How Jamel Shabazz used his art as a tool to inspire and transform the conditions of oppressed people

in Arts & Culture by

In the final installment of a two-part series, photographer Jamel Shabazz shares how he continues to build through his art.

My weapon became the camera.

Jamel Shabazz is taking his time answering questions. On this unseasonably warm February night in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Shabazz is the man of the hour at the Richard Beavers Gallery. The Back In The Days photographer is being quizzed before a packed audience about his work and his life. Shabazz is very measured when sharing intimate moments of his journey; or “building” about using art as a tool to inspire and to change the conditions of oppressed people…in pain. 

This is what makes Shabazz’s photography so iconic. It is self-aware. It is socio-political. It will make you smile and reminisce. It captures both beauty and despair. Street royalty. It is Brooklyn. It is New York City. It showcases the diaspora.

At the end of the event, Ark Republic caught up with him to add to the first half of his interview, so that he could provide a glimpse of his future.

AR: In your photography, one of the apparent images is that a lot of people appear to be upright in their photos. How they present themselves, even if it’s just like the god stance or the b-boy stance. Was that something that was conscious?

JS: I think it was conscious because people were very aware of their image. Especially when you want to get a photograph taken, both with me doing it and with anyone doing it in general. You know that your image is going to be taken. You want to look your very best, so you made [it] a point to be upright. That was pretty much standard back then, cause standing in the square was common for a lot of brothers … for the gods. That’s just what they did.

To be upright, to be serious, was common. And there was others that posed, that wanted took a pose. That was just more flavor that was added to make it fun. And that was a reflection of the time. When you look at a lot of my images and you see the pose, you see people having a good time. So you have different variations within my work, from those who are posing and smiling, having fun to those that are very serious, and erect looking straight in the camera. It’s a reflection of what’s in the person’s heart at that time. It was very conscious in what people did, how they pose, how they want to be remembered, and at the same time, is a reflection of what I was giving them.

I came with a certain frequency, and then many of them are reflecting that in their pose, their reaction to my action; so you see that a lot of times. So when you see certain things going on, I’m the facilitator of that move. I might suggest to people [to] add more flavor to a pose by posing or if I’m engaging the gods, righteously, [then] the energy that I’m manifesting is reflected in their pose. Some would be like: “Okay, I’m doing like this God. I’m gonna stand in my square. I’m gonna make sure I’m erect for this brother…” So I often tell people, look into the eyes of my subjects, you’ll see me, I’m a reflection of what you see in the photograph.

Check out our first interview with Jamel Shabazz, Poor Righteous Documents, Part 1

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