PHOTOGRAPHER JAMEL SHABAZZ TALKS HONOR AND DIGNITY
June 6, 2019
Photographer Jamel Shabazz’s contribution to the visual archive of Black life follows the footsteps of those who inspired him — Leonard Freed, James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks. For those with an eye on the street, his legend precedes him around the world. Throughout the 1980s, Shabazz’s created roll after roll of iconic images, chronicling New York City’s youth culture while also documenting an emerging hip-hop scene and visual language. These were memorialized in his now-classic monograph, Back in the Days.
In 2018, Shabazz was the recipient of The Gordon Parks Foundation Award, which celebrates art and humanitarianism, and his work is currently on view at the foundation in the exhibition, “Jamel Shabazz: Honor and Dignity. Part I.” A champion of the integrity and beauty inherent in Black life, Shabazz has honed his craft with a laser-like focus on making a contribution to world history and culture through social documentary photography. But perhaps, most important is his commitment to doing it, for the love. These are some of the values Shabazz reiterated when we asked him to answer some questions for AFROPUNK in a written dialogue.
The title of your exhibition “Jamel Shabazz: Honor and Dignity” at the Gordon Parks Foundation speaks to the human condition and basic human rights. How have honor and dignity acted as guideposts throughout your career as a photographer?
As a conscious artist and student of the Black Arts Movement, I learned early on, the impact artists have in addressing relevant and pressing issues. It was not until I returned back to the shores of America in 1980 after serving my time in the U.S. Army, that I realized I had a great task in front of me to be a light and a voice in a new decade, one that would be entangled with both the AIDS and crack epidemics, along with unprecedented violence and the so-called war on drugs. Like Gordon Parks, the camera became my weapon of choice to combat the negative narrative that was being presented by the media (which was often biased). With a clear vision and purpose I set out on a lifelong endeavor to use my creative gift to make images that reflected love, friendship and family, with the hope that these photographs through exhibitions, publications and the various social media feeds could show that honor and dignity is very prevalent in communities of color.
What are some experiences from your formative years that influenced your moral compass and your commitment to social documentary photography?
As a child coming of age during the turbulent 1960’s, I grew up in a world where civil unrest and war was a daily occurrence. It was a time when political leaders were being assassinated, the war in Vietnam was dividing the country and widespread protests were taking place all over the world demanding justice and the end to the war in Vietnam. Seeing these troubling events unfold in front of my eyes on the evening news and monthly periodicals such as Life Magazine and National Geographic, sparked my curiosity and set me on a path to gain greater clarity. What was interesting, was the fact that none of these issues were being addressed in the school I attended, nor did my parents explain the impact of these current events to me, so I had no choice but to find out on my own. Having a father who was both a professional photographer and avid reader of books which focused on social issues, provided me with a good foundation and road map to start my personal journey of self-discovery.
One of the books that would go on to serve as a cornerstone to my self-awareness was a photography book titled Black in White America, by the social documentary photographer Leonard Freed. It was in this one book, that I realized that, as a Black child growing up in America, I along with other Black children would be faced with many obstacles and challenges. The photographs within the pages of this book introduced me to both Black life in America and racial injustice. Freed’s words really reached deep down into my heart and introduced me to what it was like to be Black in White America. As time would pass, I became aware of the Black Arts Movement and the role that conscious artists play in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. Lastly, lyrics by R&B artists such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Gil Scott-Heron, fostered a deeper understanding as to what was happening both in America and also in the larger world.
What are some of the social cues and nuances of your examination of fashion and personal style within your photography?
The foundation of my work is centered on Brooklyn, during a period I like to define as a time before crack (1975-83). In those days, many residents of Brooklyn — both young and old, and across the color barrier — had a unique style or swag, something that made people of that particular borough outstanding, and, in many cases, easy to identify. For the Black and Latino communities, personal style was a way of life, for many it was imperative to present yourself like royalty. Even when one was dressed down with just jeans and sneakers on, your jeans had to be pressed with starched creases, your sneakers often matched your outfits, and everything had to be intact. Your hair was your crown — so, great care was placed on having a fresh cut, be it a short-style Caesar, Fade or Afro. Having a distinct style provided one with a degree of leverage and self-confidence. For the males, it commanded respect and caught the attention of women; and vice versa for females. In those days, women of all ages often wore shoes to school, often carrying sneakers only for gym. As an inspiring photographer at the time, I was drawn to that way of life and sought to document it. So within the pages of my various books and larger bodies of work, almost every individual or group has a unique and personal style; be it fly guys and fly girls, various fraternal organizations, indigenous and just everyday people. Documenting personal style has in fact become my trademark.
Do you have any thoughts on representation and self-representation in the arts? Is an insider point of view an optimal vantage point for social documentary photography?
I have my concerns with representation. Breaking into the art world can be very complicated. In many cases it is about forging connections with people who sincerely believe in you. On the other hand, this industry, in my opinion, can be like a pimp-and-prostitute relationship, where you go out there, put in work, and then have an overseer who dictates how the work should be sold, while determining your cut. It is a catch-22 situation. For me, I am a free agent and have no written commitment with any said person, however I do have working relationships with a couple of individuals who make an effort to exhibit my work in important venues, reputable art-shows and museums. Regarding the work I create on social issues, the majority of those images are designated for museums and institutions of higher learning. In these cases, I create connections, or — if I am fortunate — those in position, reach out to me directly. Having an “insider relationship” is always to one’s advantage, not only in the genre of documentary photography, but also in other genres overall.
What are some current stories that urgently need to be told within black and brown communities through the medium of photography?
There are a host of pressing issues that need to be addressed within communities of color, throughout America: access to a good education, affordable housing, poverty, crime, police brutality, mental health, and love of self. As an aspiring curator, I am striving to use that particular platform to create exhibitions and artist talks where socially conscious photographers can showcase their work and speak about their vision and processes. Presently, I have gathered up a number of emerging photographers for a Fall 2019 exhibition here in New York, that will focus on [many different issues, including] Albinism, police brutality, the aftermath of the recent hurricanes in Haiti, and the issue of color and dark skin.
Do you have any advice for young photographers and artists?
Considering the present climate in the world today, photographers using the global language of photography, can utilize their gifts to create images that speak truth to power, while inspiring hope and awareness in these difficult, uncertain times. With that said, I would suggest that photographers take on self assignments that provoke thought and raise issues, because in my opinion those type of endeavors tend to attract editors and curators. Overall, the key is to develop a unique vision that goes against the grain of what others are doing — as, today, I find that the photography world is over-saturated with images with a similar look and feel, which makes the work look too common. In closing I would add, carry your camera everywhere you go and take on subject matters that are very close to your heart. It is also important to study the work of established photographers, to gain greater insight into their work and process. Don’t get discouraged; with the playing field being so broad it is easy to become disenchanted. Maintain your passion and do it for the love.