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Dallas Photographer Tells Stories of Community

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Photographer Don Thomas II, who goes by the name "Tortellini. | Image by Don Thomas II

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One local photographer is using his medium to rekindle a sense of pride in the community. Don Thomas II, who goes by the name “Tortellini,” uses his camera to tell the stories of the people who live in his hometown.

One collection of his work focuses on the community of Oak Cliff. Among the new developments and trendy Bishop Arts District lives a community of people who have occupied the Oak Cliff neighborhood for generations.

As “gentrification” and land development separate Oak Cliff into a North and South, North Oak Cliff’s median income has settled around $63,000, while in the South, it is only $28,000. The crime rate in Oak Cliff is also 116% higher than the national average.

In his digital work, titled The Village, Tortellini seeks to celebrate the rich culture, food, and art of the Oak Cliff area. Instead of seeing South Oak Cliff as impoverished or in squalor, he uses this collection of images to show how much work previous generations have given to build up the community.

“I want to capture as much of the “true” Oak Cliff as I can,” he stated.

Additionally, Tortellini does not want the people of Oak Cliff to be labeled one way or another; instead, he uses art to express how each person and landmark carries valuable stories.

“I’m not a content creator, so I don’t do things for clicks and likes or algorithms; I’m a storyteller,” he told The Dallas Express. “I wanted to use my images to speak, educate, represent, and contextualize certain subject matters.”

In another project, Faces of Dallas, Tortellini uses the medium of unedited film photography to capture portraits of the homeless and vagrant people in Dallas. His goal for the project is to spread awareness of the issue and to humanize his subjects.

“I was just taught that you can’t judge a book by its cover,” Tortellini said.

He hopes that message shines through in the stories he tells through the lens of his camera.

Tortellini also added that his work on the collection has changed him personally. One of his subjects sought him out after seeing his portrait featured on WFAA’s Good Morning Texas program.

“He had shared that he had [seen] himself on the screen of Victory Plaza (outside the WFAA studio) and, for the first time, he felt that his life had purpose. He told me that, through me and my work, it ignited some reassurance that his life had meaning,” said Tortellini.

Tortellini shared that he views the act of taking a photograph as sacred.

“Photography is the only medium that allows you to bring the audience to an exact moment in time and see it exactly how you saw it. When people say they like my photographs, in essence, they are saying that they like how I see the world,” he said.

Through his photographs, Tortellini hopes to inspire people inside Oak Cliff and greater Dallas never to forget their roots.

“I want people to see their community through my work all spread out and scattered across the globe so that will entice a sense of pride to be from Oak Cliff,” the artist explained.

More photos from Tortellini can be viewed here.

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