Sideshow Panda is a simple enough concept.
The popular Raleigh-based Instagram account features a six-foot woman in a panda suit photographed in random spots, mostly in and around Raleigh. Followers may see the giant bear standing with a cheerful Santa figure in the middle of Fayetteville Street in one frame, then staring dead-eyed and creepy from the middle of the woods in another.
The dichotomy can be jarring. The photographs themselves – beautifully shot and a little edgy – are mesmerizing.
“I think when it originally started I had this more contemporary sort of photographic vision for it,” said photographer Bryan Regan, the creator of the account. “If you go back and start at the beginning you can see that, and it’s just kind of evolved into whatever the heck it is now.”
Whatever the heck Sideshow Panda is now, is mostly fun.
But Panda’s origin story is also a bit accidental.
Regan was photographing Raleigh’s sunflower field last summer – just like everybody else – but wanted to do something to make his photos stand out. “What would be kind of cool, kind of creepy?” Regan asked himself.
Inspired by local artist Tim Lytvinenko, who used a giant rabbit head in some Hopscotch Music Fest photographs, Regan began searching for mascot costumes on eBay.
He settled on the panda suit for one very important reason: it was cheap.
But even though the Panda’s inception was somewhat by chance, now he can’t imagine the photographs any other way.
“The thing about the Panda, too, is that it really reminds me of the ‘American Gothic’ painting,” Regan said. “Kind of that deadpan, direct stare type of thing.”
The Sideshow Panda account, with just over 4,000 followers at present, is equal parts art project and a way for Regan to teach himself more about social media.
“I’ve been a photographer for probably 30 years and the whole industry is changing,” Regan said. “I guess it was kind of a social media experiment to try to learn Instagram and learn how to evolve.”
Instagram has more than 800 million monthly active users, mostly in the 18-49 demographic. The platform is second only to Facebook in popularity.
Regan’s partner in the project is his girlfriend, Cydney Graham, whom he’s known since the two attended Broughton High School together.
Typically, Graham dons the suit and the two drive around Raleigh looking for interesting sites to shoot – an abandoned lot, an industrial site, a building with cool architecture, a field of flowers, an aged storefront.
“With the Panda, we started with the contemporary,” Regan said. “Then we kind of went to the graffiti and then we kind of went to the urban decay, trying to figure out where the Panda fits in. We mix it up a lot.”
‘Most people do love the Panda’
The Sideshow Panda account documents the places right around us that most of us never see, and sometimes makes us see a familiar site in a different way.
A recent shoot took the duo from downtown Garner to a nearby Chinese supermarket to a discarded mattress in a vacant lot to the YMCA’s “You Are Perfect” mural in Southeast Raleigh. Regan and Graham (in full panda suit) were greeted with laughs and hugs at the Chinese grocery; they were nearly run off from the YMCA site, which is under construction.
But most of the time, Regan said, people are cool.
“There’s something very sweet and innocent – or even creepy about it, but usually we get a very good reception.”
When they go out of town, Regan and Graham take the suit with them.
Some photos show Sideshow Panda at the South of the Border attraction and next to Winston-Salem landmarks. Panda has been photographed in Durham, Wilson, Hillsborough and in Western North Carolina. In a series of beautiful seaside posts last year, Regan tagged the Panda’s locations as Bali, Thailand and Vietnam, as a joke. They were actually in Myrtle Beach – a location that also provided some nice shots from a retro motel balcony.
Regan suspects his creative tagging may have led to one Panda photo being removed from Instagram. The spooky shot showed Panda standing on a trail in the middle of the woods.
“It was leading up to Halloween and we tagged it Camp Crystal Lake, where ‘Friday the 13th’ was set,” Regan said, speculating that an actual camp with that name may have complained.
“You either love the Panda or you hate the Panda, but I will say most people do love the Panda.” Regan said.
Follow Sideshow Panda
You can follow and interact with Sideshow Panda at @sideshowpanda on Instagram.
If you don’t Insta, you can browse the photos online at instagram.com/sideshowpanda.