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JAMEL SHABAZZ: Visual Medicine

Celebrated photographer, author and documentarian Jamel Shabazz opens up about his travels, his new book “Back in the Days Remixed,” Charlie Ahearn’s new documentary about him entitled, “Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer,” but most importantly, to reveal the true message behind his work.

Words: Amy Andrieux
Images: Jamel Shabazzz

Jamel Shabazz‘s work is truly, work. It’s the good fight that so many of us have left behind in search of greener (read: financial & aspirational) pastures. That’s not to say that Jamel’s work does not come at a value. But when the docu-photographer decides to escape the panders of those who have come to his opening at Powerhouse Bookstore in order to school local creative types in a street-side cypher about his real vision, while encouraging eager listeners to engage in the dialogue as to what they can do to further the cause— to me, Jamel’s work is invaluable.

While much can be said about what Jamel Shabazz has done to represent urban culture— exploring the time, unity and style—many fail to recognize the deeper nature of his work. And for as long as I can remember, dating back to my first interview with him for TRACE magazine circa 2001, Jamel has been on a mission. His goal has always been to serve the masses a dose of his enlightenment through the raw around-the-way visuals that he seems to capture so effortlessly.

Often imitated, but never duplicated, Jamel Shabazz’s work is food for the soul. And thankfully, others have finally taken notice. In a special interview, Jamel Shabazz talks about Charlie Ahearn’s new documentary, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer, that follows Jamel as he gets to “work,” the release of a remixed version of his book Back in the Days and that thing that sets him apart from his peers: his message.

You recently released Back in the Days Remix, the 10-year anniversary edition of your celebrated debut book. A lot has changed since then like the rise of the Internet. How else has the world changed from your perspective behind your camera?

The world has become a terrible place. There are countless, senseless wars taking place around the globe where thousands upon thousands are being killed, maimed, displaced and traumatized daily. People in this country are losing their jobs and homes due to corporate greed and deception, and natural disasters are occurring at rates that are baffling scientists.

Being that you’re a second generation photographer and you’ve been doing it for over 30 years, does it bother you that new technology now affords rookies the ability to take professional-esque photos?

I am not bothered at all with the fact that the common person has a camera. With all of the things going on around us, we need all the photographers and documentarians we can to record the history. It’s because of some of these “rookies” [that] we are seeing so much more.

Does it worry you that some people miss the point of your work and are only focusing on the aesthetic of the people in the photographs (i.e. what they are wearing, how “cool” they look, etc)?

I appreciate the way people interpret my work. Everyone has a different perspective on the images and era. However, it’s up to me to breakdown the real history behind the photographs in a way that will give greater clarity and understanding to the viewer.

Some say that you immortalize those that you’ve taken photographs of, while I’ve heard you say that your work is visual medicine. Can you describe what that means?

Visual medicine is a concept I created when I was working on my book A Time Before Crack. It was my intention to show images in that particular body of work that reflected love, peace and happiness. That book was tailor-made primarily for those that were incarcerated during the Crack Era and for the friends and family of those that might have lost loved ones— mentally or physically— due to crack or violence.

…I have heard numerous stories of grown men crying in Barnes and Noble and other large book stores while looking at my books. I know that the tears they shed are tears of pain and sorrow. It was brought to my attention that my books offer refuge to so many men and women alike who are incarcerated. I have even received thank you letters over the years from both prisoners and family members, thanking me for creating books that help them come to terms with their past pain and present struggle.

Imagine a young man looking at my images and seeing a photograph of someone he murdered and the fact that his life has been altered behind that moment of rage? Or the young crack-addicted female who sees an old photograph of herself in her prime— these encounters [are visual medicine and] can drastically affect one’s present state and provoke positive action and change.

You seem to be opening yourself up to speak more about your personal experiences within and outside of your Photography, what is inspiring this change? What are you hoping to share now?

As an elder, I feel duty bound to lend my voice in a time of great concern. The level of violence in our communities is once again on the rise. Nationwide, young people are dying at the hands of other young people. I feel that a generation is being lost. Some social scientists are saying that perhaps two generations are already lost. Knowing this, I have to step forward and address issues that are close to my heart.

Being an author has provided me with a wide range of platforms where I can share my vision and shed greater light on various issues, from mentorship to career opportunities. I have accepted the challenge and I am on a mission to inspire others who are concerned within our community to take a proactive stance to save our youth.

