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Is It Safe to Leave? Starring Shan Wallace
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Episode 9
Is It Safe to Leave? Starring Shan Wallace
Baltimore-born photographer Shan Wallace talks about why we’re not ready for the world to re-open. And how she found new ways to capture the world through her lens.

Show sponsors include:

TALKSPACE Match with a licensed therapist when you go to talkspace.com and get $100 off your first month with the promo code WILD.

FEALS Become a member and get 50% automatically taken off your first order with free shipping. Feals.com/WILD

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

[SEG A: ERICK PERSONAL INTRO]

ERICK: Alright, you ready? Ok.

[Clears throat]

I think about my parents leaving their home country all the time. In college, I had to write this paper where I interviewed my father about our family history and all I really wanted to know was why?

Why leave a place like Sinaloa that I had grown to love in my visits there. And he told me a few things. Like that he served in the army there and still had to pay for even the smallest privileges like taking his family to the park.

And ultimately, he said he came to the US for freedom.

Years later, I asked my mom about it and she said she’s the one who made my father come to America. Because she was afraid for their lives. She told me she saw a better future for her children even if it was in a country where she would be hunted and could be deported at any moment.

I can’t imagine how brave they both must have been.

Five years after Manuel, Elvia and baby Paul arrived in LA, I was born and about five years after that they were able to get legit green cards. Then many years – three more kids and a few grandkids – later, my parents became citizens and so did my brother. Decades, man. Just to finally feel totally safe in your home.

I’m Erick Galindo and this is WILD.

THEME MUX SWELL: I Got Everything by Mz.007

SHAKA: This is WILD — A show about what it was like to grow up during the pandemic. Season 1: Home Forever.

[SEG B: INTERVIEW PART 1]

ERICK: I heard, um, that, and tell me if it's not true, that you have some complicated feelings about the pandemic ending and the world opening back up.

SHAN: I have complicated feelings about everything, but yes …

I feel like many of us have been, you know, pushed to really sit with ourselves to quarantine, to stay home, to really address all that we might've ignored, or all that might have been triggered due to the pandemic. I don't necessarily believe that people have been working on their shit and really just, you know, embracing really embracing compassion and empathy. As I start to think about opening, you know, the state's opening and like the country opening. I'm just like, I don't feel that we're ready. I'm not ready to deal with all of the shit, all of the trauma, all of the psychological warfare that happened during the pandemic, especially the beginning months of it. I'm just not ready to deal with that.

ERICK: That’s Shan Wallace, she’s a photographer who grew up in Baltimore, often in the margins even within her own community, even within time and space. It’s no wonder she chose a profession that captures life in still motion.

ERICK: Is that bittersweet archiving change?

SHAN: It is bittersweet, because I do wanna show this work in this full context, but I do know that it’s not time, and I know that this is what archiving is. It is, you know, making work in the present for the future. And really just thinking about the future context, not really thinking about right now…

ERICK: It’s like time doesn’t matter, but it also matters.

SHAN: Yes. Like time doesn't matter, but it also matters. It matters because I have a certain amount of time where I can make this work. But then also once I make this work, time will only tell - time will be the determining factor on who gets to see it and how you get to see it.

ERICK: I had thought I wanted to talk to Shan about her relationship with the pandemic bubble and why she was hesitant to leave it — But really, this is a story about a person who has spent her life capturing her ever-changing home, her sometimes invisible community and really, entire worlds in moments.

And here is just a little bit of home through the eyes of Shan Wallace’s time bending lens, narrated by Victoria Alejandro.[Camera shutter click]Gambit (with Vocal Samples) (Instrumental) by Principle

VICTORIA: Snapshot.

A black and white portrait of a little girl sitting in a woman’s lap. She has hair elastics with big round beads on either side of her head. Her little sleeves are rolled up as she bites into a snack - the woman holds her gently and smiles kindly. The little girl looks into the camera...suspiciously.

It isn’t hard to picture a young Shan Wallace in a similar position…. being raised by her grandparents in Baltimore.

SHAN: I was born in 91. My grandparents were born in the 1920s, so they were - right, they were old as shit raising me and much of the music and the culture and the tradition that I engaged in was theirs.

I remember one time my grandparents let me listen to the local radio station one time - and I put on the radio station one time and what played was, Missy's get your freak on.

