Zhee Chatman’s love affair with a camera

When she and her wife left their Station North apartment on Charles Street after 19 years and moved in 2017  to Bolton Hill, it was like the end of a love affair, says photographer Zhee Chatmon.  “I grew up there.  I loved it.  So many things happened there, most of them good and special.”  She documented those memories in a photo narrative she calls “Chuck Street: a Love Story.”

A change of landlords made the move unavoidable.  Now the couple is comfortably ensconced in a large floor-through apartment in a brownstone on Eutaw Place at Laurens Street, happy to visit the neighborhood parks and walk the Bolton Street sidewalks with their new puppy, Leica.  “It has been a nice, new beginning,” she said.  “I love the architecture and I love how green the neighborhood is.”

Laid off from her job as staff photographer at Gallaudet University in DC as the pandemic shutdown began, the last year has been a scramble.  As a freelance photographer, inhibited by social distancing, she has focused on producing “porch portraits” in Baltimore and creating other artsy, if not financially enriching, stories told in pictures.  “I’m not a great businessperson.  I have a small social media presence, and I’m still learning how to market myself.  But I love what I do.”

She grew up in Reservoir Hill on the edge of Druid Hill Park.  It was a family with its share of dysfunction and troubles, she said, but also part of a large family of snapshot-takers.  Photos of family get-togethers and friends and happenings piled up in cardboard boxes in those pre-Internet days.  She liked plowing through them as a child, assigning stories to some and memories to others.

That’s how she first attached herself to photography.  “I think of myself as somewhat introverted and so I’ve always liked the observer, fly-on-the-wall nature of photography.”  After studying psychology the first time around and working in child-care, upon re-entering  Morgan State University in 2008 at the age of 39, “I gave myself permission” and moved to the school of fine arts.  There, she said, she found lots of one-on-one exposure and support from talented faculty members as she followed her passion.

Upon graduation she fell back on working with children, a staff job with a small arts non-profit organization and always freelancing – the soup-to-nuts shutter work at weddings, special events, family reunions and delivery-room photos of childbirth.  She aimed for “environmental portraiture, that captures you where you are in a way that tells your story.”

She says she has an affinity for street photography, pictures such as those taken of young boys selling lemonade on Eutaw Place and of children hiding behind a park fence, featured on her website.

As a staff photographer at Gallaudet from 2014-2019, she plunged into a new world that required her to learn American Sign Language (ASL) and to try to navigate the partisanship and sometimes even hostility toward hearing persons on campus. 

Freelancing from home in Baltimore has given her time to care for her mother, who lives in Reisterstown and is battling cancer.  Her spouse, Colette Massengale, is a lawyer with the Maryland Realtors, normally working in Annapolis.  When Zhee has downtime, she curates a collection of photos for an exhibit and a book that she hopes to produce: Unzip My Heart, intertwining photos from her childhood with her more contemporary work.

-Bill Hamilton