As reported here earlier this week, Friday August 2nd marks the start of the week-long theatrical run of Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer, the documentary on the life, work, and drive of one of the world’s top photography talents to emerge in the past thirty years. Shabazz’s photos, from his work documenting early 1980’s urban culture to his social commentary photographs and beyond, monumentalizes everyday people and shows aspects of their lives not from a place of judgment, but from a place of obvious respect.
I chatted with Shabazz recently about his life and his work. The photographer himself is a private man, letting his work and his reputation often speak for itself.
Curtis John: I grew up in Flatbush (near ‘the Junction’) in the 80’s and 90’s and, my grandmother and aunt lived on Beverly Road directly behind your alma mater and the location of many of your early photos Tilden High School, so in addition to your photography in this film capturing the style and feel of the 1980’s, it also really captured the pride and all-around coolness of the ‘real’ people of Brooklyn. Thank you for that. As a life-long Brooklynite yourself, what do you think it is that makes the people of Brooklyn so special or distinct?
Jamel Shabazz: Brooklynites have always had a distinct reputation going back to the 1940’s, if not earlier. It did not make a difference if you were Italian, Irish, Hispanic or Black. If you were from Brooklyn you had a reputation you were suppose to up hold. We took great pride in being the 4th largest city in America; producing everybody from Al Capone to Jay Z, along with some of the best boxers and recording artists in the world. Those in my generation called Brooklyn ‘Medina’ aka, the land of the warriors. We hold this title very close to our hearts.
CJ: In the film, (hip-hop pioneer) Fab 5 Freddy remarks how you ‘captured cool.’ Early in your career, did you know you were capturing something special – a literal shift in fashion, style and music – or were you just totally in the moment?
JS: During the early stages of my photographic journey I knew I was capturing something special. However, it wasn’t just about fashion and style, it was more about developing a visual diary of my journey and all the unique and wonderful people I would meet and communicate with during my various expeditions.
CJ: Beyond capturing cool, one of the interviewees mentioned how your photos gave, “everybody a beginning,” and thus are making art that relates to so many people. You have an obvious compassion that comes in your work. Do you feel that photographers need that to capture these ‘feelings’ in their work or is it just instinct?
JS: I can only speak for myself and for what I strive to do in my undertakings. Each photographer has to find his or her own voice. For me, it is important to capture those that have entrusted me with recording their legacies, images that reflect dignity.
CJ: The documentary covers a lot of ground but never really goes into any danger you may have faced when taking your photos. Were you just that well known and/or able to make people feel instantly comfortable?
JS: Early on, I was taught by my wise elders to walk with confidence and faith. Danger was always lurking around; for it was a concrete jungle full of predators and those they preyed on. In addition, I was grounded in my love for the people and my strong and sincere desire to inspire change in the various communities I would venture into. In time, many I would encounter would know me to be a righteous or good brother – a title that garnered a degree of respect, thus enabling me to make most people feel comfortable enough for me to document their existence.
CJ: It seems that your work is as much about the journey of traveling to take photos, and your encounters in doing so, as much as your ultimate destination. What is it about the ‘the search’ for that perfect shot that is so addictive?
JS: My photographic journey was about the recording of history, but equally important was to learn from the people I met during these ventures. For the most part, everyone I encountered during my thirty-seven year journey exchanged some degree of knowledge with me. That is what made it so addictive!
The fact that I was always learning from my subjects, which ranged from the homeless pregnant woman sitting outside a midtown subway station asking for change who said with a stern voice “What goes up must come down,” to the young broken adolescent detainee that was raped by his mother’s boyfriend who also infected him with AIDS. Upon our encounter, [the adolescent] was at the point of helplessness and no longer wanted to live, as his mother threw him out the house after informing her of the boyfriend’s activities. The images I created during my journey are all pieces of my life and every photograph I have been so blessed to create comes with a story.
CJ: I’m glad to see the film talk about your time as a Corrections Officer. I realize that working there actually helped expand your range as a photographer, both technically and with relating to people, but can you speak to us about how juggling your time as an artist and working a ‘regular gig’ to put food on the table?
JS: Many contemporary artists have a hard time finding that balance. My position as a correction officer was a continuation of working in the street. In the jails, it was less about taking photographs and more about trying to give guidance and direction to those that had gotten caught up in the vicious cycle of incarceration. My main objective while traveling the many streets of New York City was to enlighten, young men in particular, to the danger of incarceration and the importance of knowing oneself in order to avoid this well orchestrated trap. I balanced my time wisely in that while I traveled to and from work. I kept my camera by my side and was able to capture some very impactful images and stories.
Corrections provided me with excellent health and retirement benefits and a steady paycheck that allowed me to process my work. Regardless of the circumstances and hardships I witnessed, it was the will of the Creator that I be there. The most difficult part was transitioning from being an officer to entering the art world as an artist. There was a huge difference between the two groups of people [and] worlds. As I attended many art openings having to contend with large crowds of folks, they had no real clue as to what my life was like on the inside of those prison walls and all the hate and hardships I had to endure day in and out. It’s been ten years since I’ve been retired and I have to say that I have never fully made the adjustment.
CJ: Did you ever dabble in filmmaking or just strictly photography? And do you own a digital SLR camera or are you sticking with film?
JS: I find myself moving more in the direction of filmmaking to record oral history. For the past 10 years I have been using my Sony camcorder to document the elders within my immediate family, capturing hours of incredible stories about their personal journeys. I presently use both a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR and my Contax range finder for traditional black and white photography.
CJ: Finally, you have so many pictures in your 35+ years of being a photographer, including the street culture shots, the documenting of the Nation of Islam, and so much more that I know it would be difficult to choose, but which of your photos stands out as your all-time favorites?
JS: The series of work that is very close to my heart is the body of images under [my book series] titles of Back in the Days and A Time Before Crack, photographs from 1975- 1985.
The reason why this series is so important to me is that it represents a time in which the African-American community in New York City was making inroads. There was a spirit of love and unity. Yes we had our share of violence and people were dying prematurely, but there was a real feeling of pride back then. One distinguishable television program was A Different World, which aired during prime time and was instrumental in encouraging so many young men and women to attend historic black colleges. Artists such as Grand Master Flash and the Furious 5 and KRS-One were dropping jewels about the struggle during this time period too. Then came Ronald Reagan, serious cuts in social programs, the AIDS virus, [the movie] Scarface, crack cocaine, and the ‘war on drugs,’ that produced a mass incarceration of a people. Finally, gentrification of urban communities created an influx of homelessness and despair.
Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer screens Friday, August 2—Thursday, August 8 at 4:30, 7, 9:30pm at BAM Rose Cinemas with additional 2pm matinees Friday—Sunday. Look out for an interview with the documentary’s director Charlie Ahearn later this week.