Volunteers at the outdoor food pantry in Fairhill slide potatoes, gray and outrageously bulbous, into bags held by hungry, low-income residents from the neighborhood, Philadelphia’s poorest.
Careful not to photograph the food recipients, one of the volunteers — local artist Sheldon Abba — points his camera instead at the meaty tubers and takes the shot.
Since March, Abba, who is 33, has been volunteering and snapping pictures at this food distribution in the parking lot of the Lillian Marrero public library. The produce, part of the so-called Fresh for All program, is trucked every Wednesday from Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the region.
Equipped with a camera and a social conscience, Abba captures the slow-motion emergency of never-ending need symbolized by the Marrero distribution — distro in Abba’s parlance. As many as 200 people come to this spot each week.
Thousands more collect in queues at the 900 other food pantries in the area, gatherings that most people never notice. The ubiquity of the lines makes them no less vital, in that each food distribution literally saves lives, say experts who study hunger in Philadelphia, the poorest of America’s big cities.
Volunteers and food
Abba’s primary subjects are the volunteers and the food. “What I’m documenting," says Abba, who lives in North Philadelphia, "are parts of the unseen things that make distros happen.
"This whole thing is organized by individuals helping people they don’t know. It’s a powerful thing for strangers to do for people. The volunteers have a calling; They’re genuine and selfless, the most impactful things about the distro.”
Abba volunteers because, he says, it’s more meaningful for an artist if he’s involved with the city he lives in: "I feel like you have to.”
That Abba cannot bring himself to aim his small, Yashica T4 film camera at Fresh for All clients can seem confounding: How does someone who is chronicling hunger and need not depict those who are suffering? Abba deciding to feature the food distribution volunteers and the food may seem like photographing a fire scene without showing the flames or the damage — only the firefighters and their hoses.
Still, Abba understands, he’s portraying the response to a catastrophe. “I don’t shoot people out of respect,” he said. “Lots of people will shoot photos of devastation, but that’s poverty porn, and it’s not my intention.”
Robeana Thomas, 63, one of the outdoor pantry clients, said she actually wouldn’t mind being photographed because people should know about Fairhill and its astonishing 61 percent poverty rate.
“I think it’s fantastic he takes pictures,” said Thomas, a former Army sergeant with four grown children living in Texas. She’s a widow living on a low, fixed income. “He’s making a record. It’ll show what’s out here.
"The people who show up need food, but they also have children and grandchildren to feed. They wouldn’t be out here standing in the cold if they didn’t need to eat. So, we need to spread the word.”
Skateboards and low rents
Abba isn’t sure how he’ll present the photos. The ideas are still marinating.
But there’s a good chance he’ll display them somewhere because for him, social justice is a natural subject.
Raised in Danbury, Conn., by parents who immigrated from India in the 1980s, Abba moved to Philadelphia partly because “people skateboarded here and the rent was low.” He graduated from Temple University, where he studied advertising and marketing.
Initially, Abba ran a small clothing brand with a skateboarder-rock 'n' roller vibe called Radlands. He’s worked as a project manager, helping to produce events around the city for nonprofits and other organizations.
When Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, Abba traveled to Puerto Rico with other artists to document the aftermath and the response to the devastation.
“He did phenomenal work,” said well-known Fairhill activist Charito Morales, a community organizer with Providence Center, an education-focused nonprofit in the neighborhood. She was in Puerto Rico at the same time Abba was. “His photos put pressure on the federal government to make people understand all that happened in Puerto Rico.”
Abba has portrayed Morales, who volunteers at the Marrero site, in some of his photos.
“It’s important for all of us involved in hunger and poverty to express what’s going on,” Morales said. “Maybe by seeing what we do through Sheldon’s work, more people will help.”
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.