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Jamel Shabazz, “Joy Riding, Flatbush, Brooklyn” (1980)
Jamel Shabazz, “Joy Riding, Flatbush, Brooklyn” (1980), C- Print. 16 x 20 inchesCourtesy of the artist

Jamel Shabazz’s immortal snapshots of New York life

The exhibition chronicling the Brooklyn-based photographer’s archive of powerful images documenting the passions, hardships and joys on the streets of his hometown

A group of young boys are crammed into a purloined shopping trolley on the street. They’re gleeful, laughing at the camera. One of them stands leaning over the handle, unsmilingly he meets our gaze. He seems slightly apart from his friends, more of a loner. His expression is inscrutable – maybe he’s self-conscious having his picture taken, maybe his thoughts are elsewhere on some future horizon. Next, a young woman in the street grins at us. In the building behind her, her partner and their two small children look out from an open window – a frame within a frame. They’re smiling also, waving her off as she leaves for work. She hasn’t yet gone but they’re already anticipating her return. There’s so much love. Now it’s nighttime. A red five-door saloon car dominates our view. We’re too close to see the wider surroundings but we can guess we’re somewhere urban because no countryside scene would be so illuminated. A woman leans into the open front window, obscuring the driver. She’s wearing sheer red stockings and her skirt has ridden up to reveal a pair of matching red knickers. It’s hard not to look. Who’s she talking to? There’s a man in the backseat staring straight ahead, as if oblivious, with an impervious disregard for whatever’s occurring in the front seat. 

These are a few of the utterly absorbing moments captured by Brooklyn-based photographer Jamel Shabazz over the course of his lifetime in New York. Since he first picked up a camera aged 15, Shabazz has dedicated his practice to creating these poignant vignettes of everyday life.

Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Streets at the Bronx Museum pays homage to Shabazz and the thousands of New Yorkers immortalised so tenderly in his vast archive. This expansive show surveys his career, spanning four decades and counting, in which the prolific photographer has captured countless priceless yet ephemeral interactions and moments in the life of the street. Featuring over 150 photographs from the museum’s own collection and Shabazz’s personal archive – many of which have been displayed publicly before – the exhibition invites us to participate in the lives of New Yorkers over the last 40 years… the friendships, the spectacles, he childhoods, the volatile neighbourhoods, the searing fashions, the drugs and crime epidemics, the families, the lost boys, and so much more. 

Speaking on Zoom, he’s warm and engaging, a fervent advocate for humanity in all its chaotic drama and mundanity. His graciousness as a man is vividly present in his images. He handles his subjects with care and respect and, as a result, his work feels impregnated with so much love it’s hard not to be caught off guard, overwhelmed at the capacity of his pictures to contain such live emotion, preserved through the decades on film.

Below, we speak to Jamel Shabazz about the “New York flavour”, his philosophy as an image-maker, and what he learned while working with young offenders in Rikers Island – New York’s infamous jail. 

Please could you tell me about your first encounter with a camera and how you began taking pictures?

Jamel Shabazz: I grew up looking at images most of my life. My father was a photographer so, as a child, it was embedded in my mind… the value of photographs and my love for it. But it wasn’t until I was about maybe 15 years old that I actually physically picked up a camera.

My mother had a couple of Kodak Instamatic cameras laying around the house that she use for her social gatherings and I went up to my local junior high school started photographing my friends. That’s when it really happened, looking through the viewfinder for the first time, and pressing that shutter, it was a sense of empowerment. Looking through the viewfinder, it opened up my third eye to a whole nother world but now I’m in a position to not only see it, but to freeze these precious moments in time… magical.

How would you characterise those early images?

Jamel Shabazz: When I first started making images, it seemed like everyone was pretty stylish. As I started to evolve into the craft, I understood that people who were really dressed well wanted to be photographed so it was easier to approach strangers who were stylish. 

Back in the day, Times Square was a place people went to be seen. People would put on their finest clothing, just go to the movies and hang out. As an aspiring photographer, letting them know, ‘I see you and I recognise that you dress fly’, it made it a lot easier. So it became pretty much the cornerstone of my practice early on.

“Looking through the viewfinder, it opened up my third eye to a whole nother world but now I’m in a position to not only see it, but to freeze these precious moments in time… magical” – Jamel Shabazz

In what ways have you observed fashions changing and different kinds of subcultures and styles coming and going?