Get Yo Freak On by Missy Elliot

And we listened to it for like, Two minutes. And it was like, yeah, nah, back back, back to the stylistics, back to Luther van Jones, back to the miracles, not Missy, get your freak on.

And I lived on the east side with my grandparents cause it was old and slow with them. And on the other side, um, in west Baltimore, I could be a little bit more free.

VICTORIA: At age 14 Shan was introduced to a whole new world — The ballroom scene of Baltimore and the art form of voguing. [Camera shutter click]Shine (Instrumental) (Feat. Saeeda Wright) by Fritzwa

VICTORIA: Snapshot.Dancing bodies are frozen in time, captured mid-vogue.

Someone is splayed gracefully on the floor in heeled thigh high golden boots, arms stretched overhead as a crowd watches, rapt. Two figures strut in front of an audience majestically, head to toe in metallic fringe. Some folks are in rehearsal rooms, wearing simple bodysuits or t-shirts and sweats. Some of these spaces are packed with people shoulder to shoulder. There is an aliveness to each image, a palpable sense of community and celebration. This is the world that Shan Wallace loves, the world that shaped her and her photography.

SHAN: I mean, I just love queer and gay people. Voguing is such an important part of my identity. I mean, it was just this portal to who I wanted to become. I've found my sensuality and my sexuality and my identity through my community of people who vogued. We just moved our bodies and our bodies - moving our bodies really expressed who we were on the inside, even if it was different than how we presented.

VICTORIA: As Shan got older her relationship with Baltimore got more complicated.

SHAN: Like I'm from here. I lived here most of my life, and many a times I've left Baltimore like, I need to get the fuck outta here. I'm tired of this place. And I've had such, I've also had such a traumatic, traumatic experience here.

VICTORIA: For the past six years, Shan hasn’t stayed in one place for more than a few months. She’s done artist residencies across the country. Her work as a photographer got on the front page of the Washington Post, made it into the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun, and was hung in galleries and museums nation-wide.

But in July of 2020 her hometown called her back…

SHAN: And I came to Baltimore and I did more commercial work and a summer than I have in multiple years. It was super surprising to see that publications were seeking out work from black creatives and black photographers. Um, I also know that it was at the expense of a lot of white guilt, you know, like people just feeling guilty because we have been complaining about not being included. We have been complaining about not being hired. And I think for the first time it was like a real reflection of people in power like, you know what? You right. We haven’t been as diversified as we should be.

[Camera shutter click]The Bluest Eyes Revisited (Instrumental) by Farnell Newton

VICTORIA: Snapshot.

Two young Black jazz musicians are in front of a brick wall on a sidewalk in Baltimore. One is tall, shirtless, his form organically draped against an upright solo bass. The other has his sleeves rolled up, face slightly scrunched, pointing a trumpet to the sky.

In other images from this series, the trumpet player wears sneakers that say “Calvin Klein Jeans,” or he’s posed so you can clearly read “Calvin Klein” on the band of his boxers. The campaign is meant to sell clothes, but also to highlight parts of life in Baltimore that are overlooked by mainstream media. In a video that Shan directed for the shoot, the trumpet player says “They make us out to be so hateful, so violent. We need to normalize our vulnerability.”SHAKA: WILD will return after this commercial break.

Babylon (Instrumental) by Fenton Joseph

__________ MID ROLL BREAK _____________

Babylon (Instrumental) by Fenton Joseph

SHAKA: Now back to the show.

[SEG C: INTERVIEW PART 2]

VICTORIA: Even though it was the work that brought Shan back to Baltimore, she started reconnecting with the city and rediscovering her place in a community.

SHAN: Having restrictions and, and, and being so concerned about others is showing up in my work. I am extending this sort of distant care to other people, trying to not only accommodate them, but, just be of help. Like my starter kit is some Narcan. Um, just in case, you know, there is someone who ODS and someone may need it.

SHAN: I know the city that I live in, um, There is a lot of drug usage, safe and non-safe here. Um, and so I carry Narcan with me in my bag. I usually always carry an extra mask. Um, hand sanitizer, always my bottle of water, cause I always want to be prepared and I never want to be thirsty. I usually also carry maybe about 50 photographs of mine. A part of my process is I give people copies of the images that I take of them.

