Jamel Shabazz is a household name when it comes to documentary photography, particularly his photography of New York’s urban and youth culture in the 80s. Born in 1960 in Brooklyn, Shabazz is known for his documentation of graffiti and hip hop culture with a strong focus on communities of color. The social documentarian’s highly influential body of work has contributed greatly to music and fashion as well as New York’s urban history.
Shabazz has had several international solo shows and participated in multiple group exhibitions including Art Basel; Miami, the Brooklyn Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem. In addition to his continuing photographic practice and books, the photographer has also worked as a lecturer at Parsons New School of Design amongst other academic institutions and as a teaching artist with the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, the Bronx Museum’s Teen Council youth program, The International Center of Photography, Friends of the Island Academy and the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Expanding the Walls Project. Shabazz currently resides in Brooklyn.
As many of your photographic subjects encompass youth culture, black culture, and subcultures, many classify you as a street-style, urban ethnographic, or hip-hop photographer. Do you feel this reduces or well defines your body of work? Or, rather, how would you self-categorize your photography (if categorization is feasible)?
My photography is often interpreted in ways that don’t really reflect the wide range of the work that encompasses what I have done over the years. The cornerstone of my work is rooted in what could be classified as “Street Style,” however there is so much more to what I have created. I really don’t like titles, but when asked to define what I do, I will simply state that I am a documentarian of history and culture.
Given the contemporary political climate, both in America and world-wide, what is photography’s role in society today more so than ever?
The role of photography in this day and time has never been more crucial, as there is so much trouble and uncertainty in the world today on so many levels. Presently, we are in the midst of an ever growing refugee crisis, numerous natural disasters, global warming, and of course wars and rumors of war. Photographers have always been on the front lines, documenting situations that inform and educate, and it is through their images that our understanding of those issues, take shape and opinions are formed. Only last week, I was viewing an incredible photography book, “Moments: The Pulitzer Prize – Winning Photographs.” What I found most interesting was the impact that images have made in bringing awareness to problems around the world. There is one particular photograph that I recall so vividly as a child that haunted me and ignited my curiosity about America’s war in Vietnam, it is that of photographer Nick Ut’s photo taken in 1973, in South Vietnam of a young naked girl screaming in pain from napalm bombing by “friendly forces.” When published that image was seen in newspapers around the world, creating international outrage and shedding light on an unpopular war that was claiming so many innocent victims. I point this out because, that, in my opinion, shows how one single photograph can inspire a movement, to protest injustice and contribute to ending wars. So in today’s world where photo sharing has taken on a life of its own through social media, we need all “concerned photographers” and artists to lend their creativity to counter the forces that are tearing the very fabric of the world apart. I am not saying that photography is the sole answer or solution, but, again, it is an essential weapon that can raise awareness and inspire protests.
Black culture has often been appropriated, from music to style and beyond. Your photographs showcase an in-depth portrayal of Black excellence and its founding role in key cultural, stylistic, and musical movements, often neglected by the media with images of violent, triggering imagery. While images like the latter are important in raising awareness of police brutality and movements such as Black Lives Matter, why is it that such images as yours, radiating Black positivity, are rarely seen in mainstream media outlets? What issues did you face with this in the 80s and now, in 2017?
I really have no clear answer as to why the mainstream media has been negligent in showing positive images within the Black community. One thing I know for sure is that via Instagram and other social media feeds, Black excellence is ever present, beyond what I could have ever imagined. I can’t recall facing any major issues in the 1980’s, however, one of the issues that confronted my community was the toll that the crack epidemic and mass incarceration was having on transforming our very image as a people and the toll that these issues, were having on families. Today those same issues are ever present, but now with the expansion of social media and image sharing; a lot of negative images are revealing themselves, in real time, which I find very troubling. On the other hand, I am seeing an enormous amount of positive images as well that show black excellence, family, and community. As an image maker, I feel a great sense of duty, to do all that is within my power to fill the void. Using my creative process, I hope to encourage the next generation of image makers to step into the fight and use the camera as a quintessential weapon, to offer a counter narrative.
