Shawn Rowe (b. 1985) is a Chicago based photographer exploring the complexities of gender and social constructs through portraiture.  His long form approach allows him to embed with his subjects for months or years in order to understand them as complex beings.  Shawn’s work has been exhibited and featured throughout the United States.  Shawn also works as a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Photography where he oversees portfolio reviews and curatorial projects.  He is a 2018 Masters of Fine Arts in Photography candidate at Columbia College Chicago and received a BA in Psychology from Southern New Hampshire University.

The Sal Series 

2016 – 2017

My work examines the life of one individual as it relates to the idea of gender construction.  By showing the fluidity and diversity of gender as a performance I intend to start a conversation about how we perceive someone based on their outward presentation.  My photographs of Sal portray them as a complex person in such a way that we are able to see their fundamental uniqueness.  This uniqueness and dimensionality is what has drawn me to collaborate with them specifically.  These portraits are my way of making visible the continual challenges and transformations Sal is encountering within their own identity.  I believe that Sal can be a stand-in for myself and many others who choose not to identify with any gender.  The binary of gender and our heteronormative culture still dominate, even while fluidity in gender identity becomes more prevalent.   By photographing their life I attempt to create meaningful dialogue between the subject and viewer about the evolving nature of identity.    

“I am not circumscribed by the eyes of others, because I have seen myself and I know I am still here. And I live between my own lines, scrawled around and over the signifiers of identity, illegible to casual readers but silly, sacred, nonsense-verse elegy to myself.”  Sal Salam   

Q&A: Columbia College Chicago

Why Columbia College Chicago? 

Columbia College Chicago’s initial appeal was the quality of the work that was coming out of the program.  The school also has some excellent faculty members like Dawoud Bey, Kelli Connell, Paul D’Amato and Jay Wolke to name a few.  Columbia is located in Chicago which has an active and tight knit art community and has connections with The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art.  The Museum of Contemporary Photography also operates through Columbia College Chicago and offers employment to graduate students.  The MOCP is an internationally recognized medium specific educational museum with a strong reputation for fostering emerging and established artists.  I was fortunate enough to get a job there as a curatorial assistant where I have assisted on various exhibitions among other projects.  Having the MOCP at Columbia College has offered an invaluable resource, not only as career development but also provides insight as a practicing artist on how to navigate museums and galleries.

How has your experience at Columbia College Chicago informed or shaped The Sal Series

The Sal Series was something that I started during my first semester of grad school.  In its original form it started out as a project where I was photographing a larger community of individuals who identified outside gender binaries.  I photographed Sal as part of that project and later decided to just focus on them.  Through regular critiques and advisor meetings as part of Columbia’s program I came to the decision to make The Sal Series my thesis work. I found that focusing on one individual could hold more power in the long term rather than creating a collection of individuals that I would not be able to get to know.       

What kind of exhibition or arts-related job opportunities exist in the area for current students and recent graduates?

There’s a vibrant arts community in Chicago which offers exhibition opportunities all over the city.  The college will often publicize open calls for exhibitions around campus and online.  Columbia College Chicago has several on campus galleries where students are able to propose exhibitions.  Columbia also holds a final thesis exhibition for all MFA graduates where they have curatorial freedom to show their best work from their time in the program. There are connections with local community arts centers like Hyde Park Art Center, Lilstreet Art Center and other galleries in the city where students and grads have opportunities.

What’s the most memorable piece of advice you’ve received from a mentor?

During a seminar critique an advisor spoke to me at length about making photographs that you can believe in terms of gestures, posture, place, etc.  That whatever or whoever it is that you are photographing it needs to look like you just happen to have been there in that moment, not that you were there with a camera specifically to make a picture, which, of course you were.

What advice do you have for prospective students looking to attend Columbia College Chicago? 

I would advise anyone who wants to come to Columbia College to research the faculty as much as possible and to look at the work that has come out of the program.  Columbia College has more of a traditional aesthetic which is something to consider.  The faculty certainly make the program unique but also having the MOCP at your fingertips is something that few program have.  Since the class sizes are usually very small (6-7) you become very close with those around you, spending more time with them than anyone else in your life.  

Where can we keep up with your department online?

What other photo programs and artists should we be keeping an eye on?

There are so many, it’s hard to choose.  

An artist I admire is John Edmonds who just graduated with his MFA from Yale, his work is really interesting and rightfully getting a lot of attention.  

Someone I know personally is Columbia College MFA graduate Whit Forrester, whose work is thoughtful and beautiful combining images and gold leaf to create large scale tableaus discussing spirituality and colonization.

Finally Carissa Meier who is also a recent graduate from Columbia’s MFA program and full disclosure a close friend is combining cyanotypes with digital photography and instant film to create unknowable landscapes.