theory of distanciation as a meant to promote spectatorial distance, space for reflection and to awaken consciousness through alienation.

We often hear from artists that being an artist can be lonely. Any advice for those looking to connect with other artists?
I have felt isolated at times as an artist and it can be difficult to strike up a conversation in galleries with other spectators. I found a sense of community with the monthly critique nights hosted by the Women’s Center for Creative Work. It’s an excellent opportunity to meet fellow LA-based artists and engage with their work.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
My work is accessible through my website (shelbypoor.com) and Instagram (shelbypoor).

Contact Info:

  • Website: shelbypoor.com
  • Email: shelbypoor@alum.calarts.edu
  • Instagram: @shelbypoor


Image Credit:
Shelby Poor

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