[Camera click]Times are Changing (Instrumental) by Musaea

VICTORIA: Snapshot.

VICTORIA: There are two black men running through grass, an unbelievably perfect sky behind them - fluffy white clouds against bright blue. They’re silhouetted, their legs lifted in sync as they run. They carry an American flag outstretched between them.

The caption reads: “This for all Black Americans who eat high on the hog. This is an image which serves to showcase young Black Bliss racing through west Baltimore in vintage cars we inherited from our dead grandfathers. Bliss is the portal and the gateway to freedom.”

SHAN: We haven't been allowing Black people to be the authors of their stories, instead we’ve been hiring white folks and non-Black folks to do it. I think that protest photography is valuable. It is a part of our experiences. I think that it’s problematic too, when, uh, publications only seek out that type of work.

For me, it was like, how does the work that I want to make continue beyond the protest, beyond the riots? Like, when all of the noise goes away, all of the people go home. How do I still get to tell stories? And how do I still get to, you know, photograph black people in the city and assert them into collections and museum spaces and archive this ongoing history.

And I feel like now I have the skill I have the eye, I have... I know what it feels like to, uh, carve out my voice and reinvent, you know, my process. As I am photographing this city, I am thinking about these images in our archival context. Like, what does it look like? And how will this be perceived 15, 20 years from now?

[Camera click]Rose Gold (Instrumental) by Cabri x Sub Q Taneous

VICTORIA: Snapshot.

This is an image of grief and there is nobody in it. A clump of silver, star shaped balloons hovering just above empty bottles lining the sidewalk. A memorial at the bottom of a street sign - the corner of Mosher and North Monroe. The “one way” sign above the street names holds a little more weight than usual. A pink fire hydrant stands guard.

SHAN: I've been through different stages of the creative process. I'm not interested in photographing people with a mask, because I see other photographers do it and I'm not moved. But what it really did was it made me start to pay attention more to infrastructures. It made me pay a lot more attention to environments. It made me pay a lot more attention to everything else that wasn't a person. And that I'm grateful for, because I've been able to really explore and discover this city in a way that I hadn't before. It's - I've just been able to discover so much more about this city that I overlooked or that I didn't see.

And that has just opened my eyes up more to the history of this city, to the brilliance of this city. And just also to just the circumstances in which all of us live under. And so it's been an ongoing re-invention of my creative process.

This is what archiving is. It is, you know, making work in the present for the future. And really just thinking about the future context, not really thinking about right now.

[Camera click]Rose Gold (Instrumental) by Cabri x Sub Q Taneous

SHAN: Like, so this particular image is of this woman, her daughter and her goddaughter. And there are two images that go - that go together. There's one image is of them standing up with the water behind them and they have on their mask and they're like, close together. And then the other image is these two little girls sitting in a heart, and they don't have their mask.

And they're just having. They’re to me having the opposite moment of what the...of the image that I just took.

[PAUSE]

SHAN: I think stillness is a positive, um, result of the shutdown.

I think that in that stillness we had to sit with ourselves and we had to sit in our homes or in the environment that we were in and really... deal with self and really also deal with the decisions that we make and the agency we have over ourselves.

[PAUSE]

And in a lot of ways, I'm like, fuck.

I miss my people. I miss strangers. I do miss the old normal, but in a lot of other ways, I'm like, feeling prepared and ready to deal with what's to come and really thinking about and not stressing about next week or the week after.

Just really thinking about right now. And just getting to the next moment and the next moment, and being really mindful - mindful of how I move in the world.

[CLICK]Heatwave (Instrumental) by Pom KanelVICTORIA: Snapshot.

There are four kids, three boys and a girl, on a basketball court in Baltimore in the springtime.

The boys are standing in a clump, just chilling - one of them has a mask around his chin while he sips from a juicebox. Another is wearing a shirt that says “if you can read this you’re standing too close.” The girl in the foreground is in action. She’s got a black and white basketball in her hands, her hair is up in a bun, her arms are pulling back as she’s just about to take the shot - and that’s the moment where Shan has captured her: just on the brink of something — as the world opens up.

SHAN: Honestly, I just want to play a game of like five on five pickup basketball.

I think that's, that, that's really my dream thing. Like, I really just want to play a nice game of basketball. Um, I want to go to a ball. Cause I was literally, in March before it popped off, I was going to balls like every week, having so much fun, taking great pictures, just being in an environment that was just so loving and nurturing and just so like...

