Interviews - Written by on Tuesday, January 13, 2009 18:11 - 3 Comments

There is something about Brooklyn…

It began with a visit at the Bronx Museum. My son and I went there to see the exhibit “Street Art. Street Life”. I loved it. I didn’t know any of the photographers – Tim knew them all:-) Strolling through the exhibit I felt in love with the photographs taken by Jamel Shabazz. They were so colorful, friendly and expressive – they invite you to look at them. Back home I googled Jamel and sent him an email and asked for this interview – and it worked! Thanks again Jamel.

About Jamel (from FORMAT): Jamel loves Brooklyn as if it were his child. In fact, Shabazz’s love for community extends past the shutter speed and F-stop settings that capture the people, places and things that Shabazz holds near to his heart – “I am a mentor first and a photographer second,” says Shabazz, adding that his vision and experience enable personal responsibility to youths, “I tell them how beautiful they are, how special they are and how relevant they are to society. I have to do this with them. I use my camera as tool to communicate these issues.”

Throughout the 1980s, Shabazz shot with a Canon AE-1 35mm camera, overcoming minor challenges (“The challenge was always having the funds to buy the film and having the film processed,” says Shabazz, adding that, in his youth, his friends would pool money together to buy and process Shabazz’s film) while photographing the faces that would later fill the pages of his 1980s-centric books, Back In The Days (powerHouse Books, 2001) and A Time Before Crack (powerHouse Books, 2005).

Today, Shabazz shoots with a Contax 645 medium format camera, capturing photographs, daily – “What I shot last week is a very powerful image; it’s a gang member and he’s wearing the colors of red and black to represent the Blood gang.” His latest book, Seconds of My Life (powerHouse Books, TBA), covers three decades and, for the first time, will feature Shabazz’s photographs from 9/11.

“Manhattan had a particular look, Harlem, Queens had a look and the Bronx, but there is something about Brooklyn…”

we-mag: What is your understanding of “WE” and how has it change over the decades?


Jamel Shabazz: When I think of the term “WE” I envision men and women that understand their critical role in making this world a better place, in a time of uncertainty,”WE” hold the keys to the future and “WE” have a responsibility to use our talents to effect positive change. “WE” within the African American community have endured hundreds of years of hardship and despite the nomination of Barrack Obama, “WE” have a long way to go in order to see real change.

we-mag: When I look at your pictures from the 80ies – they reflect a very strong “WE”. It seems that you have a strong and intense relationship with the people you photograph. How do you gain trust from the people?

Jamel Shabazz: I have been successful in gaining the trust of the thousands of individuals I photograph, primarily because of my sincere desire to record their existence. When I approach my subjects, I take time to explain my purpose for wanting their photograph. I relay to them that I want to document their existence and give them an image that will have meaning later on in their lives. I make a point to always carry my portfolio with me, to show them the various images I have taken and pass on my business card. I also stress that they should call me so that they can obtain a copy of the image at no cost. The key here is to show sincerity.

jamelshabazz_cover.jpg jamel-shabazz.jpg

we-mag: Even though it seems that you have the trust of the people, in your book “Back in the days” you don’t share their names. I guess they would be proud and also the readers would appreciate it. Why is it like this?

Jamel Shabazz: In my past books, I have not mentioned the names of my subjects, largely due to being new at publishing. However, I now realize that people that purchase my books are curious about these countless faces. So, from this point on, it is my plan to have their names aside each image, along with a little history behind the making of the photograph.

we-mag: Actually in your work you never seem to see negative aspects but rather a positive documentation of the lifestyle of the people you’re taking pictures of. Regarding to that is it important to you, that people show their groove on your pictures?

Jamel Shabazz: In the photographs I present, I try to show the reality of life. Each picture holds a story some good, some bad. I strive to show beauty and positivity. As African Americans, our image as a whole has been misrepresented and I cannot participant it that form of self destruction.


we-mag: You show great effort in helping young people in the streets by teaching, showing, preaching them about arts and about your life as a photographer. Change is needed. What do you think is the best way or at least a possible way to overcome the existing gaps in our society, culture?

Jamel Shabazz: I am working with a wide range of young photographers here in NY, but also in London and Toronto, my main objective is to give them support and encouragement so that they can take their craft to a higher level. I make it a point to inspire them to create thought provoking art and more importantly the need to give back to those in the community that are less fortunate, one of the ways of giving back is by participating in art auctions, and volunteer work in local schools teaching photography.

I am also working with the Rush Philanthropic Foundation, in this organization I serve as a teaching artist, and I share my talents and experience with young teenagers who are all in high school students and face many personal challenges, from poverty, failing grades, to family issues. I have been working with this foundation for the past 4 years and it has given my life a greater sense of purpose and meaning. This coming semester I plan to introduce the students to video documentation, digital photography, chess, and various documentaries that focus on relevant subjects like child soldiers, nature, and conflict resolution.

Change is definitely needed today. In order to progress for the better, we need to learn more about one another and engage in serious dialog, about issues that will affect both our lives and the future generations. Despite the advancements that “MAN” has made there are still countless wars raging worldwide. People are dying every second from disease and famine, so we have to lend our voices and talents and be proactive to both address these issues and come up with solutions.

I think that one of the best ways to create change is by starting with one’s self, we all need to look in the mirror and see how we can improve our character, once we correct our own personal defects then we can move on and attempt to address others.

Another aspect of change in my opinion, is that we must be proactive in community based programs that help those that are in need, there is so much suffering going on daily, from homelessness, mental illness, gang violence, war, hatred, and the list goes on. The world wide web has given us an opportunity to communicate with people all over the world, imagine if we used it to inspire love & compassion and community.

we-mag: If one listens to rap texts the language people are using is pretty aggressive, rude …  And these people are heroes, icons for a whole generation. This is frightening to me … You can argue it is art, it is a way to express oneself but still there is a huge potential of aggression. How can we transform this into positive energy?

Jamel Shabazz: I agree with you on the language that is being used in both rap music and music in general. I feel as a society, we have all been “dumbed” down and it is reflected in the music, television, and the general attitudes of society. Many rappers are imitating movies they see on the big screen and others are reflecting every day experiences in our neighborhoods. I strongly feel that the same energy it takes to make negative music can be put towards more positive lyrics. If negativity is being promoted by the industry, and people who come from poor neighborhoods are gaining financially, then that is what you are going to produce.

we-mag: Obama is president elect. What are your hopes going along with his presidency? Will he change the “WE”, has he changed it already?

Jamel Shabazz: Regarding President elect Obama, I believe deep down inside that he is a good man with great hopes and aspirations for a better world. I wish him the best, for he is inheriting a throne in a time of great unrest. Time will tell!

we-mag: What do you think of “hip hop” nowadays?

Jamel Shabazz: Hip Hop today is a universal language that transcends all over the world. With the proper message it can create positive change and inspire the next generation to be better.  However with the wrong message, it can have an adverse affect and destroy the moral fabric of society. Hip Hop has the power to bring nations together and I personally witnessed this when I was in South Korea last year for an international B – Boy contest. B – Boys from around the world battled on the dance floor and it was incredible to see all these diverse cultures coming together under the banner of Hip Hop. The majority of them did not speak the same language, but the music and the dance united them.



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Mar 28, 2010 17:10

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– There is something about Brooklyn…

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