With almost ten years hindsight, it is safe to say that Jamel Shabazz wrote himself into hip-hop history forever with the release of his first book ‘Back in the Days’ (2001). Ever since he finished serving the army in Germany, in the late 70’s, he has been chronicling street life mainly in Brooklyn and the rest of New York. This is just one of his sides. One of his new plans is making a movie on ‘A Time Before Crack’, the movie that would change the face of African-American culture.
Has photographing people in the street changed over the years?
It’s difficult now, because of technology, now people have iPods, so you can’t talk to them, or they have cell phones, so they are distracted. 20-25 years ago, we didn’t have that, now – if you try to take a person’s picture – the cell phone rings and they just say ‘you can’t take a picture now’. Or you see a subject you want to photograph, but they have their headphones on. To me it’s difficult now, it really is. If you don’t have those devices, I can take your picture – but nine out of ten times somebody has just that. The distractions have never been so prevalent as they are today. But once I’m in position to engage you in conversation and present you with what I’m trying to do – I’m always able to get it, because I’m always trying to find the right thing to say. I only take pictures of people that are sincere, and once I explain that to them they open up.
You have become tightly connected with the hip-hop scene, how does that make you feel?
I can’t be pigeonholed into one category, which is hip-hop, I resent that. That’s why in the book ‘Seconds of My Life’(2007) there’s an included playlist. So people can go ’wow, I never knew’- once they listen to the music I choose. I need to DJ at my shows, because back in the days I used to do exhibitions and people would play the music for me, – it was like they got it all wrong. They messed up the whole spirit, they really didn’t know. The mind that created what I did – nobody really knows. It’s the music I listened to, it’s me learning how to play chess. Two wonderful things were given to me in Germany, I learned how to play chess, which taught me strategy, and I was introduced to music. I was only 20 years old and I had returned back home with consciousness. And I started educating people in the community, so ‘Back in the Days’ is a visual diary of my life. It’s not about the photography; the photograph is evidence of a conversation that I had with subject. Everybody in the pictures, I had talked to about life. It feels good to talk about it now, because it’s important. I reflect on Nina Simone, James Baldwin and so many other African-Americans that came to Europe to get their craft, to build a foundation. I feel that way now, there’s something about Europe, the people seem to be more attentive to their work than in America, we take it for granted, so here the questions are raised – so I feel the need to explain it.
What does ‘Back in the Days’ mean to you today?
I don’t talk a lot about my work, because I feel my pictures speak for themselves, but now I realize that they don’t. I have to speak for my pictures, I have to explain who these people are. Even regarding the front cover of ‘Back in the Days’’ alone, which was controversy for me. My publishers thought that it needed ‘lighter’ people on the cover in order for it to work. My idea for the front cover was this picture (pointing at a picture of a group of small black girls). The publishers said ‘No, that’s not going to work’. But do you know what? They were right, because when this cover came out, it might as well have been shot in either Germany, Italy or France, and so it worked. It’s because of this cover (showing two Hispanic teenagers) this book was able to go around the world. If you look at it, and study the bible, the background story is quite phenomenal- their names are actually Angel and Moses. It’s just an interesting story, a visual diary. It’s not about fashion – I look for strength, more so, the soul one sees with the third eye. As creative people, we see through the 3rd eye, and I saw their soul. It was one shot – I was young, and had 36 images, every picture had to count. This is one shot of these kids, which eventually became an iconic image. That’s why I share my work – ‘Here take this picture and let me tell you the history behind it’. Then I can go on and feel relieved that you will take it and hang it on the wall and then you can add history to it. You can now give history to this book and say ‘Angel and Moses’ and it makes me feel good now – I told the story.
What does your work mean to you?
Well, to me my name means ‘the reminder’, I am the reminder, my work reminds people. I hear stories of people being in book stores crying while viewing my photos, wow the comments I’ve received on my work, I didn’t even know what I was doing – I have thousands more pictures, I have thousands upon thousands images. That’s why I have to do books and shows, to get them out there, and I don’t show the same picture twice – because there’s so much that I feel doesn’t belong to me. And every journey I take, I take more pictures. The pictures I took here (in Sweden) where incredible, the images I took here, are some of the most compelling pictures of my life. It means a lot to me, because that’s my new work now. This is going to be a part of my new body of work – to show diversity and how I as a photographer shot everybody. It’s about the soul of people, and not about color.
What is your connection with Africa?
That’s where I’m from. In terms of having the direct connection – like so many descendants of slaves, we don’t know our connection… But I have to go to Ghana, I have to go to Senegal, I have to retrace the slave route to find out what’s going on, to get an idea. I’m not going to be complete until I visit Central Africa. I’m pained with what has happened, but I’m not going to be complete until then. I’ve been throughout Europe now, coming here now – it’s complete, there’s no other real place I want to see at this point. My next stop is Africa. That’s my connection – it’s just something I have to do. And I have to bring my work, because my books are in Africa, so I have to go and show it to them, because the Africans in America, they love my work. It amazes me that it really resonates with them when they see the work on a broader level – so I feel that I just have to go to Africa. I have to go to Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa to show my work, and encourage those kids like I’m encouraging the kids from other countries. That’s what I have to do.
Jamel Shabazz is very active on Facebook, but you can also follow him on his site: https://www.jamelshabazz.com
Interview by: Mikael Ohlin
Video Credits: EAST SIDE STORIES (2012)
By: 4letters, Dj Boulaone music, Jamel Shabazz photos Animation: Mr 4letters //Music: Dj Boulaone // Tribute to the Budos Band // benbellajazz.com // Photos: Jamel Shabazz // jamelshabazz.com // Extract from: “Represent, the retrospective”