Jamel Shabazz loves Brooklyn as if it were his child. In fact, Shabazzâ€™s love for community extends past the shutter speed and F-stop settings that capture the people, places and things that Shabazz holds near to his heart â€“ â€œI am a mentor first and a photographer second,â€ says Shabazz, adding that his vision and experience enable personal responsibility to youths, â€œI tell them how beautiful they are, how special they are and how relevant they are to society. I have to do this with them. I use my camera as tool to communicate these issues.â€
Throughout the 1980s, Shabazz shot with a Canon AE-1 35mm camera, overcoming minor challenges (â€œThe challenge was always having the funds to buy the film and having the film processed,â€ says Shabazz, adding that, in his youth, his friends would pool money together to buy and process Shabazzâ€™s film) while photographing the faces that would later fill the pages of his 1980s-centric books, Back In The Days (powerHouse Books, 2001) and A Time Before Crack (powerHouse Books, 2005).
Today, Shabazz shoots with a Contax 645 medium format camera, capturing photographs, daily â€“ â€œWhat I shot last week is a very powerful image; itâ€™s a gang member and heâ€™s wearing the colors of red and black to represent the Blood gang.â€ His latest book, Seconds of My Life (powerHouse Books, TBA), covers three decades and, for the first time, will feature Shabazzâ€™s photographs from 9/11.
“Manhattan had a particular look, Harlem, Queens had a look and the Bronx, but there is something about Brooklyn…”
Format: In April, Harlem rapper, Camâ€™Ron, was on 60 Minutes explaining the â€œno snitchinâ€™â€ to police policy that he lives by and promotes to youth. What is your opinion on the â€œno snitchinâ€™â€ message that rappers are sending to youths?
Jamel Shabazz: I think itâ€™s a tragedy that the no snitchinâ€™ thing has become such a widespread phenomenon within the black community. I understand its roots, because thatâ€™s a code that exists inside the prison system, however, when you take that same code into the streets, in communities where violence is so prevalent, daily, in major urban cities around America, we have a problem, because, in a sense, the no snitchinâ€™ policy gives a pass for those that engage in negativity. I understand the essence in the community where the police have always been viewed as the problem. What happened during the crack epidemic where snitchinâ€™ became prominent, you had people that were doing it to protect themselves and often they would snitch on innocent people to get currency.
The term snitchinâ€™ has been taken out of context now. Watching the 60 Minutes segment, what really bothered me was two things: what Camâ€™Ron said about the serial killer living next door to him and that let me know that Camâ€™Ron was dealing on a whole different issue. You have a person that you know is responsible for the death and destruction of individuals in your community, rather than create a situation where this person is locked up where they can no longer do this, Camâ€™Ron just moves away; thatâ€™s what happening too often in communities, today. Individuals that are involved in horrific crimes are allowed to continue to do that and the criminals have set the laws. Now criminals can go on and engage in all types of negativity and they know nothing is going to happen to them. I say to people like that, what happens if a family member if robbed and raped, and some of the answers are unbelievable. I was teaching a class, not too long ago, and the questions were being raised to these young men about snitchin’ and I threw a scenario to a young man. I said, what if you were picked up by the police for a murder you did not do and you knew the person that did it, not only did he murder somebody, but he murdered an innocent person. This young man said to me, ‘If I got picked up by the police for a murder I didn’t commit and I knew the person that did it, I’m going to handle it. I’m going to do 25 years, but, you know what, I’m not going to be a snitch.’ This is what that young man said and it hurt my heart so much to know that this type of code is taught to so many young people. And taking on this particular belief system, which I think is a poison, because it has created an atmosphere where bloodshed is going unanswered in the community.
Now, police are cold and callous to this, because they are frustrated with the unsolved crimes, how this can go on and how no one is saying anything. It’s giving the serious green light to people who engage in negativity and, now, we’ve been poisoned to believe that you just don’t snitch. There are T-shirts, there are videos done about it and I think that it is wrong – we’re going to feel the effects of that for a lifetime and crime will only escalate in the community. People know that they can commit a crime right in front of you and you’re not going to say anything. You can snatch up a girl in broad daylight â€“ everybody sees it â€“, take her, rape her and you can get away with it, because no one is going to say anything. It is a sad reality in Black America.
