Photographer Interviews


The Heart of Jamel Shabazz: Making the World a Better Place Through Photography

April 10, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Delphine Fawundu

Jamel Shabazz © Delphine Fawundu

For more than 35 years, photographer Jamel Shabazz has been making photos driven by a mission “to inspire peace and harmony.” In 1980, he began photographing the lively streets of New York City, and the pride and energy of the teenagers he saw in his neighborhood. Interested in issues of social justice, poverty and conflict, he also wanted to balance the negative portrayals of African Americans in the media. “As an older person, I wanted to confront the negativity and conflict,” he says. “Honor and dignity is an important component in my work.”

His first book, Back in the Days, published in 2001 and still in print, introduced a worldwide audience to the portraits he made in the 1980s of swaggering, joyful teens sporting old-school street style. This month, Damiani will publish his latest book, Sights in the City, featuring a wider range of his work from the 1980s to the present, incorporating color and black-and-white images, the type of posed portraits that made him famous and his lesser-known street photography. It comes out less than a year after Shabazz self-published Pieces of a Man, a limited edition retrospective of work he’s shot around the world. Together, the two books present the journey of a photographer who has consistently used photography to provide hope and encouragement.

Damiani publisher Andrea Albertini believes Sights in the City will appeal to fans of Shabazz’s older work, but also demonstrate that he is much more than a “hip-hop photographer.” “You can feel the energy and the rhythm in his photographs, but at the same time, in his shoots, there is a deep intimacy,” says Albertini, who describes Shabazz’s photos as “simple but also powerful.” He adds, “His photographs are relevant as ever.”

Shabazz, who grew up in Brooklyn, made photos for more than 20 years without ever trying to publish any of them, but he was always keenly sensitive to his audience: the people he met while photographing. “I always carried my portfolio, and every image had a powerful story in it. I used it to talk to young people about job opportunities, education and respect for life. That was my goal,” he says. He found that the camera was a “magnet,” and he used the opportunity to talk to kids. “It came from love and wanting to contribute in some way to making the world a better place.” He would usually make one print to give to his subjects. “People have said, ‘My mother still has the photo you took of me 30 years ago,’” he says. “I helped to create beautiful pictures for people at no cost at all, other than friendship.”

© Jamel Shabazz

“A time of innocence, Flatbush, Brooklyn,” 1980, from Shabazz’s recent self-published book, Pieces of A Man. © Jamel Shabazz

Traversing the city, he also documented what he calls “the harsher realities,” including poverty, homelessness and prostitution. Until recently, he shared few of those photos, out of concern for the people he photographed. “A lot of them were trying to turn their lives around,” he says of the prostitutes he met. “I wouldn’t want to show a photo of someone who’s moved on with their life. I’d hate for someone to see them and say, ‘That’s my mother.’”

Shabazz learned to take pictures from his father. He had been a photographer in the Navy, and often brought home photography magazines and photo books by Mary Ellen Mark and Walker Evans. “It was an environment full of photographic information,” Shabazz recalls. At the age of 8, Shabazz discovered his father’s autographed copy of Black in White America by Leonard Freed. “I was so moved that I would go on to read the entire book, from cover to cover, keeping a dictionary by my side to understand this new vocabulary I was now learning.” The book introduced him to racism and segregation, topics his parents never discussed. “I lived in a protective household,” Shabazz observes. “It was only when I read the Leonard Freed book that I was introduced to issues outside my community.”

His father, a rigorous teacher, admonished him to carry a camera everywhere. Shabazz began following that advice in 1980, after he came home to Brooklyn after three years of service in the Army. As a homesick 17-year-old stationed in Germany, he had savored his memories of home. After he returned, “I wanted a visual record of my existence on this planet,” he says. With money he had saved, he spent a year shooting pictures on the street and reconnecting with the community he had missed while he was in the service.

The cover of Sights in the City is a photo he shot during that time. It shows a man swinging his pitbull by the piece of leather clenched in the dog’s jaws. “It represents everything that my father taught me about photography,” he says. Shabazz was walking on a hectic shopping street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on a rainy day, carrying his camera preset at 125th of a second at f/5.6. He noticed a man playing with a pit bull. “I just waited to see what would happen,” he says. When the dog lifted off the ground, Shabazz shot three frames. He showed the photo to his father, who approved. “That photo let him see I was following his instructions about photography and that’s when our bond got even tighter.”

© Jamel Shabazz

The 1980 photo on the cover of Sights in the City. The image “represents everything that my father taught me about photography,” says Shabazz. © Jamel Shabazz

Shabazz found New York City had changed when he returned from the Army. “While I was away, a lot of my brothers were getting murdered. I came home to hatred and violence,” he explains. “I felt I had to confront the conflict and negativity.”