While Back in the Days will forever be a classic, you have other books like Last Sunday in June, A Time Before Crack, Seconds of My Life… Your work covers a broad focus including the military and religious groups. Can we look forward to future projects specifically on either of these areas?

I am presently working on self-publishing two new books for this year, both will featured images on a broader degree. Over the past 12 years I have been traveling extensively to various cities, both here and abroad, documenting youth culture and building up a massive body of work. So I decided to create books that reflect that journey and to give recognition to other people, cultures and regions. So the first book I plan to drop in September is entitled Represent and the second book will be called The Issue of Color.

Charlie Ahearn, director of Wild Style, just released a documentary with you as his subject. Before the screening, you mentioned that you’re not a big fan of being in front of the camera and in hindsight, you wish that you would have said more in the film. What didn’t you get to say in the film or the day of the world premiere that you would like to say now?

In brief, there is so much more to me than that film. I am pained by my presentation and how I failed to address issues that were and are relevant today. Hopefully in time I will be able to create a film project that addresses those very concerns. In the meantime I will be doing visual presentations that will help those that have an interest in my work garner a better understanding of my work, vision and mission.

During your speech on the night of the premiere, you also said that “we’ve got to make being positive popular again.” Does this idea have much to do with your work to educate people on cultural differences? Like your recent talks at Bellevue Medical Center…

What I mean by making positivity popular again is young people have the power to create positive change by lending our voices and resources and going out into our communities. By being proactive, we can make a difference. Right now negativity is becoming the order of the day. It’s being manifested in people’s behavior towards one another, it’s in the music and it’s all over the television. Just look at some of the reality shows today… We must rise up and create at least some balance.

In Ahearn’s film, we find out a lot about the people you grew up with, the people within the business that you’ve inspired and about your relationship with your father, who was also a photographer. We don’t learn much about your mother or siblings. How much of an influence do they have on your life’s work?

My mother had great influence on my life. A nurse for over 20 years, she taught me compassion and respect for life. I have one older sister who has her master’s degree in Psychology. I used to study her college textbooks in my youth and from that experience I gained a greater understanding of human behavior.

While your dad passed down the passion for Photography and gave you your first tools for the trade, you mentioned that he wasn’t very impressed by the compassion in your photographs. What do you think he would say of your work today?

He may have felt the same way, however, he would respect my resilience.

You also cited Leonard Freed as one of your early influences, thanks to his book Black in White America. Interestingly, you two share a lot of similarities—both from Brooklyn, cultural photojournalists that have a keen interest on the “forgotten” ones. In fact, I read somewhere that Freed was struck by what he saw when he returned to the US from Europe during the Civil Rights Movement. That he set “to create a body of work that refuted those caricatures of Black Americans” and emphasized the individuality of his subjects. How much does this resonate with you?

First off, I am so thankful to Leonard Freed for introducing me to Black in White America. It is from that book that I learned about the disparity that existed in America during the 1960s. It was my first introduction to African-American history and the importance of documenting our story. I share similar feelings to Freed, but as a Black man, for me, it is even deeper. So a lot of what I see and feel effects me in a personal way. My mission in life is not only to create images and counter stereotypes, more importantly, it is to inspire as many of the young and old alike as I travel on this great path of life. Another important component of my work is to encourage youth around the globe to learn Photography and use the camera to combat oppression and hatred.

Since you don’t feel that you were as forthcoming as you would have liked in Ahearn’s documentary, will you team up with him again to delve deeper? And what’s this about a series that you’d like to produce?

I would love to have an opportunity to revisit the documentary with Charlie and make certain corrections that I feel need clarification. Personally, I can say with all honesty that he did an excellent job, but in retrospect I feel that I could have presented myself in a better light and used the film as an opportunity to address relevant issues facing my community. For the past few years, I have been working on a story about growing up in the late 1970s and early ’80s in Brooklyn, NY. It is pretty much a real story about teenagers coming of age and what makes this story great is that there is no violence or profanity in it, and it could serve as a visual history lesson to the world.

I strongly feel that if I could get this project out, it could possibly have a similar effect that the mini series Roots had on society. We are in need of positive films, and all too often the movies or television shows of today are filled with violence, dysfunctionality or just plain buffoonery. The title of my film project is called A Time before Crack and my hope is that one day a major network like HBO would see it as the perfect mini series, similar to what they have done in the past with The Wire and The Corner but with a positive spin.

Images by Jamel Shabazz

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