Format: Prior to Don Imus saying “nappy headed ho” on ABC and NBC radio, the public perception was that the media and the African-American community did not severely address offensive rap lyrics. Why did it take the comments of a white radio jockey to raise extensive concern by the media and the African-American community, towards offensive rap lyrics?
Jamel: Thatâ€™s very troubling to me, because when Imus said that I wasnâ€™t bothered at all. I felt that Iâ€™ve heard it so often, itâ€™s like where did he get that from? Iâ€™ve heard this in rap songs, Iâ€™ve seen it on T-shirts and, in a sense, I am glad it happened, because it sparked dialogue, but I say, where were all these individuals before the many years these statements were being made? I watch The Flava of Love, Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, and itâ€™s constantly being spewed out the mouths of these people and there is never any outrage. Where were they at then? The fact that a lot of these individuals that are prominent in hip-hop that have made money off it, they are considered the founding fathers of it and itâ€™s kind of too late. The same energy that it takes to inspire youth to vote, those elders have the same power and ability to clean up hip-hop. I think that a lot of the founding fathers have not been as responsible as they could be. I watched this situation evolve back in the `90s and there was no problem with it. It saddens me that it takes for not only what Imus said, but the statement that Michael Richards said, using the word nigger that it becomes this outrage, but Iâ€™m hearing it constantly and there is no outrage.
“Many of my peers fell victim to incarceration, drugs and violence, and that’s what kind of propelled me to do what I did in 1980, as far as taking pictures.”
Format: Please explain the volunteer work you do with youth at Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation.
Jamel: I definitely applaud Russell Simmons, his brother Danny and Reverend Run, because they created the foundation in 1995 to create opportunities in the inner-city for youth at-risk by exposing them to art and the whole science of making art. Iâ€™ve worked with this organization for two years as a teaching artist. I work out of two schools, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. The school in Manhattan deals with adolescents. Many of them are at-risk youth in trouble with the law and Iâ€™ve gone in there and used my experience as a photographer to engage these young men and let them see the beauty of photography. For me, my primary mission is mentorship. I combine photography and mentorship to engage these young men about life and I let them know who I am and how photography changed my life.
Format: Youâ€™re born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and several of the subjects in your photography are from your community. Please explain the impact your community has had on your photography and the impact your photography has had on your community.
Jamel: Brooklyn has always been known as one of the strongest boroughs in the world. Everybody knows Brooklyn, regardless of where you go to, Brooklyn has been that city that has produced such great minds and warriors. I love Brooklyn. First of all, Brooklyn is my home, I know various communities in Brooklyn and I just felt a need to connect with Brooklyn and put them on the map, because Brooklyn has its own style. Everybody is witness to that in New York City. Manhattan had a particular look, Harlem, Queens had a look and the Bronx, but there is something about Brooklyn that when you look at my book, it just spells Brooklyn all the way.
What made Brooklyn unique for me, at that time, was the community that I came from when I grew up as a teenager, East Flatbush. East Flatbush was a community that represented African-Americans and people from the Caribbean. There was a whole new culture that was created where you had the Africans, Americans and people from the Caribbean mixing together. A lot of the fashion from England was transmitted into that community. Shoes like the British Walkers came into play, the Kangol hats, the jackets â€“ it was a mix and I was fascinated in seeing that. I thought to document that, because I saw it as being unique. There was a certain strength that people had in Brooklyn had, also, that I had to capture for pretty much ten years of my life. I would say all of the work in the `80s represents Brooklyn, because of the energy that was there. In putting books out called Back In The Days and A Time Before Crack, itâ€™s my way of recognizing the strength and beauty that existed in Brooklyn, both in men and women. I felt good to give back to my community. When the books came out it allowed them to see that what I was doing was for a purpose and it was to put them on the map in a bigger way. I kept my word and I didnâ€™t forget them.
Format: Do keep contact with any of the individuals you photographed in Back In The Days or A Time Before Crack?
