Self Portrait Jamel Shabazz

Poor righteous documents: legendary photographer and educator, Jamel Shabazz, pt. 1

AR: I know you were in the armed forces. Would you say you officially started in ‘75 or when you got home from your tour of duty in the military?

JS: I say heavily when I came home because I came home during the summer of 1980. I had a new camera, and an enemy who became a friend gave me an enlarger, which took my craft to the next level. Now I’m living with my father, with him seeing me with an enlarger and with a 35mm camera, I think that impressed him. So that created a bond between me and my father where now he’s teaching me the science of photography. Before I had a point and shoot camera, simple Kodak camera you didn’t take nothing to really use, you just point and shoot, buy film, and that’s it. But now I’m coming home with a 35mm camera and you gotta know how to load the film, you gotta understand light, you gotta understand speed, you gotta understand composition, and a host of other sciences. My father started to instruct me and he instructed me to his library. He had a wide range of photographic books on technique, and he told me to study them, and he showed me the way. He taught me to develop film and he tasked me with assignments. The first assignment was to document my room, and everything around it. Objects. Then he told me to document the community, and then I grew a little bored with that and I decided to go to the local hospital, and document young people. Now having knowledge of self, I went back to that idea of using the camera to engage people and build with them. I was able to reconnect with my partner’s younger brothers and, a lot of young brothers I knew in New York through their older brothers who were my age, and I start[ed] to build with them through the camera, so the camera gave me a voice to engage them. And not only was I engaging with them and building with them, I told ‘em, “look, I’ll bring a picture back,” and I’ll go back to Tilden High School and give ’em a copy of that picture. Thus, I was building relationships with a lot of young brothers in these schools.

Fahiym Abdu-Wasi is a long time journalist and former editor for The Source. Now an academic advisor at NYU, he covers hip-hop and masculinity

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