At the same time, he says, “I was seeing a new generation of young people within my community, who all appeared fresh and vibrant.” Young rappers and MCs were creating their own music. Witnessing their energy, he reached out to students he knew at two Brooklyn high schools. “To my surprise, everyone was open to allow me to capture them at their best,” he says. He began making posed portraits when he had to direct kids who weren’t sure how to stand. “Other times, there were cases when students would come up with their own stylish and unique poses. It even got to a point where there were posing contests among groups, to see who could outdo each other.”

Looking through his negatives years later, he still remembers the stories of kids who gaze directly at him in his photos. “These were not shallow conversations I had on the street,” he notes. Albertini says of Shabazz, “He is able to reduce any distance between the photographer and the subject. You feel that you can share the emotions of the subject in the photograph you are looking at.”

Photography became an even more important creative outlet after 1983, when Shabazz took a job as a corrections officer. Over the next 20 years, he worked at Rikers Island, New York City’s enormous jail complex, and at the criminal court in lower Manhattan. “It was a struggle every single day,” he recalls. “You’re dealing with a population where maybe 40 percent of people are mentally ill, you’re dealing with the crack epidemic, you’re dealing with a world of misery.” Also, he says, “I was dealing with the racism of coworkers. I had an administration that didn’t like me because I wanted to be a gentleman.” He spent his lunch hours taking pictures or visiting art galleries. “Then I’d return to work with a renewed spirit and think: One day I will be a photographer and I won’t have to deal with this any more.”

© Jamel Shabazz

“Young Stars in the Making, Bedford Stuyvesant,” 2010. © Jamel Shabazz

The idea for Back in the Days came about during a conversation he and another corrections officer had in the locker room after a shift. Hip-hop had become big business by 2000, but it bothered them that magazines featured only star musicians, ignoring the ordinary people who helped create the music scene they remembered. Shabazz decided to dig up some of his old photos, and bring them to the office of The Source. The magazine happened to be planning its tenth anniversary issue. It published a 15-page portfolio of his images. Soon after, Trace published some of his work, then The FADER and Dazed and Confused contacted him.

He then took some laser prints to powerHouse Books in Brooklyn. Publisher Craig Cohen loved the work. Back in the Days hit bookstores in September 2001. “Suddenly, I am being asked to do interviews, to participate in a number of exhibitions both here and abroad, and shoot for major publications and agencies,” Shabazz says. His father had died, and he had to teach himself the business of photography by reading books.

He left his job with the corrections department in 2003 to devote himself to shooting and working on exhibitions. Through the Studio Museum in Harlem and other arts organizations, he has mentored at-risk youth and taught workshops that connect kids with the arts.

He had expected Back in the Days to sell well in New York City, but was stunned by its popularity in Europe and Asia. Building on its success, powerHouse published his followup, A Time Before Crack, in 2005. Invited to speak at exhibitions and international photo festivals, Shabazz began exploring cities around the world as he has explored New York City. He published Seconds of My Life, a collection of his images from Jamaica, Brazil, France and elsewhere, in 2007.

For the past year, Shabazz has spent less time shooting and more time mining his archives and negatives for book projects. Before switching to digital photography many years ago, he typically made only one print of a photo and gave it to the subject, so he’s now revisiting images he hasn’t looked at in years. The process is another way for him to preserve a record of his journey, he says. Shabazz, the father of two, notes, “It’s for my children to have a record of their father. That’s what my father’s work did for me.”

© Jamel Shabazz

Shabazz shot a campaign for Puma Suede sneakers featuring model Kylie Jenner. © Jamel Shabazz

In 2016, Puma hired Shabazz to shoot a campaign for its classic Puma Suede sneakers featuring the hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd and model Kylie Jenner. Shabazz used the money he earned on the assignment to self-publish Pieces of a Man, which he released in an edition of 1,000. He says it serves as a catalogue for marketing his work to museums and colleges.   

While working on Pieces of a Man, he found some images he had labeled “Street Photos.” He had put them aside but, on second look, thought they were strong enough to make a book. Editor/curator Marla Hamburg Kennedy, a longtime acquaintance, advised him to contact Albertini at Damiani. Albertini says he was immediately excited, and wanted to put together “a strong combination of his famous photographs published in his previous books along with a good selection of unpublished and unseen photographs.”

Street photos Shabazz shot not only in Brooklyn but around New York dominate Sights of the City. It portrays the city’s jostling, sometimes defiant energy through the crack epidemic, gentrification, the wars after September 11, and the election of Barack Obama. “I hope it shows my compassion,” he says of the book.

He says he also hopes it inspires others to pick up a camera. Other than that, he isn’t too concerned by how the book is received. He’s already thinking about his next book.

“I’m not trying to compete for anything,” he says. “I just want to make my little contribution to visual culture, history and photography.”

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