Shelley Polanco ’24, a double major in African and African American Studies and Politics, is an Afro-Latina multi-hyphenate creative. Since her youth, she has always been drawn to creating change. Whether through poetry and creative writing or photography and cinema, she is always uplifting and building a legacy that visualizes people of color. Today, Polanco runs a freelance photography business called Shot by Shell and is embracing other mediums of artful expression.

On March 27, I had the opportunity to interview Polanco. Polanco sat across from me on a cloudy afternoon, her curls and glasses framing her face. She was vulnerable in sharing her experiences navigating being a creative, academic and being Afro-Latina at Brandeis. Polanco began her journey with photography amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. She shared, “I picked up a camera [...] because I felt the world was changing so much. I felt like my camera and film, in particular, helped me take this moment and hold it and immortalize it.”

At Brandeis, Polcanco gained experience in politics through an array of leadership roles on campus through the Diversity Inclusion Initiative and Student Union. She noted that politics and photography are not as separate as they may seem. She says that the nature of photography is a political act “because no one can say something did not happen.” Polanco explained, it provides evidence of existence. “In itself, a photo is very political because to me it’s truth,” Polanco emphasized. She is self-assured in maintaining ethics and morals with regards to her photography and filmmaking practice. “You have to be responsible in the way you take photos. Of course, you can be a deceptive photographer, you can craft and frame and reenact things that may not be the true story, but that is not my philosophy as a creator,” she adds.

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GRAND OPENING: Polanco’s photography exhibition opened on Nov. 3, 2023.

Polanco is primarily self-taught through the internet and playing around with a camera, but she grew exponentially in her work through mentorship and her fellowship as an Emerging Artist through Dunamis Boston. She created a capstone project that served as “an immersive photo gallery about unhoused women in Boston.” Her curatorial experience through her capstone exhibit and other projects prepared her for one of her largest and most successful exhibitions to date, La Fuerza de Brandeis.

In her own words, La Fuerza de Brandeis is “a project that complicates the ways people at Brandeis see and think about Latinx people.” Born out of her willingness to visualize and disrupt the negativity, disrespect and colorism she’s witnessed at Brandeis, this project came alive. Polanco discussed her close relationship with hospitality workers and being able to connect with fellow Latinx folks on campus and comfortably speak Spanish, whereas she witnessed so much dehumanization from students towards staff.

As a recipient of the Race, Ethnicity and Migration Grant from the Latin American Studies Department in the 2022-2023 academic year, she embarked on creating La Fuerza de Brandeis. Through her camera, she photographed and framed 47 Latinx individuals from Brandeis whether they were associate professors, hospitality staff or undergraduate students. She found this to be “a productive way to address the harmful implications of stereotypes surrounding Latinx folks being the help.” Fostering a sense of belonging was important to Polanco and she created this through her style in doing photoshoots.

Polanco emphasized her desire to achieve authenticity and for folks to bring themselves as they were to La Fuerza de Brandeis. She let each subject author have complete control over location, clothing attire, props, and poses. “I let them construct the image, they had a say on whether or not they wanted to smile or look into the camera, how many pictures they wanted to take, how they wanted to display their Latinx heritage, if they even wanted to,” Polanco explained. She spent time getting to know her subjects, listening to their stories before photographing them.

Polanco did not achieve this work alone. Humble in her talents, she expressed gratitude in working with and being mentored by academic administrator Mangok Bol and the Chair of the Latin America, Caribbean and Latinx Studies Department, Elizabeth Ferry. Polanco intended on having the portrait exhibition in the Dreitzer Gallery in Spingold Theater, but when it was not available she reflected on the Mandel Center for the Humanities as a walkway in which the portraits would gain a lot of attention but also remain safe.

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PORTRAITURE: Polanco stands in front of her collection of 47 portraits of Latinx community members.

She got approval for the exhibition to stay up towards the end of the fall 2024 semester. She planned for the celebration and opening of the exhibition and worked tirelessly to make sure everyone was represented in other aspects outside of the photography. The Latinx Portrait Project came to life on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023 when her exhibit opened

The photography itself is visually immersive but Polanco did not stop there. Through her reception in her opening, she invited the idea of allowing other senses such as sound, touch and smell to immerse audiences in the Latinx experience. She hired the growing Latinx pop band, Olas de Surya, to amplify sound design behind Latinx music. They performed covers of classic Latin music and invited people to sing along. In including taste and smell, Polanco successfully orchestrated orders that catered from all 17 countries represented in appetizers, drinks and candies — each decorated with their flag.

