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Conversations with Zhee Chatmon

Today we’d like to introduce you to Zhee Chatmon.

Zhee, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I have always been fascinated by the way people react or respond to photographs. In my family, photographs were treated like prized and priceless possessions. From a very early age, I witnessed excitement and emotion arise time and time again when family photographs were shared. I remember feeling like I wanted to be the person behind the camera, making captures that would move people in all the ways. My first camera was Polaroid, and I was smitten with my new superpower! As I grew up, my family experienced some hardships and challenges that made preserving memories difficult. While those experiences led me to pursue other interests, they also intensified my desire to keep capturing.

As a young adult, I entered college as a psychology major. Psychology was a respectable major and at the time, met the expectations of those that expected me to follow a particular path. It never occurred to me that I could study photography and actually earn a living as a Photographer. Photography was considered a hobby and I did not believe I had the luxury of pursuing a career in the arts. It wasn’t until I reached my early thirties, when I was able to return to school, that I made the pivotal decision to study what I loved and really hone my skills. I reenrolled as a fine art major and oh the joy! The world opened up in a way that gave me the familiar pang of wishing I had done it sooner!

I’ve been shooting professionally since 2008, mostly freelancing and contracting, upgrading my equipment piece by piece, project by project. In 2014, I was thrilled to begin work as a full-time Staff Photographer for Gallaudet University in Washington DC and while it was challenging in more ways than I could’ve imagined, my time there was instrumental in further shaping my identity as an artist. In the two years since my departure, I have continued to freelance and contract my photography services as much as a global pandemic would allow. I launched Street Faerie Photography as an extension of my services that caters to events, special projects and particular photo requests. I’ve also begun working on a deeply personal photo essay project. One of many visual essays that I am excited about producing and sharing.

How I started and how I got to where I am today was not a straightforward process. It has been filled with its share of trials and traumas, losses and gains, lessons, detours and doubts, but the one thing that has never waned is my deeply rooted reverence for the power of a photograph. I am always learning, always growing, always grateful for the opportunities to continue.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
No, it has been anything but a smooth road, but it has often been rewarding. My chosen profession is an expensive one and I’ve had to overcome financial obstacles and struggles, most recently during the Pandemic. Acquiring the necessary equipment and insurance, maintaining that equipment, marketing expenses, professional development, all of these things are expensive and essential. I’ve had to (and am still learning to) be a smart businesswoman when I just want to make art.

At times throughout my journey, I’ve struggled with the criticism that is a constant in the life of any artist. Critiques can be helpful and constructive, encouraging you out of your comfort zone and promoting real growth, but sometimes they can be downright brutal. Discernment is key.

Being a woman also presents certain challenges as historically, photography has been a male-dominated industry. Being a woman of color adds another layer, and being a woman of color of a certain age adds yet another. And sometimes, the struggle is within. You are often a result of your experiences and sometimes the difficult ones take an emotional toll.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I am a Photographer. I specialize in environmental portraiture with a focus on storytelling. My love for street photography plays a huge role here. I am known for my fly on the wall technique of capturing humans being. I’ve been told that there is compassion in my photographs, and that I seem to have a knack for capturing the essence or personality of my subjects. I would venture to say that this is because of how much I care about my art, my passion for my craft. This is one of the things that sets me apart from others. The details matter to me, sometimes too much, but caring about a genuine portrayal serves me well.

It’s hard to say what I’m most proud of because I’m proud of so much of my work, but my street captures and birth photography rank high! My Porch Portraits are another highlight. Born out of my desire to continue shooting and earning income during the Pandemic, Porch Portraits invite you (families, housemates, singles) outside for an imaginative, safe, safely distanced photo shoot in front of your home (or business). All households and businesses are encouraged to participate. They are a lot of fun to shoot and I hope they will continue as we move toward a post Pandemic era.

What do you like and dislike about the city?
I love my hometown! I like the green spaces like Druid Hill Park, Cylburn Arboretum and The Gwynns Falls Trail. I don’t love the current subway system. It feels limited and could use a few upgrades.

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