In documentary films and photography there can be a power dynamic at play between photographer and those being photographed as well as the object of the gaze and the subject that casts the gaze on the object or subject. In your work, we do not see this power dynamic, but instead documentation through a genuine and appreciative lens. Is it possible to ever completely eliminate this power play? How do you approach people you want to photograph? What is it about your photographic subjects that attract you to them?
I am not really sure what you mean by power-play, but my process is all about empowering my subjects by recognizing their existence and greatness. In most cases, I approach people who have a story to be told, which I oftentimes pick up, noticing something in their gaze. I approach them with a sincere interest to learn more about them, as I record their legacy. Since becoming a practitioner of this craft, I have come to learn that everybody has a story and the camera has served as a key that has allowed me to unlock that door and gain insight into those who stand before my lens.
Looking at your photos, many of the styles and looks are still worn today (as they are influenced by early hip-hop and street culture looks) as well as the music that influenced it. Do you believe that hip-hop culture has changed or that it is still, inherently, what is was in the 80s? Any favorite artists right now?
Forty plus years have now passed and change within Hip Hop culture was inevitable. What happened back then was a reflection of the time. Speaking truth to power was the template to a number of recording artists and many used the microphone to “drop science” as it related to their social conditions. Conscious rappers were center stage and there was a spirit of love and unity, but then crack came on the scene and everything would change.
Hip Hop has now, without question, become a global movement. What started out in the South Bronx has now touched almost every part of this earth. Back in 2009, I was invited to the R16 B- Boy battle in Suwon, South Korea. This event is sponsored in part by the South Korean government and it can be likened to the Olympics, but for B-Boys. This event draws B-Boys from 15 countries, all young men of military age. Each one could easily serve as elite members of their countries respective militaries; instead they opted to embrace Hip Hop and B-Boy culture. It is a competition that pits B-Boys against each other, in a dance battle for supremacy. As the pairing crews take to the dance floor to the electrifying sounds of classic hip hop beats they go to war, not using any harmful weapons, but pure talent and determination and at the end of each battle there is a spirit of love and camaraderie. Under the banner of Hip-Hop, these B-Boys have done what many world leaders have failed to do. This is a very different generation, and hip hop has helped them to see the world from a different lens, far deeper than the generation before. It is these young men that have the power to make this world a better place and there are great lessons to be learned from them, as well as the R 16 competition overall.
Today, one of my favorite artists is Kendrick Lamar. I like and respect him for his courageous performance at the 2015 Grammys, which caught my attention, as he and his team took to the stage dressed in prison garb and shackled in chains. He used that opportunity to raise awareness to the issue of mass incarceration and the racial profiling of African American men in America. Another great talent is Swizz Beatz. Besides being a musical genius, he is committed to creating opportunities for aspiring visual artists with his “No Commission” endeavor. Recognizing that the art world can be a difficult one to navigate, Swizz has provided numerous exhibition opportunities for artists. With “NO Commission,” they exhibit their work for free and receive 100 percent of the sales made. I salute him for taking on that initiative.
Graffiti was a main element of your photographs and the culture you documented in the 80’s in Brooklyn and you have been a vocal supporter of it as a deterrent to drugs and harmful lifestyles. Do you also see it as an art form, given both its subversive political and aesthetic aspects? How has it changed from the 80s—is it still an important cultural tool or does it feel more archaic now?
Graffiti is without question an important art form and language that has in the past and present addressed social and political issues across the spectrum. Like provocative photographs, insightful graffiti tags can create awareness and provoke thought. A lot has changed from when graffiti was a part of the New York City urban landscape, in that today a number of those pioneer artists have taken their craft to the mainstream, showing in respected galleries and sustaining an income for them. Local veterans like Lee Quinones, SHARP and DAZE are still very relevant, creating works that speak to the time, while inspiring artists around the globe.
Are there any future projects or photo-series in the works right now?
I am currently in conversation with representatives of the Aperture Foundation regarding the publishing of my next book. If all goes well, the book will be entitled “Honor and Dignity.”
Images courtesy of JAMEL SHABAZZ
interview PERWANA NAZIF
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