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SPREAD: The food spread at the Nov. 3 exhibition opening represented all 17 countries of South America.

The La Fuerza de Brandeis in the Mandel Center for Humanities and Olin-Sang American Civilization Center passageway closed as students returned from winter break. Polanco was still in discussion with Ferry about memorializing the exhibition in another space and was connected to Mary Calo, manager of Public Services for the Brandeis Library. Their next step was to find a space where Polanco’s work would be seen but also safe.

She shared an extremely negative experience during the installment process where a caucasian student made fun of one of the portraits. Polanco recalled that the student got very close to one of the portraits and joked to his friend, “don’t we look alike?” while filming. She calmly inquired if the student identified as Latinx, to which he replied that he is Jewish but he was joking around since he speaks Spanish. “I encountered a lot of ignorant comments and hateful action toward the work itself,” she said. Polanco shared that she felt unsafe because white violence does occur on and off the Brandeis campus and often is not acknowledged. However, she felt that by not showing the project she would be minimizing and hiding her culture to appease others. The staff at the Brandeis Library were incredibly appalled by the negative interactions and they provided her with support and care in preserving her work.

Polanco’s Latinx Portrait Project now lives near the entrance of the Goldfarb Library. Her statements are framed along a wall of faces that serve as an ode to the Latinx experience, an invitation to cultivate curiosity and a visually stunning framework to look at Latinx narratives.

She hopes to create an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance on campus. Polanco expressed discontent with her personal experience and not finding belonging within student cultural organizations particularly because she is Afro-Latina and is often forced to pick a race. Yet she explained both are central to her identity. “I know that [a majority] of Dominican people don’t like to claim their Black ancestry because of the Trujillo dictatorship and a lot of internalized hatred,” she added.

Polanco knows she is not alone having her identities rendered invisible or minimized. Upon creating community with multi-racial students and creatives, she recognized the power of her camera and photography. The Latinx Portrait Project has moved many but none have been more affected than Polanco herself. “Photography has demanded of me to dream bigger, and [it] has had me reinvent what is important,” Polanco shared. She admits that she was not always comfortable with calling herself a photographer or an artist. Like a lot of students of color in a single parent and immigrant household, Polanco felt the expectation of finding a stable career. However, she has been able to discover and change the narrative surrounding what defines a good career.

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EXHIBITION: An attendee views the photos on display at Polanco’s Nov. 3 opening.

Polanco has many people who have inspired her work. She discussed other creatives and artists in and outside her personal sphere. Her top inspiration is Issa Rae, a young Black creator who is unapologetically herself. Rae has been inspiring to Polanco because “she never takes no for an answer.” Chidera Eggerue, known on social media as @theslumflower, inspires Polanco because of the philosophy of centering dreams and being true to yourself. Polanco has been heavily impacted by Jasmine Garcia who was a mentor through Dunamis and encouraged and validated Polanco’s journey as a creative and intellectual. In terms of musical inspiration, Flo Milli has been unapologetically herself in a male dominated industry despite receiving criticism, and Polanco aspires to be like her, showing up authentically in her creative work. Finally, Black feminist thinker Audre Lorde has been on Polanco’s mind and shaped the way she moves in the world as an Afro-Latina woman. 

Her relationship with photography has allowed for her to be a part of crafting a narrative that is self-written by folks often marginalized in society and the global world. 

Her advice for first-year students, particularly students of color, first generation and low-income college students, is to live boldly and loudly and to embrace the journey of higher education. “It is normal to be overwhelmed but do not stay there. Think about what you can’t stop thinking about — what is the object of your attention?” Polanco invites students to discover their passion and make as many connections and networks as possible during their time as undergraduates. “Redirect the resources back to you,” Polanco adds, acknowledging the vast amount of resources Brandeis has to offer.

“Collective wisdom is really important to me,” she adds. Polanco’s work is a living document of her culture and creates a platform for dialogue. As an advocate for social change, Polanco is committed to using her platform to raise awareness of important issues.