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Photography as Remedy: An Interview with Jamel Shabazz

Camille Wanliss Ortiz Apr 5

Jamel Shabazz, widely known for his documentation of urban street style during the rise of hip-hop in the mid-1970s to early 1980s, has an oeuvre filled with compositional and visual acuity that showcases his versatility as an artist. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Shabazz set his viewfinder on the youth living in and around his neighborhood, using photography not only as an instrument to inspire but as “visual medicine” for the ills plaguing their community.Shabazz’s work is currently the focus of several local and international exhibitions, including “Engines of War” at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Gallery in Chelsea, “REPRESENT” at Gallery Cultural Speech in Amsterdam and “Best Friends” at Le Case D’Arte Gallery in Milan.

Camille Wanliss Ortiz met with the celebrated photographer and social activist to discuss his career, which has spanned more than 30 years.

CAMILLE WANLISS ORTIZ: Who were your influences and what was it about their work that inspired you, at age 15, to get behind the lens?

JAMEL SHABAZZ: The person that had the greatest influence on my life was my father, who was trained as a photographer. As a young child I found great pleasure in viewing hundreds of his intriguing black and white images. My father had a very large library in our home and one of the books that captured my imagination was a paperback book called Black in White America by documentary photographer Leonard Freed. This book would awaken me to not only black and white photography, but segregation in America. The very first image in this book is of two uniformed American soldiers, one black and the other white, on post at the Berlin Wall during the early 1960s. That image alone was very impactful and each image that would follow fascinated me. The knowledge I gained from this book would later manifest itself in so many images I would create in my later years. As I look at my work now, there are so many similarities.

CWO: You were also a corrections officer for 20 years. How did this impact you or your photography?

JS: Being a photographer while working in the Department of Corrections provided me with a great way to decompress from the misery I was encountering on a daily basis. I carried my camera with me every single day, and I would shoot both before and after work. This process allowed me to see another side of life, counterbalancing the violence and hate that would encompass the majority of my eight-and-a-half-hour workday. To maintain my equilibrium and sanity, I found it very necessary to record images that reflected positivity and hope. So I trained my lens on families, students and everyday people just striving to get by. There were also plenty of times where I would document the other side, a reality I could not escape from — prostitution, poverty and despair. In the process of making those images I would use them as teaching tools to enlighten many young people to the world around them.

CWO: How did you use your camera as a tool to mentor and encourage the youth you documented?

JS: The camera allowed me to photograph them and show them that I had a genuine interest in their lives. We would discuss the importance of education, relationships, diet and the need to have goals. I would show them my work and explain my process, followed by a group shoot or portrait, both for my records and as a gift to them upon my return. This method helped me to build trust among young people. Another idea I would infuse in the conversation was their consideration of photography as a possible career option. Whenever possible I would show them the functions of the camera and instruct them on how to take photos. Years later I would find out that quite a few of my subjects would become photographers.

CWO: It takes a bit of foresight to capture images that hold relevance years later. Did you know at the time that you were documenting a piece of history?

JS: Since first picking up my camera, I knew I was recording a piece of history, but it was just my personal visual diary at the time and nothing more.

CWO: There is a noticeable shift in your style by the 1990s. Though you continued with portraiture, you also developed more candid images. What was the catalyst for this?

JS: What some might define as a noticeable shift was always there in the eighties. My father taught me documentary and fine art photography while I was in my developmental stages. I embraced it, but gravitated toward street portraiture while also shooting documentary work. So there was really no change. As a matter of fact, I am looking forward to showing more of my fine art and documentary images from the 1980s.

CWO: How have your materials/photographic process changed over the past three decades?

JS: My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic 110. The majority of images I made in the 1980s were all shot with a Canon AE1 Program. I started using the Contax G2 during the early 2000s. In 2005, I began using a digital SLR camera and I immediately fell in love with digital photography. One of the joys for me was being in a position to share with my subjects a photograph I had just taken of them. What a joy it was to see their instant smile of approval upon viewing the image on my screen. Another great benefit about this digital age is that I can upload and email images out to my subjects without the hassle of having to process work and mail them through the postal service.

CWO: When you view your images, what memories do they bring back to you?

JS: When I look back, specifically at the images from the 1980s, I cannot help but think about all the lives that were lost to drugs and senseless violence. Sadly, so many of the faces in my books and personal albums are no longer here and most of them never made it past the age of 25. Crack cocaine was one of the main contributing factors for these premature deaths, so when I look back I am not so much looking at the fashion or style, I am looking at a people who are very close to my heart.

CWO: What is next for you?

JS: Presently, I am archiving my vast collection of images and looking into ways to have my various bodies of work in institutions of higher learning. In addition, I am exploring self-publishing a series of limited-edition books all based on my visual journey. My newly released book entitled REPRESENT reflects this new endeavor.

“REPRESENT” is on view at Gallery Cultural Speech through April 13; “Best Friends” is on view at Le Case D’Arte Gallery from through April 14; and “Engines of War” will be on view at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Gallery through May 4.