Jamel Shabazz was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of fifteen, he picked up his first camera and started to document his peers. Inspired by photographers Leonard Freed, James Van Der Zee, and Gordon Parks, he was marvelled with their documentation of the African American community.
In 1980, as a concerned photographer with a clear vision, he embarked on a mission to extensively document various aspects of life in New York City, from youth culture to a wide range of social conditions. Due to its spontaneity and uniqueness, the streets and subway system became backdrops for many of his photographs.
Ultimately, his goal was, and still is to contribute to the preservation of world history and culture. In the past two decades, he has had over two dozen solo exhibitions, including “Men of Honour”, “A Time Before Crack”, “Pieces of A Man”, “Represent”, “When Two Worlds Meet”, “Back In The Days,” and “Seconds of My Life,” which have been shown around the world, from Argentina to The Netherlands, England, Italy, Germany, France, Japan, and throughout the United States.
I first met Jamel in 2009, after learning about the evolution of his photography online (through my friend and colleague, Che Kothari), and developing a sense of respect for his use of the art form.
We initially chatted at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, in the lobby, and leading up to our meeting, I wondered what type of man Jamel would be, bearing in mind that it’s nearly impossible to know the character of a person or the intimate details of their life story, by simply bearing witness to the art that they create.
Soon after we met, it became quite clear to me that Jamel’s life experiences varied in intensity and depth, that he had traveled the world, that photography was an integral part of life and career, and that he had interacted with thousands of people from different ethnic, socioeconomic, philosophical, religious, political, and geographic backgrounds.
About twenty minutes into our chat about his career, we began playing chess, which is one of his favourite games, and our discussion shifted to the parallels between playing chess and the strategies one uses to skillfully navigate the challenges of life.
During our relatively brief chess match, Jamel revealed to me that two of the most influential periods in his life involved his documentation of the crack epidemic in New York’s inner cities, during the 1980s, as well as his work as a correctional officer, for the vast majority of his adulthood.
These two periods in Jamel’s life have caused him to become intimately aware of the importance of empathy, respect, reciprocity, and honest communication in all human interactions and relationships.
Moreover, he possesses a profound understanding of the fact that healthy, present, and mindful father figures (and their equally healthy spouses) are of the utmost importance within New York and America’s inner cities, primarily within the realm of African American and Latino communities.
Because he witnessed and documented the deterioration of African American and Latino communities in New York City, throughout the crack epidemic, Jamel possesses a profound understanding of how insidious drugs like crack and heroin can be, and the fact that such substances should be abstained from at all costs.
My heart broke, and my gut receded when Jamel showed me his photographic documentation of certain individuals within New York City’s five boroughs, and how they gradually deteriorated, physically, psychologically, and spiritually, over the course of the 80s and 90s.
Some of the individuals that he photographed for five years or a decade became shadows of their former selves, while others died long before they could witness New York’s transcendence from one of the most dangerous cities in the world, to one of the most culturally and economically vibrant.
Besides the many poignant images that represented the tragedies of the human experience, within New York City in the 80s and 90s, Jamel shared far more images of happy and fulfilled men, women, children (and their pets) with me, which caused me to realize that the human spirit can endure and traverse the most vile and menacing of hardships and environments.
What was most captivating about the portraits that Jamel showed me during our first meeting, were how intimate and real they were. He soon explained to me that his personality, innate curiosity, and experiences as a corrections officer led him to develop the necessary social skills to initiate long conversations with all of his subjects, before photographing them.
Sometimes Jamel chats with his subjects, who are often strangers, for up to an hour or more before photographing them, which results in a deterioration of their social personas, psychological defences and projections. As such, Jamel’s portraits often embody a level of authenticity that is typically hard to come by in photography, such that the viewer feels as if they are sitting in front or alongside the individuals in each image.
Most recently, this past August, I spent an afternoon with Jamel at the Brooklyn Museum, and it was no less of an enlightening experience than our first face-to-face conversation.
This time, at numerous points in our conversation, passerby’s who recognized him, and who are fans of his work stopped Jamel to greet him. As such, I was able to witness the ways in which he builds rapport, and invites strangers to be photographed by him, in a way that is appreciated by all parties involved.
It was amazing to see how comfortable, valued, and seen Jamel allowed each of his subjects to feel in his presence, and I have learned a great deal about portraiture, psychology, and sociology through him.
In addition to the nuances of his career in photography, we also talked about the importance of contributing to one’s community, the merits of creative and technical versatility, the benefits of teaching young photographers and other visual artists, the social and political responsibilities that self-aware photographers and photojournalists have, and the psychological challenges that Jamel had to overcome while working in New York’s prison system.
I left him feeling motivated, and capable of realizing all of my goals and dreams, and felt as if I was at the beginning of my journey as a photographer and visual artist (once again).
As I took the subway after hanging out with Jamel, it was quite fitting that I was surrounded by his images of the recent, old school hip-hop-style Puma campaign that he shot, which only intensified my appreciation of his work, and my understanding of what an enduring and fulfilling career in photography can entail.
Jamel is a friend, colleague, and mentor that I greatly appreciate and respect, his words of encouragement stay with me to this day, and if you are interested in learning more about his work, the social causes that he supports, and New York’s energetic art scene, I recommend that you visit his website, and also follow him on Instagram.
More of Jamel Shabazz’s photographs can be viewed below, along with an Animal New York piece on his work.