IPaintMyMind Exclusive Interview: Jamel Shabazz
Intro by Evan La Ruffa, Interview by Brian Flannery
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.
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BF: First off Jamel, 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?
JS: 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?
JS: 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.
JS: 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?
JS: 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?
JS: 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?
JS: 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?
JS: 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?
JS: “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.
This was my attempt to cause people to reflect and get back on point. In 1998 both Trace and The Source magazines published my work and the response was incredible; The Source magazine sold out in New York in just a few short days, and my images in Trace got me my first solo show in Paris. I was shocked by it all! I knew that Brooklyn would be responsive, but I had no idea that this vision would go global and garner me a series of books and exhibitions in the coming years. Now 10 years after the fact, I’m thankful for all the blessings that have come my way. I’m also honored in knowing that a generation of young photographers and visionaries have been inspired by my work, very much in the same manner in which I was first inspired by the work of Leonard Freed.
BF: (We love tracing those sources of inspiration.) You use a distinct terminology when you refer to people, and the roles they had (soldier, general, queens, masters, kings, life givers). You also refer to some people as visionaries. Would you mind telling us how you perceive a visionary?
JS: Often times when I would see young people on the street, and I felt the need to tell them that I saw greatness in them. When I saw young men I would tell them, “when I look at you, I see a strong soldier or warrior, who has the ability to teach and guide young men and women in the direction of positivity.” Many of them have never been told that, so they appreciated my words. For the women, I expressed to them that they were not bitches and whores, but beautiful Queens who had the power and ability to give birth to future Kings and Queens that could make this world a better place. I personally felt that they needed to hear this. Now twenty years later, men are calling each other niggas and dogs and women are being referred to as bitches and hoes on a regular basis. It breaks my heart to hear this type of language knowing that we were once Kings and Queens. Regarding the title “visionaries,” they are the ones that understand their purpose in life and possess the wonderful gift of vision to create positive change.
BF: You gave lens time to a lot of young break crews and neighborhood crews. You also photographed The Nation of Gods and Earths. Can you talk about the role of these organizations in disenfranchised communities, both as you see it and as they get misunderstood on a fundamental level?
JS: The Nation of Gods and Earths at the time were a very visible organization throughout New York and the East Coast. They represented young people that had developed a great sense of identity. Many were inspired by the late Alex Haley’s miniseries “Roots” along with the teaching of the Nation of Islam. Back in the mid 1970’s when gang culture was at its apex, “Roots” aired on television and overnight it seemed like gangs just dissipated and everyone wanted to be in the Nation.
Up in the Bronx many gang members stopped fighting and under the direction of Africa Bambaataa, a former member of the Black Spades, formed the Zulu Nation. This time period also gave birth to Hip Hop. It was the Nation of Gods and Earths that introduced the concept of “dropping science” the term you hear in many rap songs. Rakim is an example of a god on the mike that electrified audiences with his knowledge. KRS One and Justice Ice were others that studied the lessons and used the mic to drop “jewels.” Socially conscious youth movements were making a difference within the community, despite what many think. I feel that if more of these youth organizations around today were sincere in their efforts to make a difference, a lot of the violence and self-destruction wouldn’t be as prevalent in our neighborhoods.
BF: Can you talk about the impact of Crack on these organizations and on the community represented in A Time before Crack? Do you see Crack as the cause or the effect of the problems that are associated with the epidemic and those hit the hardest by it?
JS: Prior to the Crack and AIDS epidemics, life here in New York was positive. Yes, crime existed, but there was still a degree of honor and respect. If you take notice, many of the artists back in the day wore African style garments and manifested positivity in their songs. Once the movie “Scarface” came on the scene, righteous life as we knew it was over. That one film served as an instructional guide on how to be a ruthless drug dealer and it would have the total opposite effect of “Roots” nearly a decade earlier. The ability to make a lot of money from selling rock cocaine was so tempting for the poor and disenfranchised, that many people got involved in this lucrative trade. Young men that once galvanized the masses with their oratory skills switched sides and became drug kingpins. They went from Gods to Gangsters!
Women, who once took great pride in being dignified and cultured, fell victim to the gravitational pull of this dehumanizing new drug and sold their bodies. Communities that saw many years of peace and prosperity became open drug markets and unsafe war zones. Thousands of lives were lost to brutal violence, incarceration, and drug addiction. The only ones who really benefited from it all were the funeral homes and law enforcement agencies. Programs such as “Cops” and reality shows like Jerry Springer, Rikki Lake and Maury Povick, all profited from the twisted minds of people who had been affected in some form or fashion, as a result of the Crack Epidemic.
Music and the language of today are a reflection of the impact that Crack has had on the masses of people. It’s so enormous and far reaching that we may never fully understand the magnitude of destruction that Crack has had on us as a society.
BF: Is there anyone or anywhere that you’ve always wanted to photograph and have yet the chance to?
JS: One of the places I would like to travel to is Vietnam to photograph the former Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers who fought the Americans during the war. Over here, I’ve been documenting American military personnel for the last 3 decades including those who fought the Vietnamese. I was inclined towards this type of project largely due to my own military experience Post-Vietnam and knowing many men from my community in Brooklyn who got drafted and shipped off to engage an enemy they knew little or nothing about. I think it would be an interesting assignment to photograph veterans from the other side and perhaps do a photography book followed by a series of exhibitions based on that work.
BF: Sounds incredible… Your photographs seem intrinsically tied to music, or at least a rhythm or pulse of life, urban life. In the intro of Seconds of My Life you list a series of songs to listen to in order to better understand the collection of photographs. What role has music played in your life and in your images?
JS: Music plays a very important role in all of my work. Socially conscious music in particular, is the fuel that feeds my mind. Besides making images, I have a deep passion for putting music together, anyone who has friended me on facebook knows my love for positive thought provoking music, from R/B, hip hop, jazz, reggae and salsa, I embrace it all.
BF: Congrats on this new collaboration with The Legendary Roots Crew! What’s the story behind your photo being on the cover of their new effort “Undun”. Did they approach you? How did that photograph get chosen? Did you get to hear the album before you guys chose a photograph?
JS: Thank you! The image selected for the new Roots album is entitled “Flying high”. It was made in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn back in 1980 when I was a young aspiring photographer just learning how to use my shutter speed setting on my Canon AE1 SLR camera. The original photograph is in color and it is by far one of my top five images ever made. In addition, it has graced the wall of my home for over 3 decades. I was approached by Island Def Jam regarding a similar image I made moments later, at the same scene and they informed me The Roots wanted to use that particular image. Instead I offered them the image that they are presently using, because it was close to my heart and represented both the struggle and unnoticed talent of the many young people I’ve been fortunate to be connected with over the years. I haven’t yet heard “Undun” but I’m eagerly awaiting its release…
BF: What can we expect to see in the future from Jamel Shabazz? How can our readers find out more about the work you’re doing these days outside of your publications?
JS: My ultimate goals are to create movie projects for cable networks based on my books. With the interest that my books have received over the years, I think that it’s now time for a mini series called “Back in the Days: A Time Before Crack.” If given the opportunity to create a project based on my book, I’m confident that I can help bring back the love and positivity that we once had in the community. In my movie, there will be no killing nor foul language; just people going about their lives looking good and striving for peace. I think that it’s possible and I’m confident that it will be a winner. It’s time to bring back the positivity! The keys to tomorrow lay in what we do today!
For more information check out www.jamelshabazz.com …