How Hasain Rasheed Uses Tintype Photography to Capture West Oakland’s Story

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In West Oakland, the roots run deep for photographer Hasain Rasheed, who captures his city’s story by documenting the people and places within it. The magnolia trees shading the sidewalks outside his house – the same one where he grew up – are a daily reminder of the power in creating something to pass on to future generations.

“I'm using my photography to tell the real story that I consider to be the West Oakland story. And that's the strength of the people that make up West Oakland and the history that West Oakland provides to Oakland as a community and the world as a whole,” said Hasain.  

Hasain Rasheed
Hasain Rasheed captures photos around Oakland, California.

It’s why he dedicates much of his time to taking photos, including portraits of locals, in natural environments around Oakland – from Mandela Parkway and De Fremery Park to residents’ backyards.

But many of Hasain’s photos are different in one major way: he uses a 170-year-old method called tintype that’s all done by hand and creates uniquely distinct images. His mobile studio and darkroom, which has all the chemicals and equipment he needs for the entire tintype process, allows him to offer these one-of-a-kind portraits on the go around the community. For Hasain, this is all about “reflect[ing] the beauty of West Oakland back to West Oaklanders.”


Reframing West Oakland’s image

The snapshot of West Oakland has changed markedly over the years. The area along the Port of Oakland historically experienced boom periods, with a rich cultural makeup and thriving businesses. After the Depression and Second World War, though, the community changed. Many residential areas were razed, and the area faced economic decline. Hasain said that by the time he was growing up there in the 1980s, West Oakland was known as a rough area.

Hasain became enamored with the idea of capturing life around him with a camera early on. As a child, he became enthralled by his father’s collection of National Geographic magazines and was glued to nature documentaries, fascinated by the photographers who made a living exploring and sharing images back to the world. He later interned at the Oakland Tribune, honing his skills in digital photography.

Hasain Rasheed
Hasain taking a tintype portrait.

Over the years, Hasain built a successful career in photography, spanning editorial and commercial work, creative campaigns for brands and government, landscapes and more. That hard work and growing success has helped him focus his lens more often on projects he loves most. Among them is capturing the true essence of West Oakland, from the faces around him to the street art that showcases the city’s stories in larger-than-life color.

“West Oakland traditionally has had a bad name,” Hasain said. But he knows it as a resilient community with a rich history, full of people like his parents who strived to make life better for those around them and for future generations.

“It's important to show the good things and remind everybody of the positive aspects of our community, which can be overlooked from outsiders,” he said.


Sharing stories through tintype and tech

While digital photography is still a big part of what Hasain does, he found a deeper sense of purpose with tintype. The antique photography method, developed in the 1850s, offered him an artistic outlet that he now shares with his community and largely uses to capture portraits of Black people and other people of color.

“It was important for me to learn the tintype process because the 1850s represented a time period where Black people weren’t photographed a lot,” Hasain said. And if they were, it was often only “for purposes of categorizing or cataloging Black people,” he added.

Hasain Rasheed developing a tintype portrait
Hasain is able to develop his tintype portraits with portable equipment.

Tintype starts with pouring chemicals onto a metal plate, making the plate light sensitive and essentially turning it into a piece of film. Then, the plate is placed into a camera, exposed and developed on site before drying. And because it’s all done by hand and dependent on the environment around it, such as the temperature, every tintype portrait is unique and has special character, just like its subjects. The involved process of developing a tintype also lets Hasain slow down and connect with and capture his subjects in a deeper way.

While Hasain might have a penchant for a 19th century method of photography, embracing today’s technology has played a big part in helping his sales. When the pandemic hit, he began using PayPal QR codes1 to accept touch-free payments, which proved hugely beneficial as people practiced social distancing and avoided cash. It continues to be helpful as cash-free payment has become a standard way of life.

A customers pays using PayPal QR Codes
A customer pays Hasain via PayPal QR Codes.

At Hasain’s mobile tintype photography studio, customers can scan the PayPal QR Code that he displays, then pay for their portraits instantly using their smartphones. This ease of use has made it simpler for him to oblige curious people who walk by his mobile studio and want their own portrait on the spot. “QR codes break down barriers in a lot of ways,” he said.

He has even had people inquire about buying landscape or other photos they see him capturing in the moment.  “It allows people to just easily pay and know that their money went in a secure and safe manner across to me,” he said.


Capturing memories and creating history

Hasain’s ability to safely continue his craft during the pandemic has not only helped sustain his business, but also the community that he sees as an extension of himself. “It really feels good being able to walk the streets in West Oakland with a camera to let people know that somebody is out here documenting our community,” he said. “One thing that I learned growing up was it was extremely important to be able to tell your own story. A big part of that is providing representation.”

Tintype portrait

Each developed tintype portrait has a special character.

By documenting his community, Hasain isn’t just capturing a moment in time. The tintype portraits and landscapes chemically etched on thin metal plates become a physical piece of history – gifts and memories that one generation can pass on to the next. In that way, Hasain’s photographs are similar to the magnolia trees outside his childhood home where he lives now.

“My family—my dad—and friends, rehabilitated these houses,” he said of his house and others in the neighborhood where he and his wife Joanna now raise their two daughters. “We planted these magnolia trees, and these trees mean everything to me. It’s a symbol to me of what it means to grow in West Oakland.”

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