Jamel: Often times I do. The beauty of technology is that people Google me or e-mail me and that allows me to reconnect with so many people. I havenâ€™t met a lot of them face to face, but the words that Iâ€™ve gotten, not only from New York, but from all over the country with those that have migrated away. The Internet has allowed me to communicate with so many people. In my travels I, occasionally, meet a whole lot of people that I shot from 20 to 30 years ago that really appreciate what Iâ€™ve done. I could do shows, exhibitions in New York and some of my subjects will come out. I did a show at powerHouse in 2005 and on the walls I had a woman that actually worked around the corner, and on her lunch break she happened to come through and she saw her picture on the wall. It was amazing that after 25 years this woman happened to walk into the gallery and she gave greater depth to what I do.
Two weeks ago, a very interesting story happened to me. It was ironic that two separate people called me within two hours describing the same photographs in my book. A young woman told me she was in a bookstore and these young people were looking at my book. One of them came upon my picture of four Marines and one of the young guys said, â€˜I know this guy, this must have been when he first went in the Marine Corps, because now heâ€™s a major.â€™ Two hours later, I had a young man that came upon people sharing my book with people and he was told a story about the same picture, but the guy on the far right hand side died in a car accident. That really moved me to get these two stories, two hours apart, describing the same picture representing four guys.
“You can’t just go up and say, ‘Can I take your picture?'”
Format: In 1977, Jimmy Carter visits Charlotte Street in the South Bronx. The area is disenfranchised and he says, â€œSee which areas can still be salvaged.â€ You grew during a period of New York Cityâ€™s history that, to an outsider, is surreal. Please explain how you survived through this period of time.
Jamel: I was fortunate. On July 13, 1977, New York had its blackout and that would change the dynamics of New York in a major way, mainly the urban areas. For me, that day represents turning 17-years-old and I was about to enlist in the military. I decided that day that I wasnâ€™t going out and I stayed home. I stayed home and I watched New York City, the riots and the looting that went on in front of me. A few weeks later, I went into the military where I was stationed in Germany for three years. From 1977 to 1980 I was in the military and I missed a lot of what was going on in the city. I would hear it when I would return back to the States. People were dying, guns came into the community and things started to change. During the Blackout of `77 a lot stores were burnt to the ground and they werenâ€™t rebuilt. In various sections of Brooklyn so much damage was done that it took years, up until the mid-`80s to be repaired â€“ same with the South Bronx. It looked like a war zone. I believe when Carter came and when Reagan came they compared the South Bronx to what Germany suffered during World War II to bombing. I missed out on that time, which was good for me, because it enabled me to come into manhood out of this country, and in an environment and atmosphere that gave me discipline and appreciation for life. Many of my peers fell victim to incarceration, drugs and violence, and thatâ€™s what kind of propelled me to do what I did in 1980, as far as taking pictures.
Format: The Last Sunday In June is a book that stands out in your body of work for its subject matter. What personal and external challenges did you face when shooting the photographs for The Last Sunday In June?
Jamel: I think The Last Sunday In June was a really deep event, because the gay parade is one event that you can go to and get plenty of photographs. The people are very happy and theyâ€™re in good spirits at that event. Iâ€™ve always enjoyed going there for that opportunity. Iâ€™m a heterosexual man and the challenge I faced, initially, was the shock of going into an atmosphere that is not reflective of how I am, but being able to go in there and objectively shoot it. The beginning was kind of harsh for me, because I saw things that were kind of shocking to me. As I had mentioned in The Last Sunday In June, I got with two seasoned photographers that stressed to me the importance of being objective and when I understood that I was able to effectively shoot it and feel comfortable. Iâ€™ve met so many photographers that are heterosexual, as well, and they wonâ€™t be seen there, because of their insecurities. As a professional and as a journalist I was able to go there. I felt I had to document and be objective in doing it. It was a very powerful event for me, because I met some wonderful people there that are more genuine than others and that was to my surprise. Numerous friendships were born out of going to that event.
Format: What challenges did you face early in your photography career?
Jamel: The biggest challenge was having money to buy film. I was young and I didnâ€™t have a lot of money, because I started at 15. The challenge was always having the funds to buy the film and having the film processed.
Format: Your photographs are intimate and, obviously, people trust their images with your skills. How do you approach people when you want to take their photograph?