Jamel Shabazz: The culture I came from, it was really inspired by the streets. We didn’t have the magazines back then, to look at different fashion campaigns to be inspired by. Most of the styles we had back in the 70s and into the 80s came from the Lower East Side of Manhattan... Delancey Street, the Lansing Orchard – that was the epicentre for fashion.

When the crack epidemic hit, it impacted in really two major ways –  those who fell victim to using drugs no longer had the need to want to dress fashionable, because that wasn’t their priority anymore, the priority was really feeding the addiction. And then the flip side of it was that those who were actually selling drugs, now they have money to get extra things and they created their own style.

Now you start to see more jewellery, you start to see more designer glasses, and you start to see people who are just more fashionable, very elegant. It became popular to emulate those involved in that illicit trade. Also what contributed in a sense, and even collaborated with it, was the emergence of hip hop, where now you have artists like LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, and so many others who are taking the stage with that New York flavour. And that resonated and informed practices really on a global level. People started to mirror the New York look, people all over this country who embraced hip hop.

There’s something very joyful about your images. Was that something you sought out? Or was that something that sought you out? 

Jamel Shabazz: For the most part, it’s something I really sought out... I look for love and I look for joy. The fashion element is the external, but I was really looking for the frequency of love within everybody.

I captured the drugs, the homelessness, the pain, and the struggle, but the other balance is the joy and love because it’s necessary. And it’s important for me to not only recognise it, but to encourage it, and let people know that I see it and it’s a beautiful thing that you love each other. 

It’s really clear in the images that you’re handling your subjects with care and with love...

Jamel Shabazz: I’ve never been one to just pick up the camera and take your picture because you’re not gonna get the love when you do that. I prefer to take my time when I meet people and explain my intentions and let them know that I am sincere; I really want to engage you. It’s deep in the photograph. I believe in alchemy and I feel that we met on this particular path for a reason. I don’t know why we met, but I feel that we met for a divine reason.

All of life’s complexity is present in your pictures. Could you tell us about the selection process and how you create this balance when putting together your current exhibition?

Jamel Shabazz: The selection process for the exhibition at the Bronx Museum was very complicated for me because I have so many images. I wanted it to be a body of work that serves as a form of visual medicine; that when you come in the space it makes you feel good.

I have a whole wall dedicated to children and that means a lot to me, because it’s a time of innocence. And I made it a point to intentionally include a wall of people who are no longer here. Since COVID, I’ve lost over 70 friends and associates. In many cases, I had the only photographs of them so I wanted their presence to be known. And their children and families will can come to the exhibition and see these beautiful photographs of their loved ones. 

I get very emotional because, you know, you could look at a beautiful photograph of a young family, but you don’t realise that the young woman fell victim to addiction, the young man got murdered, you know… So this is behind all of my work when it comes to the selection process, to put together these images into these exhibitions and books that have backstories.

“ I tried to use my work to inspire compassion, love, and curiosity” – Jamel Shabazz

It sounds like a privilege but also a responsibility to be the custodian of so many personal histories and stories. How did your time working at Rikers Island inform your work? 

Jamel Shabazz: One of the first things I noticed on Rikers Island that did really inform me is that this thing [the trauma and consequences of systemic racism] is bigger than I could have imagined. I worked with adolescents, aged 16 to 20 years old. And at that time, they were born between the years of 1965 and maybe 1968. When I did the cell searches, they always had photographs of their family members and I would see photographs of their fathers who went to Vietnam. And, wow, that really hit me when I saw these are the children of the Vietnam veterans… the impact that the draft had on people. Just imagine, being drafted at 18 or 19 years old, going to fight an unpopular war at the time that Martin Luther King was assassinated. And we found when it comes down to systemic racism, that a disproportionate number of African Americans were being drafted. 

So now you have families that are being dismantled. I found that a lot of inmates at that time were in foster care. So now you might have lost your father in the war, your mother might have started taking heroin as a form of self-medication because of the trauma. And then many decades of racism… how that impacts you and the idea of post-traumatic stress that has been passed on from generation to generation. 

Rikers Island reminded me that everyone is not some horrible person… people are just falling, they’ve suffered hardships. So I tried to use my work to inspire compassion, love, and curiosity. One of the words I learned in the correction academy that really resonated with me and related to my photography was ‘empathy’.

Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Streets is running at The Bronx Museum until September 4, 2022