It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes Jelani Splawn so likable.
It had been years since I was in the same room with the now-24-year-old (we both attended SciTech High School, though he was a year above me). But the instant he sat across from me in Midtown Scholar, I felt like I was just chatting with a friend.
He immediately apologized for running late and pulled me into a sideways hug. He asked me how I was, which made me chuckle, not because the question is comical but because here he is, out of breath, coming off an eight-hour shift at IGI Global in Hershey, and he’s wondering how I am.
It’s easy to see how Splawn gets people to open up, even when he has a camera in front of their faces.
For years, the Harrisburg-based photographer has captured hundreds of photos that could make even long-time residents see the city in a new light.
There’s no one way to categorize his photos.
There is the playful “Blooming” series, where different models are placed in front of a colorful background with flowers blooming from their hair. Then, there are more haunting black-and-white photos. There is one with a woman on her knees, hands stretched to the heavens. Another of the late Mary Ellen, who lived outside of the old Rite Aid on Market Street, hunched over her ever-present crossword puzzle. The only color in the photo was a golden halo around her face.
“A lot of people ask me what do I do, what type of photography I work on,” he said. “The best way for me to describe it is, I [wing] it. Whatever captures my eye, I usually just pursue that.”
There’s an old saying: “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” Well, lately for Splawn, that is not enough.
For his newest venture called “Beauty in My Street,” a “Humans of New York”-style project, Splawn interviews local artists about how art impacts their community. The project started as just photographs on Splawn’s Instagram then developed into a YouTube vlog series. In his first episode, which aired May 31, Splawn, along with his long-time friend and frequent model Michael Jensen, interviewed local musician and visual artist Tishon Jones.
“I found so many intriguing people in my own backyard,” he said. “All these folks come from different [places] with hopes, dreams and a willingness to take life as it is—an experience.”
It Was Perfect
Though his grandfather was a photographer, Splawn didn’t care too much for being behind the camera until he was in college.
He started out with a lot of standard photography: flowers, murals and photos of the Capitol. About three years ago, things started to change.
In 2015, he heard that his college’s Black Student Union was searching for a photographer. He joined the club and pitched the idea of a photoshoot highlighting black hair. The idea was inspired by Ebony magazine’s 1970s-era shoot called “Rows. Fros. Everything Goes.”
“I figured, since this is more of a pro-black situation, we can do something based off of a photoshoot with the hair of African Americans who are a part of the Black Student Union,” he said.
They got a huge lineup of people wanting to be involved in the shoot, which shocked Splawn.
“I was not expecting that,” he said. “I was expecting it to crash, or only have five people show up. Everyone was very receptive of it, and it was very welcoming. Everyone had their own style, and everyone goofed off, and it was perfect.”
Splawn dealt with more advanced editing and models during this shoot. For the first time, he felt like a real photographer. This was his calling.
“It was such a huge moment for me because I didn’t think I could make it that far as a photographer,” he said. “But, when I looked at my art and saw what I can do, it was all the motivation I needed to pursue it more.”
Since then, Splawn has done shoots for Artcan, a local art collective, and inside La Cultura, the Verbeke Street pop-up shop building. Still, some of Splawn’s favorite photos come from just roaming around the city with his camera.
One of his favorite photos is an image of a vagabond named Brandon back in 2017.
Brandon, who was in his early 20s at the time, told Splawn and his friends that he was inspired by his grandfather to roam around different cities and states. He started in California and somehow landed in Harrisburg.
“We just sat down and talked, shot the breeze, and then he was sitting down playing with his harmonica,” Splawn said. “From that, I got a really nice shot and, since then, I have fallen in love with it. I think that was one of my favorite shoots, not because it was so good in my opinion, but because it was so raw. It was human.”
Currently, Splawn is focusing on reaching out and discovering more artists for his “Beauty in My Street” project. His goal is to take the project beyond Harrisburg, to different cities and states.
“I’m not a big-time photographer on social media,” he said. “I only have about 700 followers, but, when I think about it, it doesn’t really matter. I learn how to hone my own craft, and I learn a little bit about myself and my photography every day.”
He has no big lineup of gallery showings or events currently. Instead, any free time he has he’ll spend in Harrisburg with his headphones on and camera around his neck. So, next time you see a tall, dread-headed guy with a camera in front of his face, say cheese.
You can view Jelani Splawn’s photography on his Instagram account @ jelly_the_photographer.