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Photographer Sheldon Abba Aims to Connect Philadelphians with Abandoned Pay Phones

October 30, 2017

Have y’all seen this new street art series that’s started popping up around Philly? The series converts unused, abandoned pay phones into frames for photography.

After searching Instagram for who might be the creator of this new series, I quickly realized that it’s my friend (and Signs of Solidarity artist!) Sheldon Abba.

Sheldon’s project, which is tentatively titled Cross City Communication, is aimed at highlighting ephemeral moments in our quickly changing city and connecting Philadelphians across neighborhoods.

I spotted one of these installations in Center City at the end of last week, then used Sheldon’s Instagram posts to find and photograph two more over the weekend. This morning I texted Sheldon to find out more about the project, its inspiration, and what he hopes people take from it. His response follows:

“This project allows me to give back to a city that has given me a lot of my identity. It lets me offer a broad view of this place in time via these momentary portals. Center City, North Philly, West Philly, Germantown, Fishtown, Allegheny are not islands to themselves. They all make up this place, and I want people to see themselves that way. Not as individuals siloed to the good, bad, and ugly of their area, but as members of a whole who are experiencing and being affected by our changing city together.”

“I wanted to offer people the opportunity to view single moments of life in a changing city. I really want people to take a moment to appreciate that things are changing fast out here and that the character of the city is found in its people, places, and simple moments that we often overlook or look right past… And a lot of these moments and places might not be around much longer. I want people in different parts of the city to see images of people and things they don’t know and might not even like and realize that regardless they are all apart of it. That being a Philadelphian isn’t defined by supporting a team, it’s done by seeing yourself as a small piece of a much larger community.”

For each of his installations, Sheldon offers greater insight into his inspiration. With the installation that opens this post (the two photographs above,) located on Girard avenue at Lawrence street in Olde Kensington, Sheldon writes: “Front and Girard can be a rugged zone. In the last 10 years there has been a huge increase in ‘young professionals’ walking their dogs, bros, and other signs of gentrification. It’s also not far from K&A and a number of pharmacies and clinics supporting individuals in recovery. It can be pretty brutal walking out there to the train watching someone nodding out while pushing a stroller. It’s not my place to judge anyone because I don’t know the life situation of every person I see in the street but it’s still a heavy bummer. But there is also a lot of love out there, a lot of people catching that train to grind out the day and bring back the bacon OR turkey bacon… A lot of people trying to support each other in recovery and support each other in life. This photo taken under the EL reminds me of that. It’s installed a little further up Girard between 4th and 5th to hopefully remind people of the same. And if your inspired to do something to support the brotherly love vibe in the city maybe high five a rando on the block, buy some candy you don’t need from a young bull on the train, or if you got a couple extra bucks in your pocket donate to Prevention Point Philadelphia, The Village of Arts and Humanities, or any other organization that is supporting the people of our city.”

For the installation in the two photographs below, located at 13th and Market streets in Center City, Sheldon writes: “One of my top two favorite things about Philadelphia is dudes ripping through Center City on dirt bikes. I hear the sound and my ears perk up like a dog and my head swivels to catch site of them… I can’t help but yell ‘Fuck Yeah’ and more recently think of a phrase spoken to me by my friend William about what it means ‘to be free in a carceral state.’ To live in a country that currently and continuously seems to be encroaching on our personal rights and freedoms ripping a dirt bike around City Hall with a gang of your homies is an amazing act of rebellion. Also doing it in a Sproles jersey earns you all the extra Philly love… Yeah I know ‘it’s dangerous’ and yadda yadda, but I can’t hear any of that over the waaaaaaaamp! waaaaaaamp!”

Quick note: The colorful painting on the sides of the abandoned pay phone in the two photographs below are by a Chicago-based artist by the name of ljanet, and you can read more about her project here.

And for the installation in the two photographs above, located on Girard avenue at Marshall street in in Olde Kensington, Sheldon writes: “New buildings become old buildings. Some buildings burn down, crumble, turn to lots of rubble, fields of weeds and trash, walls get claimed and blown out with graffiti. Sometimes I get bummed looking at beautiful architecture, the character of the city, falling apart, waiting for a developer who doesn’t give a fuck to turn it into plastic condos. On the other hand I love these places. They feel like a weird mix of gallery and anthropological dig. Philly hand styles look like future hieroglyphics, rusty barbed wire piles are industrial installations, and the random lurkers living in the lot are street docents with a decade of knowledge of the block. I know I’m romanticizing this shit, I’ll stop now… I’m pretty sure the circle mirror on the wall is a portal to an alternate Philly time warp dimension dropping you off in the bar on the corner in its earlier days. I’m no graffiti historian so I won’t try to explain why GOA is one of my favorite hard body crews in the city.”

To say I LOVE this new series from Sheldon Abba would be a vast understatement. I am so in love with this new project, with all its beautiful layers and goals of breaking down bubbles to connect people, that I can hardly put it into words. Can’t wait to see how Sheldon will continue and grow this! (Rumor has it he may be looking to collaborate with fellow Philly photographers soon.)

Also, shout out to all the recent photographers, like Sheldon, who are finding frames for their work in otherwise abandoned forms around the city. This work reminds me of the equally lovely recent project by photographer Ryan Greenberg in Philadelphia’s subway stations. As well as a recent photography mural by Susan Nam… What a great time to be a photographer, y’all are giving me ideas!

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