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

14 mins read

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 the legendary Jamel Shabazz, Poor Righteous Documents, Part 1

AR: I want to add onto that; your photography it humanizes the Black experience in New York. Secondly, it’s not just photography, it’s also a message. Can you speak on that?

JS: The message is most important . The message is before the photograph. I have a love for the people. See, when I first came into consciousness, I immediately realized [that] is was my duty to raise the consciousness of my people. We were living in some troubling times, I had done a lot of research about history and our culture. I stood on the shoulders of ancestors that came before me and paved the way.

We were still dealing with racism in America, you know, it never went away. It is ever-present. And, as I continued to study, I knew I had to sound the alarm, so in a sense, my camera was like my trumpet too, that I used to reach the people and talk to them about what was going on. And to speak on a host of things, I felt the need to speak about a host of things, I felt the need to speak about the importance of how to eat to live. To be mindful of things we put into our system; you know, think about health.

So the camera was a multifaceted tool. It was a microphone, it was a trumpet, it was a record of history. So when I say microphone, it provided me with a voice to engage people about things that was going on. There was a lot of young people dying in the street, and I had to talk about that. I didn’t even know there was so much beef existing between the blocks I was going through. So, I’m walking through Brownsville, to the 90s, to the 50s [in East Flatbush] and not knowing the brothers from the 50s had beef with the brothers from 40s, brothers from 40s had beef with people from 90s, brothers from the 30s had beef with people from the 50s.

All this conflict down this one stretch of avenue, which is Church Avenue, which I would walk down, this long stretch from really, the starting point of Brownsville, Hegeman Avenue I believe, to Flatbush Avenue, I would just walk, down Church Avenue. As I’m walking down all these different corners, I’m meeting all these different crews of brothers. All these crews. I just saw young Black men. Young, beautiful brothers that I wanted to build with. But later on I would find out that a lot of them were enemies to each other. Some lost lives.

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As one that had knowledge of self and had a duty, all I saw was young brothers. I saw greatness. And like I said, years later I would find out all this conflict and I had a way with a lot of brothers to the point where I didn’t know he had a conflict with anyone. You know, I was “picture man” to some, “the god” to others. I look at that work now and what really moves me is not only on a personal level, but when I hear the stories from those in the photographs of those that know people in the photograph, it takes it to another level and then I realize how serious that time was. And how much there was a lot of hatred going on, a lot of people being killed, and how I just can’t believe that I was able to do it. But for me, I had no fear. All I had was love in my heart, and I just felt the need to sound the alarm, cuz again, crack was on the horizon, and I felt the I had to use my voice., I had to sound the alarm.

I came home from Germany with a clearer understanding of the time. I came back into a society where a lot of young people were dying at the hands of other young people, and I felt I needed to use my voice. Many of my peers picked up the other weapon, they picked up the gun. They picked up the nines and the 38s and the 44s or whatever they could get their hands on to kill other brothers. My weapon became the camera.

AR: You were also a corrections officer and you were doing this full time. How did you fit photography in with your schedule? Was it a nights-and-weekends-thing?

JS: It was every day. I carried my camera everywhere I went. Early on, I commuted to work, which was a great experience for me, because the commute allowed me to really get into my photography, where if I had drove it would have limited me. But my love for photography and reaching people is something strong.

I felt the need [that] I need to take the bus and the trains, I need to walk because I was seeing so much. I worked rotating shifts, which provided me with the opportunity to experience the day tour, the afternoon tour, the midnight tour, and all tours, so in that process alone, in just going to work alone. I’m photographing on the street [and] on the train. I’m documenting all of this stuff on the train, taking the bus to Queens Plaza.

On the midnight tour, there was this 24-hour diner that allowed corrections officers, pimps and prostitutes to coexist with each other. That was amazing to me because now I was like this whole new avenue opened up to me, where I’m able to, on my way to work, get there early. And now I’m engaging with pimps and prostitutes and I’m photographing them and building with them, and developing relationships with them. And then I’d go to work, and at work I’m documenting. I’m photographing officers; I’m photographing the inmate population, so it was constant. There was never a moment when I wasn’t [taking pictures], and when I would get off from work, I would go [to] downtown Brooklyn and document much of what people see in my books. So the camera always stayed by me, and the idea of documenting was always at the forefront of my mind, so I was never without a camera. I carried it every single day.

AR: Wow! When did the idea of you wanting to do a book crystalize? 

JS: I think the idea came back in the late 1990s. I think at that time, I was looking at a lot of magazines, that’s when a lot of magazines were very prominent all over the city. You had a number of magazines that started to cater to hip-hop. Outside of those magazines, there was always Ebony and Jet magazines that dealt with more of the R&B culture, and the Black community in general.

Even when I started looking at the magazines like The Source and Vibe magazine; and in particular, Trace magazine, Rap Pages, I was feeling all that. I saw the culture. But I was looking at it like, “wow I know people are not famous, but they come from this.” Yet, the magazines were catering to the famous. Those that are involved in the industry, but they [are] not focused on the common people. So I realized now I have something here. In addition to the fact that a lot of brothers was dying, and I felt that I had some valuable work. I then realized that my work was very relevant. I felt the need to be seen, because [my work] was a part of the culture.

So I started to approach magazines, and I worked in an area around a lot of them. I worked in SoHo, that provided me with access to a lot of the magazines. I eventually went to Trace magazine first, which is right in the heart of Soho, and they were one of the first magazines actually to show my work. It was well received and then I would eventually go to The Source magazine.

