Since the 1980s, Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell has captured snapshots of New Orleans life, particularly in chapters of African-American life often underrepresented in depictions of culture here. Celebrated for his Polaroid images of hip-hop events, Mardi Gras Indian culture and second lines, Polo recently published POP THAT THANG!!!, a pictorial homage to nightclub life and what he terms “everyday people, ghetto fabulous trendsetters, entertainers, hustlers, hot boys/hot girls and the young and young at heart.” With overseas sales under his belt, exclusive work with Cash Money and a handful of huge collaborations on the horizon, he is poised to earn a level of accolade long overdue. Bringing along his beloved Chelsey, the name given to his beloved camera (“me and Chelsey been together since ’87”), Polo recently spent time at OffBeat offices to talk about his journey behind the lens.
“My photography journey mostly in high school with the photography club at the boy’s club I was in,” he tells us. “As far as my event photography, it started off at the first teen club at the Club Adidas on Canal. This was when rap was just starting and it was just something for kids our age [to go to]. It was It was a place where people our age could go and just…let go.” It was around that time, he says, Warren Mayes ran a hot spot on St. Claude called Club 88. The venue would prove to be the place Polo would begin experimenting with set design. “I noticed there was a spot with an old wicker chair, kind of like the adult clubs had,” he recalls. “So what I wind up doing is, we had a room with a bookcase in there. So I kinda took a bunch of things from my house. I kind of made it like my room at home and took a bunch of the Word Up! magazines and stuff like that. Then, when the holidays came around, I changed it up and put a Christmas tree there, things like that. I think the new Jordans had just come out, so I put the shoe boxes up there. Just stuff you’d have in you room. And from then, on I been taking pictures.”
As he became more involved with snapping portraits, Polo eventually found himself immersed in clubbing culture and, on one fateful evening, he noticed “nobody was taking no pictures.” At Big Man’s Lounge, a “small hole-in-the-wall club,” Polo went to work and began taking pictures of the throngs of people there. He remembers December 16, 1990 in particular. It was that night he decided to really focus on showing up to events consistently as a photographer. “From that night on, anywhere they have events at these clubs, these concerts, I’ve been taking pictures,” he says.
And it’s been a hell of a journey since then. This year, he worked with Air Jordan documenting the All-Star Game. He was featured in theFADER. And, he tells us, “I’ve got something in the works with Reebok and Foot Locker.” Of course, it wasn’t a journey without tremendous obstacles. Polo broke his leg in a serious accident in 2015, which forced him into a wheelchair temporarily. For a while, he refused to emerge from his home but upon his return into the game, he was reminded of why he does the work he does.
“People come tell me my work is legendary and find it hard to believe. ‘Cause it’s just something I’ve always loved to do,” he says of his adoring fans. “My easy access to get these shots with these rappers is ’cause a lot of them, before their records came out and stuff, they usde to be out at the clubs, the block parties…And I’ve already built up a relationship with these people. So it was kind of easy for me. So when people tell me hey your work is incredible you’re a legend, I just been out doing what I love to do.”
With the love comes considerable pain, too. Due to his frequent appearance at second lines and jazz funerals, coupled with the fact that he builds lifelong bonds with the people he photographs, Polo says he laments one particular aspect of his job. “I think about it…the only people that been to more funerals than me, are the funeral directors.” But it doesn’t deter him from his steadfast desire to document Black life in New Orleans. “It’s important, ’cause we need to be heard. We need to be seen.”