On an overcast fall day I found myself smiling after I noticed the tiny imprint of the Pan-African flag next to the small puddle that was forming at the entrance of Photodom, Brooklyn’s only Black owned camera shop. The sight reminded me of a Brooklyn that practically disappeared after the borough’s rapid gentrification in the new millennium.
Photodom became the only Black owned brick-and-mortar camera shop in Brooklyn when its doors opened on Sept. 12. Dominick Lewis, the 26-year-old owner of Photodom created a $45,000 GoFundMe campaign to fund the storefront a mere two months prior to opening. Now, despite a previous failed attempt to start a photography studio in South Florida, Lewis has realized his dream.
“I was actually planning to open my store in April before COVID happened and once that happened I obviously couldn’t open the store during that time, so instead I tried to focus more online,” he said.
Upon climbing three stories of 1717 Broadway, I made my way through the maze-like building to room 310, and my eyes fixated on the glint of camera bodies in the store’s “very 2020” color-changing lights. The first two people entered the store for the day, and room 310 soon became filled with the warm laughter of Photodom employee Christa Lyanne, as she tells a customer to get the cuter camera out of the two he picked for his girlfriend.
New York City’s COVID-19 regulations entered Phase Four on July 20, which saw the re-opening of low-risk indoor and outdoor venues like zoos and museums, educational institutions, media production and professional sporting events with no seating. Around the same time, Lewis started renovating the space he had and gauged the community’s interest via his GoFundMe campaign which raised over $39,000 from more than 1,000 donors.
“Now we could have everything we ever needed in this store instead of just being like, ‘We’re gonna get there. We’re gonna get more stuff here and there,’” Lewis said. “Initially, it wouldn’t have been any cameras or any film. It would have been just my stuff that I sell.”
Lewis said that he created Photodom because he felt that he and other people of color complained about getting sub-par service from other photography stores.
“I think it’s important in general to have a camera store that represents your needs. In the past, going to a lot of other stores, you’d always feel unwelcome just because I don’t look like I could afford anything in there,” Lewis said. “Talking to a lot of other photographers, I realize I’m not alone.”
The current political movements for racial justice boosted Photodom’s success as corporations were looking to intentionally support Black artists, according to Lewis. Photography studios like Deer Studios temporarily offered free studio space for Black creatives, and brands like Glossier pledged $500,000 in grants to Black-owned businesses in the beauty industry. Despite the delay the pandemic caused to Photodom’s opening, it became a stroke of luck for the store. Polaroid, for example, donated supplies like film that weren’t being purchased as much as people stayed indoors.
“A lot of companies were looking for ways to help after the protests sparked up, so it kind of was like a perfect storm lowkey just to see that companies can help in ways that they probably wouldn’t be able to in the past, or during this time they could now,” Lewis said.
Lewis has slowly cultivated a loyal customer base for Photodom as there were few other photography stores open during the pandemic where people could get their film developed and quarantine meant that many were eager to check out his online store. As Lewis’ GoFundMe made rounds on social media, many creatives left virtual comments on Photodom’s online platforms, swearing to patronize the shop upon its physical opening.
Braxton Brown is one such person who fell in love with the store after hearing about it online. The 34-year-old app developer created SunUp, a Black business finder app. After reviewing the store to put on SunUp, he found that the store rekindled his love for hobbyist photography he hadn’t known since high school. Brown said that he now spends several days out of the week in the Photodom store, citing the owner’s “non-pretentious way of approaching photography” as something that keeps bringing him back.
“I came in and he [Lewis] was like, ‘Oh, you should just buy a camera,’ and I bought a camera and now I have five,” Brown said. “I spend like, I don’t know, at least a few days a week here just picking up film and stuff.”
Current intern Csyan Russell, 21, said that in her experience working at Photodom, customers express their verbal support for the Black owned business. Photodom is a space where people can exist comfortably as creatives of color and encounter each other, all the while investing in their local community.
“People are coming in and they’re like, ‘Yo like this means so much to me,’ I’m just like, wow this is really cool to be a part of something like this,” Russell said.
Lewis’ vision for Photodom’s future includes opening a formal resource center for budding and professional photographers in Brooklyn, and eventually, expansion of the storefront to other boroughs. In light of the recent of #BlackLivesMatter protests worldwide and the emerging ethical debates on the use of photography during these movements, Photodom arguably opened when the centering of Black image makers in documenting political activism is necessary.
“I don’t see myself as different to anyone else that’s out there for the protests,” Lewis said. “I’m out there just to document…The stories needed to be told in a proper way rather than what media shows, and if anything, at least we are there to tell the truth through our cameras.”