Despite spending a season in harm’s way, Shedrick Pelt doesn’t have a long list of personal horror stories to offer.
That’s because he’s an artist, not a fighter.
“I try to stay out of trouble as much as I can,” said the independent photographer, whose recently published book “We Keep Us Safe” chronicles some of the large public demonstrations held in 2020. “My thing is being a fly on the wall.”
Shedrick Pelt, photographer and author of “We Keep Us Safe”
It’s an old analogy, but an apt one. The fly watches you quietly until you move to swat it. Then, it quickly darts away to avoid danger.
Pelt’s wall (and place of residence) is Washington, DC, Ground Zero for political posturing and street-level frenzy. Even as would-be Broadway performers gravitate to New York City and wannabe country singers to Nashville, so the multitudes have always made pilgrimages to Washington to express their rage and grievances, hoping to be the flint that strikes the steel to start a fire, striving to earn the attention of the national media.
Although Shedrick Pelt warms his hands by the fire, he doesn’t allow himself to get burned.
This is not to say he hasn’t witnessed looters (“They’re out there, for sure”), property damage and the more aggressive counter-demonstrators (he calls them “cowboys”) up close and personal. He’s stood next to burning automobiles and had curses and threats screamed over his head.
“I’ve found myself in the middle of scuffles,” Pelt said, “but only because I didn’t realize they were happening until they started.”
An independent soul, Pelt works for his photo clients but not for any larger entity. He usually pays his own expenses, develops his own film (“I don’t really trust some of the places you send it out to”) and keeps his opinions mostly to himself.
The place he chose for his book launch was telling — the Dark Side Coffee House in his hometown of Huntsville, AL, which bills itself as being one of the first black-owned coffee shops in America.
Nor has he put “We Keep Us Safe” for sale on Amazon, along with the other 30 million or so current books. If you want to buy it, you have to contact him personally.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just prefer doing all that myself — right now, anyway.”
Moreover, he resisted any temptation to gear his book title toward shock and awe — “The Demonstrations: Exclusive Photos!” maybe, or “In the Belly of the Beast!”
“‘We keep us safe’ is a saying that some of the groups I’ve been following use,” Pelt said. “It’s a call to action. It’s a fight song.”
Pelt came to New York City in 2009 with a plan to do “something creative.”
“I wasn’t sure if it would be art, music or photography,” he said. “It was really music that led me into taking photos.”
That became his gig for a number of years, as he became a popular choice for music promoters and venue owners seeking dramatic shots of performers in action. Pelt also branched off into sports photography.
Then came COVID-19. and the live music and sports events that Pelt had been focusing on dried up. By then, he had moved to the nation’s capital, with drama all around him
“COVID made me rethink my place in photography,” he recalled.
Pelt was in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter marches, but his goal was not to overtly promote them.
“The one thing I noticed was how diverse they were,” he said. “There were black people, white people, Caribbean people, Muslims, what have you. I shot demonstrations during the day and at night, mostly sticking to D.C., and I went along on a couple of long marches up into Maryland.”
Yet while Pelt came to know and admire many of the participants personally, he still retreated to his wall when it became necessary. As a black man from the Deep South, he couldn’t help but draw some parallels between today’s BLM protests and those organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in which the message, not the conflict, was the important thing.
“Reading all these terrible headlines, you can feel so alone,” he said. “These (demonstrations) give people the chance to find others like themselves, to go out and do something.”
Perhaps the key element in Pelt’s photos is their humanity. The tendency is to think of a demonstration as an “it,” rather than a “them,” as a faceless mass phenomenon rather than something made up of thousands of individuals. Pelt sought out shots that made those individual stories stand out from the larger mix.
It is almost reminiscent of President Trump’s much-criticized comment on the 2018 violence in Charlottesville: “There were good people on both sides.”
That was seen a “dog whistle” to white supremacists and other far right demonstrators, and maybe it was. But whatever Trump intended, there was undoubtedly some truth in it.
“The world is in a perpetual state of panic these days,” said Pelt. “When people are stressed, they will act in irrational ways.”
His next photo book, he said, will be a profile of the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City.
In case you were wondering, though, he was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, snapping away at the unthinkable as it unfolded.
“It was wild,” Pelt said, “but I kept out of trouble.”
You can purchase Shedrick’s book through his website: http://www.sdotpdotmedia.com/
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."