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Ibrahem Hasan, Love Is Why (2021)
Ibrahem Hasan, Love Is Why (2021)Photography Ibrahem Hasan

This photo book celebrates the unsung Black mentors of Chicago’s South Side

Ibrahem Hasan’s project pays tribute to his mentorship on the streets of Chicago, while funding laptops for underprivileged students in Brooklyn

Last year, amid the height of the pandemic, Ibrahem Hasan read an article in the New York Times that deeply affected him. The Brooklyn-based photographer learned of a high school in his neighbourhood dedicated to helping over-age and under-credited students. The Brooklyn Democracy Academy (BDA) had recently lost its beloved principal, Dez-Ann Romain, to COVID-19. At just 36-years-old, Romain was an educator “with grit and heart”, committed to furthering the kids who had struggled in the mainstream school system. 

Hasan felt compelled to get involved and do something to help. “It just kind of struck me,” he tells Dazed. “I was like, I’m gonna design a book.” Galvanised into action, the creative director and photographer set to work, guided by pure instinct. “I was developing the concept and I was making the book simultaneously, ” he recalls. “It just kind of started to form itself as I was building it.” 

What emerged is Love Is Why, a collaborative, non-linear, dreamlike montage of text and images in which formative conversations with his four Black mentors unfold amid inspiration from Malcolm X. Drawing on contributions from friends, colleagues, and strangers who were eager to add to Hasan’s visual tapestry about coming-of-age and mentorship, Love Is Why may be born of loss, but it’s a project of abundance. All proceeds from the 500 limited edition copies will purchase laptops for the students of the BDA who, now more than ever, need remote access to learning and a show of faith in their future. 

Take a glimpse of Love Is Why in the gallery above while, below, we talk to Ibrahem Hasan about the life lessons he learned while shopping for records on the streets of South Chicago, why he's optimistic about Gen Z, and manifesting our purpose in 2021. 

Can you share with us the story of your own mentorship and how it inspired Love Is Why?

Ibrahem Hasan: I grew up on the south side of Chicago, and my father took me to this place called Maxwell Street. Just a quick hit on what Maxwell Street is because, for me, I know. But for other people who are just like, what the hell is that? So, basically, a lot of Blacks migrated up north, they went there for work and they congregated around the street called Maxwell Street, and it’s where the Chicago blues started. And then it also acted as an open-air market for people to sell goods, so my father took me there as a kid.

I’m Palestinian, right? I didn't know shit about Black culture, Mexican culture, Puerto Rican culture, you know. So that was the first time I saw these cultures, and these smells, these tastes, these feelings, and I was like, okay, I love this. I don't know what this is, but I love this. 

I started to go there regularly with a couple of friends to buy records every Sunday. We’d go there at around 4am, 5am, 6am, because that’s when you would go to buy records. That’s really, really dedicated, especially in a place like Chicago where the winters are dreadful and we’d still go there. I was a jazz head. At 16, 17, jazz and hip hop was my thing. But, at the time, I was buying real crap records because I didn't know shit, and I was learning. But it's part of the mentorship, the guys there would put me onto the records and things like that. 

What’s interesting about those mentors – Djuan Smith, Lewis Books, Record Sam, and Taco –  is that I didn't know I was having mentorship. I would go there, I’d buy records, buy music equipment, and then I would just hang out with these guys. Only when I got into my adulthood, I started to realise the influences and the learning that I had from them. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re in it until later and you realise, oh my god, the reason I know about Fred Hampton, the Tuskegee experiment, spiritual jazz, house music, all these things, was because of them. But only later did I realise those influences. 

“What’s interesting about those mentors – Djuan Smith, Lewis Books, Record Sam, and Taco –  is that I didn’t know I was having mentorship... Only when I got into my adulthood, I started to realise the influences and the learning that I had from them” – Ibrahem Hasan

What was it about the BDA and the story of Dez-Ann Romain’s death that particularly touched you?

Ibrahem Hasan: The BDA is basically the last line of defence to help these kids who are under-accredited or over-aged. It’s like going to high school, but it accommodates older kids who’ve been in troubled situations where they just need a bit more help, they need a bit more love, they need a bit more attention, and showing a bit more compassion. They have a really tough task, which is why, for me, it clicked to focus my efforts on that school.

I grew up not necessarily believing in myself. I’m extremely blessed and humbled to have had the opportunity to do the things that I’ve done in my career, but if I had just a little bit more confidence, I might have been even better, you know? And so, sometimes, little tokens can go a long way.

So it comes back to the idea of mentorship.

