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“Would you be comfortable if I took your picture?” Sami Aziz asks a couple strolling along South Street.
Soft spoken and calm, Aziz raised his camera and snapped a portrait, then a second and a third. For the past three months, he has been documenting people meandering around the five blocks of South Street, between 2nd and 7th streets every day because, he said:
“It’s a place with a lot of character and eclectic energy, let’s call it,” he said.
Each day, he posts new photos on his Instagram profile, @southstreetsam, where subjects can reshare or message him with the day he took their portrait for a copy. All photos are free, with a disclosure that he accepts tips because documenting South Street is a project from the heart.
He chose South Street as the backdrop because the place holds personal significance to him. It reminds him of his family.
The 29-year-old was born in Philadelphia but his parents are immigrants who met while at Temple University. Growing up, however, he never felt like he belonged.
His dad is from Iraq and his mom is from Morocco. He grew up around her brothers, many of whom settled in South Philly. His childhood memories drew him to the block several months ago.
“It’s a place that… is dear to my heart. My mom worked at South Street Souvlaki in 1987,” he said. “40 years after the fact it’s like an icon.”
South Street is known as an entertainment district and has been in flux over the years. Historically, it attracted immigrant populations, small businesses and creatives.
In the 1950s, the corridor attracted well-known jazz artists such as Billie Holiday. In the ‘60s, it was increasingly known for Black hipster patrons, which inspired The Orlons’ song “South Street” from 1963 that called it the “hippest street in town.”
In the 1980s and ‘90s, South Street became a hub for commerce and entertainment. It had a resurgence around then when Aziz was growing up.
His family met there often, where they earned their keep and built a community. Although his family returned to Morocco, their memories inspired his newfound persona — South Street Sam.
Every day, he walks past the restaurant where his mom once worked, waiting for his next opportunity to document. His affinity for the area is deeply ingrained in him by family stories and experiences. One in particular shaped this project.
Aziz’s uncle Saeed loved to spend time on South Street so much that the family had a nickname for the block.
“‘South Saeed’ because he was always [there],” he said.
His uncle took on the name “Sam” because it was easier for people to say. Aziz later adopted the name “Sam” for the project’s Instagram handle.
As years passed, the street his uncle loved was impacted by city developments and a worsening public image. He referenced recent instances such as the 2022 fire that damaged a community favorite, Jim’s Steaks, which opened in 1976, and a shooting that occurred last summer.
But he wants to challenge the corridor’s poor public perception with the joy he sees in South Street passersby. It is a place in recovery, “a renaissance” as he called it. And he has around 5,000 images to prove it.
Every day he takes photos and shares his top 10 with his family, who get to see a glimpse of what their “South Saeed” looks like today. Depending on the crowd, it can look like South Street in the ‘90s.
“It’s funny in a way that…the era that my mother or my uncle were on South Street. It’s kind of come full circle again,” he added.
Often his portraits capture the eclectic mix of thrift shop and vintage enthusiasts, but many are of families who he says breathe new life into the area.
One portrait he took in late November stuck with him, moving him to tears. It was a baby boy in cherry red shoes walking along the sidewalk.
He raised his camera, poised to take the photo of a young child, maybe 11 months old, who stared briefly into his lens.
“It was just such a beautiful moment,” he said. “Any given day, there’s joy on South Street.”
Aziz has found something else, too.
“One of the most heartwarming things about this [project] for me is, I feel at home in my home city,” he said. “South Street feels like home.”
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