Uncovering Philadelphia's hidden past

Talking photography with Mural Arts Philly Black Artist Fellow Khalif Rivers

2 minute read
A self-portrait of Rivers. He's a Black man, is wearing glasses, dreadlocks, and a colorful, patterned button-up top.
Khalif Rivers wants to show the sides of Philly that people hardly know. (Photo by Khalif Rivers.)

Khalif Rivers, an award recipient of the 2021 Mural Arts Philadelphia Black Artist Fellowship, is a Philadelphia-based photographer, writer, and fine artist. Rivers grew up in Philadelphia and only left for a brief period to attend school. When he returned, he began to pursue photography merely as a hobby and a way to express himself. However, what he didn’t realize was that it would turn into so much more.

Khalif may have been born and raised in Philly, but it wasn’t until he moved away that he began to appreciate everything it has to offer—including the beauty and history that lies within.

“I spent most of my life in Philly—with the exception of high school and college—and I think that was a big part of my inspiration because it took me kind of getting away from the city to really realize how beautiful it was and how unique it is,” says Khalif.

Telling stories

“My biggest goal is to spark the same curiosity in people that I have.” For Khalif, photography isn’t just about taking photos, it’s about telling a story. That’s why, along with snapping a picture, he takes the time to research each and every subject that he captures. He often posts the facts and stories he discovers on his Medium page.

One of the stories in which Khalif is most proud of is what is known as The McCurdy Mystery. He came across this story by accident and found it to be fascinating. The story is about the McCurdy Brothers’ department store once located on the corner of Front Street and Susquehanna Avenue in Kensington, which is now Fine and Fare Supermarket. There, in 1903, a man named Archibald McCurdy was murdered.

“I wasn’t even initially doing storytelling, yet I just wanted to tell people ‘this is my city like it’s cool right?’ And, you know, I do boat house row and skyline shots, the typical Philly landmarks, but I also wanted to show people another side of the city that they might not be too familiar with,” says Khalif.

Portraits of the people

Along with uncovering the untold past of the city, Khalif also spends time in the present as well, interacting with the community by taking their portraits. “Shooting portraits, it’s a much more interactive experience because it’s not just things that I have in mind. You really want to kind of have a conversation with whoever you’re shooting. And that’s a skill that I had to learn because when you shoot portraits, one of the first things that you have to consider is what type of look someone is going for,” says Khalif.

One of Khalif's goals for the near future is to open up his own studio space for taking portraits— since he currently uses his living room. He also intends to create an immersive exhibition featuring many of the photographs and stories he has conceived throughout his research.

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