To mark the opening of his largest exhibition to date, on view at the Bronx Museum until September 4, the Brooklyn-born photographer guides us through four decades of New York City memories
Re-Edition: What led you to approach photography?
Jamel Shabazz: It all started when I was eight years old. My father, a professional photographer, converted our studio into a space where a lot of friends and family would gather on holidays to be photographed by him. He had a lot of photography books, so I was constantly surrounded by images. I was fascinated by them and wanted to know the story behind them. I was reading Life Magazine, Look, and National Geographic. As a military man, most of the books that my father had were about war photography. Through those volumes, I was introduced to Robert Capa, Eve Arnold, and a host of other legendary photographers. Photographs informed me of what was going on — I would feed my mind with imagery that helped me discover the power of photography.
It wasn’t until I turned 15 that, looking at the documentation that an older gentleman had developed of my local community — a combination of African American and Caribbean culture — I realized that this was what I wanted to do. I remember looking at these big photo albums filled with four by six prints of young people dressed in fashionable clothes and thinking, “these are the images I want to make.” One day I took one of my mom’s Kodak Instamatic cameras and went back to my local Junior High to photograph my friends. I had been looking at images for so long that I knew how to create compositions, focus, and play with light. Every time I finished shooting, I would get the work printed at a drugstore and ask for a couple of copies for those that I had photographed. The amazement on their faces while holding those shots gave me a sense of purpose.
Eyes on the Street is my way of bringing joy, friendship, and love back into the frame” — Jamel Shabazz
When I came home from the military in the summer of 1980 — I was stationed in Germany throughout the 1970s — I understood that photography was my only weapon against the passage of time. Abandoned the cheap, inexpensive Kodak cameras, I got myself Canon 81. Once my father saw me with that camera, he took me under his wing and taught me the science of photography; light, composition, subject matter, visual storytelling, fashion documentary, and whatnot. As time progressed, a friend gave me an enlarger, a gift that transformed my life, enabling me to learn the fine art of printmaking with the support of my father. I’m 20 years old now, we have just converted our little laundry room into a dark room. I will go there every day at midnight, play some jazz music, and print ‘til eight in the morning. That’s where the magic began.
Your photographic practice took shape in and was inspired by 1980s New York. What was it like to live there at a time of such cultural and social ferment?
JS: Having been stationed in a foreign country for three years, I missed everything about New York. In Germany, I would fantasize about the trains and try to visualize what the streets and the different places I used to visit — Times Square or Delancey Street — looked like. I promised myself that, once back in New York City, I would never be without memory. I wanted to document everything with my camera because I knew what it felt like not to have such memories. What really drove me back then was youth culture. It was a big change in time: the same kids I had photographed before leaving for the military were now teenagers. Because they already knew me, it was easy to reconnect with them, find out what had happened during my absence, and take their pictures again. Those renovated friendships filled me with joy.
What I really cared about at that point was getting an understanding of what was going on. A lot of young men had started dying prematurely at the hands of other young men. I felt the responsibility to speak to those young people to find out what was happening and my camera became the compass that led me to most of them, including the ones I didn’t know. Unbeknownst to me, a lot of those guys were enemies of one another but I wouldn’t find out until later on.
A lot of young men had started dying prematurely at the hands of other young men. I felt the responsibility to find out what was happening and my camera became the compass that led me to most of them, including the ones I didn’t know.” — Jamel Shabazz
It was the rise of music — conscious hip hop was beginning to gain a lot of ground during that time. Despite the violence taking over the community, a lot of artists spoke positivity, pride, and dignity. Brooklyn, my neighborhood, was a combination of African American and Caribbean influences, so I had an even balance of hip hop culture, R&B, jazz, and Rastafarian lifestyle running through my veins. My camera became the evidence of the conversations I would have with those I would meet along the way.
I started carrying my portfolio with me everywhere I went. The process was the same every single time: I would run into someone, engage them in conversation, and document our encounter. Having the opportunity to learn from people, lending my voice to help ease violence in my community, and inspiring the youth was the highlight of the early days of my career. Besides my portfolio, I would always have my chessboard with me. I looked at it as a game of life; it’s about sacrifice, observation, and having goals and objectives. No one knew how to contend with conflict and obstacles, so I would teach young people how to play chess as a form of conflict resolution. The AIDS and crack epidemics were both on the horizon but no one was aware of that just yet.