Jamel: Itâ€™s interesting that you ask that, because Iâ€™m writing the introduction to my new book, right now, and Iâ€™m describing a gang member that I approached last week. For me, itâ€™s recognizing who a particular person is in the scene, itâ€™s studying the body language for a few seconds â€“ timing is of the essence â€“ you have to, in your mind, go over all these thoughts quickly. You have to make sure the body language is right, even before that, you have to make sure the lighting situation is right. You might see the perfect situation, but the light is off and you have to keep it moving. For me, if the light is correct and the body language of the individual is right, then Iâ€™m going to approach them. What I shot last week is a very powerful image; itâ€™s a gang member and heâ€™s wearing the colors of red and black to represent the Blood gang. I knew that the photo was very relevant and very imperative that I not only took the image, but confronted the person. For me, the first thing Iâ€™m looking for is not only the image itself, but Iâ€™m looking for a situation that could allow me to engage a young person and the fact that I see so many young people on the streets that need direction, I look for that first, within a lot of people.
There are two types of photography that I do, I do documentary work and I do photography that is geared towards trying to get the attention of young people. I look for young people with promise. For men, I look for the alpha male trait and thatâ€™s what I normally go for, those that represent ability and potential. When you recognize that within them and you say that you see greatness and leadership in them that tends to open them up. I always carry work with me and when I confront them Iâ€™m able to pull out my portfolio and show them images that are very similar to how they look. There is a whole process that I go through to win them over, but if the body language is not right youâ€™re not going to get it. If you have individuals engaging in activities that are not correct, theyâ€™re not going to let you take their picture. Being a 30 year veteran, I have a keen sense in what I can get and what I canâ€™t get. You canâ€™t just go up and say, â€˜Can I take your picture?â€™
“There was a certain strength that people had in Brooklyn had, also, that I had to capture for pretty much ten years of my life.”
Format: Currently, youâ€™re working on your fourth book, The `90s, please explain the contents of this book.
Jamel: The book is actually not The `90s. Initially, it was my objective to do a book called The `90s: A Time of Change, but with such a wide body of work that I have I decided to do another book, which is pretty much a retrospective of my career. This book has been renamed to Seconds of My Life. It represents the `80s, the `90s and the present. This particular body of work is important to me, because it allows me to revisit the `80s, again, but in the different way, to show a different body of work that was taken at the same time, but it is more documentary work. [Seconds of My Life] is broken down into three chapters: the chapter in the `80s is titled The Way We Were, the chapter on the `90s is The `90s: A Time of Change and the third chapter is 2000 and beyond, and itâ€™s called Dawn of a New Day. There are three books in on, approximately 250 to 300 photographs that represent those three decades. I feel good about this particular body of work, because Iâ€™m showing my elevation as a photographer. Iâ€™m introducing my work from 9/11, because I was in the vicinity of the World Trade Center during the attacks.
Format: Your books are published by powerhouse Books, please explain how your working relationship with powerHouse Books began.
Jamel: Basically, I remember seeing a book called Popular at Trace magazine and it was a book about photography in Cuba. I was blown away with how the book was structured and I realized, at that point, that I wanted a book very similar. Looking at that book, I came upon powerHouseâ€™s address. I gathered up a body of work, mainly laser copy images of work that I had done, and I immediately went to powerHouse. To my surprise in going there, they already knew who I was and were actually looking for me. It was, to my surprise, so easy to just go there and they were aware of my work already. As I engaged Craig Cohen, he said to me, â€˜No problem, your book will be out next year.â€™ Sure enough, the book came out a year later from that meeting. There was no proposal, just a little dialogue and approximately 20 laser copy images of the `80s.
Format: When youâ€™re selecting the photographs that are used in your books, how do you edit the photographs that you exclude and include in the final book?
Jamel: Whatâ€™s important to me is to have images of people that are relevant. I have thousands and thousands of images and I know that you have to edit down. Itâ€™s difficult to me, because every picture is very valuable to me, but what I try to do first is put images of people that represent something to the community. I want to have people that are out there trying to make a difference, so that is first and foremost. Secondly, it is very important for me to put images of people who have died, to recognize them and the contributions that they made, because, often, I was one of the few individuals to photograph them. This is my way of giving back. I like to have images that tell stories. by looking at them. And itâ€™s not for me, itâ€™s for the people. If a young man died Iâ€™m doing it for his family and his friends to see.