Jamel Shabazzz IS Brooklyn. He’s achieved the perspective of the fly on the wall through his photos, while forging relationships, creating bonds, and serving as a historian for movements otherwise not regarded as the true creative cauldrons we know them to be. Jamel is almost single-handedly responsible for cataloging everything from the inception of HipHop, to the ways the Crack and AIDS epidemics ravaged entire communities, while drastically shifting the social trends in Brooklyn, and countless other urban centers. The photographs themselves are testaments to humanity, reflections of spirit, and endorsements of any in-depth social study. As you’ll find in the following Exclusive IPMM Interview, Shabazz is much more than a photographer. He’s a student, a teacher, a cultural archivist, a leader, a positive human being. The mechanics of cameras and film are no match for the intimacy derived from the bonds Jamel has so clearly seeded, fostered, and cared for.
To put it plainly, we consider Jamel Shabazz one of the foremost gatekeepers of modern American cultural anthropology, as most recently evidenced by the selection of one of his photos for The Roots’ latest album cover, which is out today on Okayplayer. We’re as honored to share these words, as we were humbled by Jamel’s willingness to indulge us in a rich history which he has so skillfully frozen in time for us all.
BF: First off Jamel Shabazz, I gotta ask, did you ever have as much style and flare as the kids I’ve seen in Back in the Days and A Time Before Crack?
Jamel Shabazz: Yes, I did! I did most of my shopping for clothes on Delancey Street, where I also purchased my first pair of Cazal and Yves Saint Laurent frames. I had an assortment of leather and sheepskin coats, along with various colors of Bally shoes. For the most part, I opted to be self-styled so many of the clothes I wore, I personally designed. I would buy sharkskin and super fine wool fabric along with custom gold buttons and take it across the bridge back to Brooklyn to the iconic tailor shop Moon’s. Moon was a legendary Dominican tailor from back in the 1970’s, who was best known for his classic custom made gun flap and initial pants pockets, but back then only official people went to his shop. In creating my own style, it gave me my own identity and aided me in making a positive impression.
BF: What does art do for a community? Did you have an understanding (as a younger photographer) of the type of impact your work might have?
Jamel Shabazz: Art enriches, inspires, and helps to secure the history of a community. When I was young, I understood early on the impact that images could make. Seeing photographs from the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War in various books that my father had around our home allowed me to see the power of images. So when I first picked up the camera I wanted to create images that also had the ability to provoke thought… In the beginning, some of my self-assignments consisted documenting prostitution, Vietnam Veterans, and homelessness.
BF: I don’t want to assume I understand how you perceive the people you photograph. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship as you perceive it or as you try and make it, between photographers and subject? I wonder about your relationship with the people you photograph and the context you shoot in.
Jamel Shabazz: There is an even mix regarding the people I’ve photographed. Half I knew from my neighborhood and other half I didn’t initially know, but would forge bonds with many of them over the years. I made many of my images in various communities and often times I would travel. My intentions weren’t always about capturing an image, as I was more concerned with speaking to my young brothers and sisters about the ever growing problem of senseless violence that was taking the lives of so many young people. I stressed the importance of loving one another and working towards making the community a better place to live in for the sake of the future generation. I also made it a point to speak to them about setting goals and preparing for the future. These types of conversations were more important to me than getting a photograph. The actual taking of the photo, was my way of letting them know that I saw both beauty and greatness in them.
BF: Who/what were some of your early visual influences?
Jamel Shabazz: I was greatly inspired by photographers Leonard Freed, Philip Jones Griffiths, and Joseph Rodriquez. During my single digit years, my father being a photographer himself, always had photography books around the house. One day I remember seeing a signed copy of Leonard Freed’s book “Black in White America” on our coffee table. Once I opened it up and saw the image of two American soldiers; one black and the other white, it was then that I saw the ability of how a single image could tell a profound story without words. Immediately, I was hooked. That one book gave me an overview of the world I was living in. Not only did I study each photograph thoroughly, but I read and reread the text so often, that the book started falling apart.
Around that same time, I was introduced to the work of the great illustrator Norman Rockwell by way of the public library. Seeing his dynamic creations gave me an even greater appreciation for art and culture. In my early teens another great influence on my visual development were the hundreds of R/B and Jazz albums covers that both my family and extended family members had in their homes. For me, seeing these dapper African American artists gracing album covers showed me how to properly compose subjects and have them look dignified at the same time. Some of my favorite covers were those of the Isley Brothers, the Jackson 5, Blue Magic and Earth, Wind and Fire. These experiences would greatly contribute to how I would go on to create strong posed group shots. There are so many other circumstances that influenced me, but they are too numerous to mention them all here!
BF: Fantastic. How did your subjects perceive what you were doing? In an age before digital photography, how and how fast would you share your images?
Jamel Shabazz: I made it a point to garner the respect of my subjects before I clicked my shutter. Once that respect was established, they knew my heart and intentions were sincere so they would allow me to record their history. Back then, I would tell them that the image would be ready no later than 24 hours. I would finish off the roll and take it to a nearby one hour photo shop and get my rolls developed. Returning the next day (if not sooner) with a copy, I would give them the shot for no charge. This strategy created a bond between me and those I photographed. For me, it was very important to honor my word.
BF: You were shooting in a time and place that history has shown to be the birthplace of a new global genre of culture and urban creative expression in the melding of hip hop beats and music, b-boy style, graffiti, and the break dance movement. Did you have any idea what you were seeing be born was going to turn into the phenomenon it has?
Jamel Shabazz: Not at all! What I saw, was a beautiful people who had a lot of style and swagger and I wanted to document it for my own personal diary, as my life’s journey.
BF: Are there any underground movements of youthful expression that you’ve seen or that we should know about?
Jamel Shabazz: The first thing that comes to mind is the scraper bikes out of Oakland, but there are countless other underground movements here in New York and around the globe right now. For example, you have a lot of young people here in New York that are dressing in the style of the late 1980’s. Two groups in particular call themselves “The Get Fresh Crew” and the others “The Retro Kids.” Both crews have a deep appreciation for the fashion of that time period and they dress in what they perceive as 80’s style and fashion. I just recently met and photographed a new crew of young adults that are embracing the style and swagger of the 70’s. I find them all very interesting and what I strive to impart to them is the importance of knowing the real history of those era’s.
BF: Awesome! We actually posted about the scraper bikes a little while back, great stuff for sure! Which makes me think about how time affects the equation… Putting these books out 20 or 30 years after the era comes off as fun and nostalgic. What was the function of your work back in the day? I get the impression that when you were taking these photos, that you weren’t planning an opulent 140 page photography book. Can you talk about the way things played out in real time for you?
Jamel Shabazz: “Back in the Days” is partially a visual diary of my life. As I stated before, all I really wanted to do was document the people I met, and more importantly engage them in conversation about their life and future goals and objectives. At no time did I ever think about doing a book. It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s when both the Crack and AIDS epidemic started to decimate the ranks of many of the people you see in my books, that I felt compelled to create a book that reminded people of better days.
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