Hailing from Red Hook, Brooklyn, Jamel Shabazz was just nine years old when he first read Leonard Freed’s 1968 book Black in White America. The book, which documented the challenges African Americans faced in the struggle for civil rights, impressed upon Shabazz the power of photography to transform the way we see and think about the world and our place in it.
As the son of a U.S. Navy photographer, Shabazz recognized the camera was a tool that could be used to both document and safeguard life. He began making photographs in high school, after which he joined the army. When Shabazz returned home in 1980, he began to see the impact of gun violence across the community, and in just a few years the ravages of crack and AIDS. Photography quickly became a calling that Shabazz pursued without recognition or remuneration for years.
Instead, Shabazz followed his instinct, understanding that photography was more than a medium or commodity: it was a means to connect with a new generation of Black and Brown teens coming of age in a nation that had systematically targeting them for destruction for centuries. When he wasn’t working as a Corrections Officer for the New York Police Department, Shabazz would hit the streets in search of people whose spirit touched his soul, seeing something in them that he sought to preserve through his work.
Capturing Life in a New York Minute
Like Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and Bruce Davidson, Shabazz found New York’s public transit system the perfect setting to make photographs; but unlike those before him Shabazz often engaged with his subjects before making their portrait. “For me, having constructive conversations was far more important than the photograph itself,” Shabazz reveals in the new book, City Metro (Galerie Bene Taschen), which collects photographs made on the trains and buses from 1980 through 2018.
Like Freed, Shabazz was deeply concerned not only with the people he photographed but the conditions in which the lived. He made a point to document not only the majestic beauty but also the harrowing despair of poverty and homelessness, which have devastated the city for decades. Unlike so many outsiders photographing the working class, Shabazz never looked down upon his subjects; his photographs restore to them a sense of humanity and compassion that so many others lack.
While Shabazz has been recognized for documenting early Hip Hop culture in New York, his work is much deeper than that. His portraits of teens wearing Cazal glasses, Puma sneakers, leather jackets, gold chains, and designer jeans reflect a sense of pride that both defines and transcends the culture of the times as a natural extension of the artistry, resilience, and resistance required to survive as a Black and Brown person in America over the past 400 years.
By Miss Rosen