Just so like queer. I love that. And I feel like, you know, I miss that. I miss - I miss that community. So I think those are my two things: a nice game of basketball, nice sweaty game of basketball too. Outside. Um, and a ball. I want to get dressed up. Like I want to look cute. I want to get dressed up. Like I want to, you know, strut in the world and like, be the hottie that I, I want to be and, you know, like really just see the world.

And so that's what I'm hoping for: a basketball game and a ball.

[Camera shutter click]

The Bluest Eyes Revisited (Instrumental) by Farnell Newton

Babylon (Instrumental) by Fenton Joseph

[SEGMENT D: Outro]

ERICK: This is going to sound wild, but I believe Shan is a time traveler. I mean we all are. Right? We travel forward most of the time. But then we pause, maybe even vogue a little, sit in that quietness and travel to our past.

Even this moment right now is two moments, right? It’s the moment I’m saying it and the moment you're hearing it.

Shit, maybe I’m tripping. But honestly, that’s what the pandemic felt like a lot of the time. Like I was trying to move forward, but with all this personal history on my shoulders.

Then one day, I stopped looking at the past as a burden and really started to see the lessons I could learn from it, the beautiful moments I could live... over and over again. I went from dreading all the unlimited chaos to embracing the limitless possibilities. Yo. Now I’m really tripping.

But for real. I can relive the day my niece jumped up and down like a rocket ship at the Glendale Galleria saying the word “tio, tio.” Uff. I can laugh when my little nephew tore all the keyboard buttons of my laptop 14 years ago like it was today. And I can close my eyes and see my dad raising hell in Culiacan. See my mother bringing water to her village. See my ancestors making it work against the hardest of circumstances.

In many ways that’s what this season of WILD has been. The parallels between my generation trying to find our home in this wild ass world and the journey many of our folks took to get us here.

It’s kind of eerie.

[Camera shutter click]

I’m The One You Need (instrumental) by the Vantastics

Snapshot: The moment right before the pandemic hit.

My family was finally home. Not only did that feel settled, but we were starting to find our own ways, and defining our own worlds, like Shan. I stopped being broke for the first time in who knows how long, my sister got a raise at work, my brother and sister-in-law bought their first ever home, the kids were honor-roll students. Everyone seemed to have their act together, finally.

And the sacrifices my parents made felt like they were about to be realized in a big way.

Then COVID hit us. Hard. Poof. Moment over.

And we had to do our survival thing again.

That’s next week on the season finale of WILD.

I Got Everything (Theme Song) by Mz.007

[SEGMENT E: HIGHLIGHTS]

LUSHIK: My highlight today is that I got to sleep in, because my fiance woke up early to a whining puppy, and took care of her, and gave her her medicine so I woke up to a very quiet puppy.

EDUARDO: So yesterday was one of those days that I got like thick packages, like 8 records, and I’m like a little kid, I’m opening the boxes up and I’m wanting to play every single record and it’s bliss man, it’s like nothing beats that you know, it’s my happy spot.

[CREDITS]

This episode of Wild was written and sound designed by Victoria Alejandro. It was also written and edited by Erick Galindo and edited by Megan Tan.

It was produced by Victoria Alejandro, Marina Peña and Megan Tan.

And mixed and mastered by me, Eduardo Perez.

Megan Tan is our Senior Producer. Our Producers are Victoria Alejandro and Lushik Wahba. Marina Peña is our associate producer and fact checker. Shaka Mali is an associate producer at large and our announcer. Erick Galindo is our host and editor. Jessica Pilot is our Talent Producer. Our Executive Producers are Antonia Cereijido and Leo G.

Shoutout to Marisa Klug-Moratya for shooting our album art and Steve Rosa for the assist. And special thanks to Andy Orozco for all her work and support this season. And to Brian Feinzimer for our WILD photoshoot.

The theme song is I Got Everything by Mz.007

Our website, LAistStudios.com, is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital team, and by our marketing team, who also created our branding.

WILD is a production of LAist Studios.

Special thanks to the team over there, including: Taylor Coffman, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, and Leo G.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

[GOODBYE]

WOO! I nailed it. I think… I’m Erick G — I’ll catch you next time