“The camera, for me, is a weapon," Richard Andrew Sharum says. "Every time I pull that shutter is like pulling a trigger.” Sharum is a photographer and activist who has been shooting professionally for 12 years. He's taken photos all over the country as well as abroad, but for the past three years he's been trying to reconfigure the cultural hierarchy within Dallas art politics through his project #ObserveDallas.
"Photography is a very powerful thing; it's not meant to be played around with," Sharum says. "It's a difficult path to become a photographer, and that title is very important to me. It's not just someone who picks up a camera. There's lots of people that pick up a camera and push buttons, but that doesn't mean shit. That doesn't even mean I have reached that level."
Sharum has a very clear vision of his intent and brand. “I see myself as a documentary photojournalist and a street photographer.” There is an activist approach to his style of shooting. Sharum just returned from Cuba, where he documented the people who live in the Cuban highlands. They have no gas or diesel machinery and almost no relationship to technology. The newly lifted American trade bans are sure to have a dramatic impact on their quality of life and traditions.
"For me, a photograph is a concrete stamp in time," Sharum says. "It records history as it is at that time. What I'm doing with #ObserveDallas is an extension of that."
For the first year of the project, Sharum anonymously put out prints of images he had taken around downtown throughout the city. They were printed on special paper that adhered to concrete, and placed at the sites where the photographs were taken, so that viewers were essentially watching what they had just done. "It was about transporting people to something else, and putting them in it," he says. "To record history as it is at that time." The images included those "forgotten" by the city. Many depicted downtown Dallas' homeless population.
In the project's second year, Sharum put up huge prints on the sides of buildings. He says he did this, "at great expense to myself." An example of Sharum's dedication to his craft, this project has netted him nothing financially, a fact he is proud of.
"For the second year, I didn't have my names on the photographs, or my picture next to them," he says. "I literally did it to give all the people of downtown, who were in view of those prints, perspective on the city. They walk around these people all day, every day. They don’t care to look at them or think about them, yet these people make up downtown just as much as they do."
Sharum has traveled to cities across five continents to take photos, and it has lent him a unique perspective on Dallas. "I've done street photography in some of the largest cities of the world, and Dallas is like an overgrown village," Sharum says. "It tries so hard to be this big, cultural, artistic city, but it struggles. It's like an infant trying to get out of the crib."
Sharum points to the the lack of sanctioned public art in Dallas and the problems with the current gallery system, which he sees as a bubble, as evidence of this. #ObserveDallas is intended to respond to these issues. "What I care about are others in Dallas who could make Dallas a better cultural city, but haven't been given that opportunity," Sharum says.
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With that idea in mind he has recently expanded #ObserveDallas's mission to include education. In August he'll begin teaching a course that will cultivate a documentary-style street photography community. The class will have up to 12 students, who will work with Sharum completing assignments to capture life on the streets.
Everything Sharum makes in tuition will be put toward the exhibition at the course's end. Sharum will professionally display his students' images at the art show, and he says tuition still won't cover all of the workshop's costs. He will make up the difference himself. “What I’m hoping to do with this workshop is [force] these students to go out for five days, find a story and come back, and I’ll share it with the public," Sharum says.
Sharum sees the workshop as one element of a larger, more powerful movement. “With #ObserveDallas I am trying to force people to open their eyes a little bit," he says. "Put prints out there anonymously downtown; make a painting and put it downtown and leave it for someone to take, or scoff at or throw away. Who cares? Put that stuff out there. Put your music out there. Play on the corner, piss people off. Do something in Dallas, write something revolutionary. If you don't, Dallas will never be able to break out of this fucking eggshell.”
Photographers 18 and older are encouraged to apply to participate in the Observe Dallas Master Class Workshop by the July 20 deadline. Find info on how to apply here. Tuition is $150. The workshop begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday, August 2, and ends at 3 p.m. Saturday, August 6. A free after-party and reception celebrating the student exhibition will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. that evening at 500x Gallery (500 Exposition Ave.).