Filmmaker and photographer Sheldon Walker investigates his interest in U.S. history with his series entitled "Buffalo Soldier". Recreating scenes from a bygone America, Sheldon presents history in a visually captivating manner. Learn more about his series here.
Hi Sheldon. Please introduce yourself to the Lomography community!
I’m an NYU-trained filmmaker and photographer from suburban Rhode Island. I’ve recently premiered my ongoing staged photography series, “Buffalo Soldier” about the history of African-American soldiers. It’s been more than two years in the making so I couldn’t be more excited that people are finally getting to see and respond to my work.
Where did your interest in photography begin?
My interest in photography began in an unusual place — science class. In my freshman year of high school, my biology teacher was adamant about giving us creative projects to learn about topics like mitosis and DNA. He encouraged us to make songs, videos, and other media to demonstrate concepts in class. I became completely smitten by the process. I started taking classes outside of school in filmmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I became aware of the DSLR revolution. By my junior year, everyone was using photo cameras for video, so I jumped on the bandwagon and got the latest Canon Rebel, the T1i back then. Now that I had a photo camera in my hands, it was impossible for me not to get into photography as well. Since then, I have always been interested in the intersection between motion pictures and photography.
How did this series start? When/why did you come up with this idea?
The genesis of “Buffalo Soldier” was a confluence of all the right things happening at the same time. I had a Pentax 6x7 for a few years. I knew it was a professional camera capable of taking stunning pictures, but I felt like I hadn’t done anything yet worthy of the equipment I had. I was taking snapshots here and there of things around me in NYC, but nothing felt truly inspired.
At the same time, I was developing a fervent interest in the American Civil War. I was a minor history buff, and I was consuming lots of content of the topic because I was starting to pen a screenplay set in the middle of the war. As my script grew bigger, I started realizing the unlikelihood of actually making it anytime soon, so I wanted to scale back and work on something more manageable.
All the while, as a filmmaker I had been focusing primarily on my work as a cinematographer, but I felt like there was an element of directing that I missed. It had been over two years since I graduated from NYU, and I had directed only very sparsely in the interim. While I do find my work as a cinematographer to be rewarding, I missed being the architect of the overall vision. All these elements came together and led me to mock up a sketch of what would become the first installment in my series, “Sacred Land,” which deals specifically with the legacy of the Confederate flag and what it means to us today.
Tell us about execution. What is it like to make these photos?
In short, it’s a lot of preparation and a lot of paperwork. My team and I usually spend a month or two in earnest putting together all the puzzle pieces to make a shoot happen. There’s very little that’s left to be decided once we get on set, simply because there’s just not enough time to sit around and think while the whole cast & crew are waiting for direction. By that time we’re just executing a plan, keeping as close to the schedule we’ve set for ourselves as possible.
Leading up to that, things really kick off once we do a location scout. At that point, we can solidify exactly what the picture is going to look like; how many characters will be in the shot; what props, costumes, hair, and makeup we’re going to need; how much lighting it’s going to take; and of course where the camera is going to be. Those loftier ideas get refined into dozens of minute questions over the period of pre-production, during which we iron out all the logistics. There are also lots of behind-the-scenes details like insurance, transportation, lodging, and food needs for the cast and crew, that don’t necessarily show in the final product, but are nonetheless critically important.
That being said, it’s so time-consuming to simply get all the elements to set on the day, that it’s difficult to maintain a creative mindset once we get the ball rolling. Most of the creative direction is decided very early in the process and the rest of the time is spent making it happen.
Why do you think this work is important?
One of the best reasons I have for continuing with this series is that I’m learning so much about our Black American heritage in doing the research for the project. When I find a compelling story, I love to pass it on to other people and that’s exactly what “Buffalo Soldier” allows me to do. It keeps the memory of our struggles and triumphs alive, and introduces these essential stories to audiences who may not have known about them.
After I did “Distant Relatives,” a photograph about Black American soldiers meeting Black African soldiers in the trenches of WWI, I encountered so many people who had no clue that Black people fought in the war for any country. As an artist, I feel like I have some responsibility to do my part in sharing these stories with the world as much as I can.
Where do you plan to go with this work in the future?
We’re currently exploring opportunities to have the project featured in museum exhibitions, but I am also definitely planning to expand the series with further installments. My next step is to seek out funding to do more pictures in the series, and hopefully get enough of an investment to do several pictures at once. That would significantly cut down on costs.
In the past I’ve received a grant from the Queens Council on the Arts, so grant opportunities as well as private investments are my focus at the moment. You can find a sneak peek of what I have planned for the next 5 installments here. Once I get a budget for hundreds of background performers in my pictures, I would love to place myself in a cameo!