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?UESTIONS: Jamel Shabazz

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

Heart, soul and community. Jamel Shabazz is a photographer who showcases street style in 1980s New York. Each photo beautifully captures his community with pride. At a time of tension and poverty, Jamel Shabazz documented strength, love and the growing potential of the youth.

Not only an amazing photographer, but a pioneer and mentor who's photographs challenge the history of violence and represent culture to inspire and empower generations.

How has New York treated you, how has your environment influenced your work?

New York is the cornerstone of the foundation for which I stand on today. The environment that I grew up in, had a huge influence on my creative process. For example, Prospect Park, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn is a special place of mine that I like to refer to as "An Oasis in Brooklyn". It became a space that I would visit throughout my life starting from when I was very young to the present, that was and still is a place I go to escape the hardships of the concert jungle, while seeking serenity. The park itself which stretches over 585 acres, is filled with picture perfect landscapes full of lush greenery, lakes, hills, wildlife, and a concert hall, that became my personal space where I would take thousands of photographs during a 40-year span.

What I love most about the park is its diverse and wide range of subject matter that can be seen on any given day. During the early 1980s, I would take a number of my friends from the local high school there after class and have impromptu photo sessions, using the trees and lakes as natural backdrops. This organic environment created a unique feel to these images and upon examining the prints from those sessions, one would never know where we were taken, less lone in Brooklyn.

Another environment that has had a major influence on my work is the Lower East Side of Manhattan, also known as "Delancey Street". Unlike the tranquility of Prospect Park, this area is full of concrete, noise, and large crowds of shoppers on most days. Since the 1970s, Delancey Street was the shopping district where one could find the latest urban styles, at very reasonable prices.

Most of the subjects that are fashionably dressed in many of my photographs from the 70s and 80s, purchased their clothing on Delancey Street; from footwear, sheepskin and leather bombers to Cazal glasses. As a photographer that was an ideal place to capture great photos, because there was always plenty of subject matter that I could identify with. Besides Prospect Park, some of my most iconic photographs were taken in that area. Because that old feel of the 70s still exists today, practically all of my commissioned fashion work is made on there, however it is slowly fading away with each new day.

You served in the U.S. Army, did your experiences have an impact on your creativity? 

Great question. While stationed in West Germany during moments of solitude, especially on lone guard duty I would often heavily reflect on life back in Brooklyn. I would think about all of my friends, along with trying to visualize what the buses, trains and streets looked like. It was during instances of this nature, that I realized that I never wanted to be without memory, so when I returned back to the states with a new perspective on life along with a new camera, I embarked upon a journey documenting all of the things I would often reflect on during my time overseas.    

You have created many iconic images, what was and is your vision? Has it changed?  My primary vision during my early stages of development in the craft was to document the history and culture of life in New York City. I wanted to capture compelling moments that provoked thought and created opportunities for me to use the language of photography to connect with young people. Today my vision and objectives are the same, but now I have extended my journey throughout the country and around the globe.

In your opinion, what is the difference between fashion and style? Another great question! Fashion in my opinion is the product, but style is how you define the fashion.  

Black youth have been beautifully captured in your photography, how can we uplift and inspire the next generation? 

Our youth are in great danger today like no other time in history. They have been born into a world that does not take to kindly to them. Their parents and grandparents in many cases, suffered during the AIDS and Crack epidemics, along with the war on drugs, racial profiling and mass incarceration. Many fell victim to an inadequate education, foster care and fratricide. Personally, I am pained by the countless videos that are being uploaded each day that show these graphic and terrible fights that young people are having with each other, with no regard for life. Back in the day you would only see males engaged in such activities, but now females alongside their male counterparts are fighting other groups that look just like them. 

A lot of these altercations are taking place in the community where young children are witnessing this vicious behavior and rarely do you find anyone breaking up these fights. In many cases, the bystanders are only interested in video taping these situations so they could be uploaded to social media and shown to the entire world. I feel as a people, we are being set up for self- destruction.

Gangs have now replaced the traditional family and violence and negative behavior are celebrated and rewarded on both television and in the music and film industry. We need to bring back the consciousness in hip hop that addressed social and political issues. We also need all hands on deck, including all of the conscious artists regardless of genres for they have the magnetic attraction to get the attention of the younger generation, using their talents and platforms to mentor, engage the youth and give them guidance.

The community as a whole must put away their fear and be proactive in trying to reach our youth. It is not an easy task, for there are other pressing issues like unemployment and an abundance of guns and drugs that are readily available on the streets. The task is challenging, but the clock is ticking and these times are very serious especially, now as we have to contend with those issues, toppled with the corona virus epidemic.

There is an unprecedented amount of sickness and death in our community that has claimed the lives of thousands of people of color, many of them being elders and city workers who are often on the front lines that serve as the cornerstones of their families. We are in a state of emergency. The president has a disdain for people of color and racial hatred around the globe is on the rise. Again, we need all hands on deck like never before. As I type these words, the song "Self Destruction" by The Stop The Violence Movement back in 1991, resonates in my head. That message and the movement is of utter urgency today.   


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