The idea came also in conversations [that] I had with a brother who grew up in Brooklyn, and he was from Bushwick. My man who I used to work with, he was another correction officer. [While] we used to be in the locker room changing, we always talk about back in the days, and we seeing the change, and we talked about Delancey Street and the different styles of the music and the culture that we lived and we drastically started seeing things change.

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So we were holding onto those memories, I think at the time we were in our mid-30s, and we kept talking about back in the days, back in the days, back in the days, so that’s when the idea of doing a book called “Back in the Days” came in play. I shared it with Trace magazine, and it produced an audience and provided me with opportunity to travel internationally, because Trace was an international magazine. So having that work published there, it created an audience for me in France, in Japan, in Brazil.

Vibe had a nice size to it. It had great photography, and they had a great photo editor there by the name of George Pitts, and he looked at my work. And Then I decided to go down to The Source magazine. I had no appointment and I met a brother who saw my portfolio and I never forget this day. He was like an angel and his name was Eric Ruess. I met him in the lobby of The Source, and he said, “What do you got there?”

I said, “I have some work that I want to share.” He looked at my work, he took his time to look at my work, and I think he held on to it. I think he said: “Yo you gonna be our 100th! Yo this is perfect, we gonna put you in our hundredth issue!” Wow, you know, just like that, and sure enough, a few months later, they bought the work, and I made the 100th issue.

I don’t know how many pages I got, but they packed it with so much of my work, and I thought it would be just a Brooklyn thing when it hit the stands. What happened with that issue, they said that it started a sensation. It sold out in Brooklyn, and then sold out all over the city. Then it went all over the world, beyond what I could ever imagine because unbeknownst to me at the time, a lot of people I had photographed in there, they were very prominent individuals. I didn’t know that. And I didn’t know that there was a lot that came with that.

It was bittersweet, actually. Because I was learning at this point, this was the first time since I had a large body of work published in a major magazine that was viewed by a lot of people, and it was bittersweet. It gave me and my community recognition. I showed common everyday people from the community, but at the same time there was some heavyweight brothers up in there too. Then you had couples that broke up, bitterly, and that produced tension, which I never thought about before because when you look at some of the photographs of people, you look at a couple and say they probably married had 10 kids and all that. It wasn’t the case, they broke up, it was a very bitter break up. And so I thought I was doing it justice, and that’s when the bitterness came. The joy came with how the work was celebrated, so this was my introduction to the industry. And then from having the work in The Source magazine, it put me on the radar of a lot of people, which opened a gateway to eventually do my book, Back In The Days.

By the time I went to my publisher Powerhouse, they had already began looking at my work in  at Trace magazine and The Source magazine. I went there [and] they said we’ve been looking for you. I went to them I think the fall of 2000, and one year later, September 11, 2001, the book dropped. How ironic, the book dropped on the day of 9/11, and it went on to be a good book, of course. [New York City] was in turmoil, and despite the turmoil and the war we, the book allowed people to reminisce. And to my surprise, the book did well internationally. The first edition sold out in two months, and the second edition sold out in two weeks, so it broke records to the point it went on to be a success.

AR: What inspired the title for your second book, A Time Before Crack?

JS: I think it came from a number of things ‘cause originally the book was going to be called, “Should Be Old School.”

Titles are very important. They are magnetic, and “Should Be Old School is a catchy title. But I have watched the evolution of the crack epidemic, from its inception to all the havoc that it caused, and I felt I had a responsibility as a documentarian to tell that story. I wanted a title that was provocative, that addressed it, because I felt it wasn’t being addressed. We were looking at the current problem, and we didn’t understand that a lot of people started to forget where we came from. I felt a title; A Time Before Crack would be my political statement to provoke thought, and that’s pretty much what sparked it.

I wanted to introduce a book that addressed the crack epidemic and it was a struggle with that because the images were on point, but my writing could have been better. The writing was off in the book, but the idea was to at least address the crack epidemic and show how life was before in hopes that my images would serve as a form of visual medicine, cause reflection, and help with the healing process. 

AR: You’ve had other books since then, and had work appeared in numerous magazines, which has caused you to traveled the world. What would you say your work has done for you professionally and personally?

JS: It’s pretty much given me purpose, brother. Without photography, I don’t know where I would be at. I just can’t imagine life without being a photographer. It’s given me purpose in life, because now I am an alchemist. I create. I am a contributor to preservation of our history and culture, which to me is a very honorable position to have.

In Greek culture, it’s called epistoleus; one who registers history, so I feel now that I’m contributing. My work, my ability to see is a divine gift, and I feel that I have a responsibility to use this gift to contribute to the life. So all of the work I have is for the people. And it will outlive me. It will give voice to communities of color, it will offer [a voice] to the voiceless. It has given me a great purpose in life.

If I was to close my eyes today and not wake up, I could know that I’ve done my job in some way to contribute to history. A lot of my work is donated to institutions, where I believe it belongs. I don’t like to sell my work, I feel like it belongs in museums, in institutions of higher learning, where people can go and see it and learn from it. I have a lot of work, in my life today, and all I want to do is make sure it gets into the right institutions right now. Libraries and books to me, serve as catalogs, and I try to keep my books to be affordable so the common person could have one. And it just harbors memories right now, I’m trying to continue in the legacy of Gordon Parks, James Van Der Zee, Howard Bingham; great photographers that contribute to the history.

I’m that new generation that’s trying to maintain that momentum. We have to continue because we have such a vast history. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities so I’m just trying to move forward in the spirit of Harry Belafonte, who often speaks about the role of the artist as being gatekeepers.

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Fahiym Abdu-Wasi is a long time journalist and former editor for The Source. He covers hip-hop and masculinity

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