Ibrahem Hasan: Exactly. You know, right now, I mentor a few kids and it’s kind of amazing to just see their development, but also to see what’s important to them. I’m so optimistic about them, they’re the saviours. I feel like, they looked at the millennials and Gen X and they said, ‘Shit, we’ve got to fix everything now.’ We’ve got global warming effects, we’ve got poor leadership, we’ve got all these things, but they seem up for the challenge. You just see the youth, they feel empowered to fix it, you know? They feel ready. I'm extremely optimistic but, also, as part of what I call ‘the abuse generation’, I have to apologise for failing them.

Can you talk us through Love Is Why? It’s almost as much an immersive experience as it is a book. 

Ibrahem Hasan: When I would go every Sunday and have these conversations with my mentors it was always kind of schizophrenic. And what I mean by schizophrenic is, like, one time we would be sitting there talking, and we talked about Sun Ra, and it’d be, ‘Man, I was able to see Sun Ra. You’re too young, but, like, this man was a genius. He was from outer space blah, blah...’ Then, quickly, the conversation would shift and they would talk about somebody that just died yesterday because he got shot on the block. Then it would switch to, ‘You got this record?’ 

The book is in the same way. You slide to one page and it’s about love; you slide to another page and it’s about segregation; you go to another page, it’s about Sun Ra; another page would just be about, you know, the stars. And that’s why the book layout kind of makes sense. It’s in the same kind of pattern.

It’s weird too because, sometimes, especially as creatives, we make something and we think we have a good understanding of it. But we kind of don’t because we’re still in the process of always making. And, when we actually sit down and have a conversation about it, it starts to formulate itself. Like, I never thought of it being memory fragments, but that’s exactly it. These are memory fragments and other people helped me on that journey to be able to put some of these pieces together.

“These are memory fragments and other people helped me on that journey to be able to put some of these pieces together” – Ibrahem Hasan

It’s a mixture of digital and physical images?

Ibrahem Hasan: Yeah. And all powered by Black voices. I thought it would be extremely disingenuous to have myself or anybody that's not Black talk about the Black experience. I feel, for me, having the visualisation because I saw it, but to speak on it? I don’t have any right to do that. It’s not my story. But, in a nutshell, the book is my thank you for being there for me when I was a kid; a thank you for the education, and everything that they gave me.

I had an assortment of things that I shot and I was like, ‘Okay, I'm going to leverage all these things.’ And then connected the dots with conversations I’ve had with my mentors. And I invited my friends to be a part of this thing, and invited people that I love. Some of my friends got really heavy into it. My boy, Sajjad, was like, ‘Yo, so we're gonna go to my cousin’s house, and we’re gonna see these photo album books.’ I was like, ‘Okay, this is amazing.’ And then we uncovered one of his aunts. Her name Paula Affrekka Jefferson, and she was a designer and artist. One of her works was actually in MoMA, right? I was able to see all these woodcuts, things that people have never seen before. So there’s a lot of her work in the book that nobody’s ever seen. We’re unearthing artists that never came about; we‘re unearthing images from my childhood in Maxwell Street. 

Then what I did as well, I went and signed up to this public domain website and I started to gather images and gather images and gather images. And I was like, ‘Okay, how am I going to tweak these?’ I printed them, reshaped them, cut them up, redrew, I just kind of made this like a weird art experiment in a way. 

What strikes me about the story of how your book came to be is that something like Coronavirus, which is so devastating and harmful, can spread so rapidly and do so much damage. But that goodwill can also be infectious and pay-forward. You received the benefit of mentorship from your friends on Maxwell Street and now, as a result of that, you’re doing something to nurture underprivileged kids in your neighbourhood.

Ibrahem Hasan: I’m extremely sympathetic to the people that we lost through COVID-19, without a doubt. But I took the year to completely use it as a way to figure out exactly what my purpose is. And, you know, it’s not until you start to unpack who you are as a creative, you start to realise there are synergies in your work. And mine was extremely simple – to represent the unrepresented. That's it, that‘s my purpose. I didn't know that I was doing that in my work, it was just happening. Until I realised, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what it is.’ And so this body of work definitely fits into that space. 

With the kids that I’ve been mentoring, I told them, you have an amazing opportunity this year. This is the opportunity to figure out your purpose. The world has not necessarily stopped, but it stopped in a way that you can now be introspective and figure out, okay, who am I? What do I want to do? And how do I want to serve? And whether that’s serving a craft, or an art, or whatever that may be, this is the year to figure it out. Then the following year is to manifest that purpose, right? How do you start to manifest that? Be tunnel vision about it.

Ibrahem Hasan’s Love Is Why can be purchased here, and all the proceeds will be used to provide the students of the Brooklyn Democracy Academy with laptops