photographer Jamel Shabazz captures the joy and sadness in the streets

For Jamel Shabazz’s first institutional survey (until September 4), the Bronx Museum of the Arts presents more than 150 images taken by the prolific photographer, who has dedicated decades to documenting his native Brooklyn. The son of a Navy photographer who later supported his family by taking portraits and photographing weddings, Shabazz grew up in a home of cameras and photography books. As a young man, he discovered he could use photography to celebrate his community and to build and maintain deep connections with those around him.

On the occasion of his exhibition, Shabazz reflects on how he grew up as a photographer, on the 20 years he spent working as a prison guard at Rikers Island, the largest and most New York’s notorious, and how his work continues to touch the souls of a new generation.

The Art Newspaper: What inspired you to take pictures?

Jamal Shabazz: My father was a professional photographer. He transformed our small apartment in Brooklyn into a studio on the weekends and he photographed family and friends. He would rearrange everything. He also photographed weddings. So I always grew up seeing camera gear. He also had a huge library of photography books, and that intrigued me from the start. And we also had family photo albums that were passed down from generation to generation.

Man and dog. Lower East Side, Manhattan (1980)

Courtesy of the artist

I often talk about one book in particular that really changed my life when I was about eight years old: black in white america by Leonard Freed [1969]. My dad had this bookcase, but this particular book was sitting on the coffee table and it was signed by Freed. This book was the first time I had seen photographs outside of my Brooklyn community. Suddenly I was introduced to places like Harlem or the Isolated South, and I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, but a lot of the photos reminded me of myself. I felt like the book was introducing me to a world I was about to step into.

What was your approach when you started photographing?

My mom always had these cameras with film in them so I grabbed a camera and went to my local high school and started photographing my friends. I didn’t understand light very well, but I knew how to compose images from looking at photographs very early on. We would all participate, and then we would have the film developed at the local pharmacy. There was something magical about this camera. When I picked it up and looked through its crosshairs, it opened up a part of my mind I didn’t know existed.

Then I went to the army at 17 and came back at 20, in 1980. My father taught me photography and my first photographs were, according to him, very depressing. I started photographing poverty, homelessness, despair, alcoholism. I was curious. I’ve seen the billions of dollars generated for the military budget, and then I come back to America and see these social conditions that bother me. My father didn’t understand why I would photograph these conditions, so I redirected my energy, unconsciously, and started capturing joy, love and friendship.

I started using my camera to talk to people about life, goals and objectives. I was looking for joy and friendship, but beyond photography, I was really looking to have conversations with people, and the photographs became evidence of those conversations. But I never stopped my personal project of documenting social conditions too.

Embrace the feeling. Flatbush, Brooklyn (1982). When Shabazz began photographing scenes and people in Brooklyn, his father said his images were “depressing”, so he “redirected his energy” to “capture the joy, love and friendship”.

Courtesy of the artist

I think, in your best pictures, it’s all in there. There is sadness as well as love and joy, and they coexist in a single image.

When I look at my negatives, it’s all there. In contact sheets, it’s a combination. In every situation I seek joy, but I cannot ignore social conditions. In my contact sheets going back to the 1980s, when you look at them all, it’s a combination of the two [sadness and joy]-It’s almost 50/50.

What do you think is the future of photography?

I think the future of photography is pretty much here. It’s funny – in the 1980s I was trying to encourage people to get involved, but now everyone is embracing it. Now, it’s just this global language that really brings people around the world together into a global community. I can’t imagine it getting any better.

A lot of that comes down to personal relationships for you.

I look at the camera like a compass and I feel like everyone I meet on this life path is due to that compass. The friendships that have developed during these interactions are phenomenal. I consider myself an alchemist – having the ability to freeze time and motion is phenomenal to me. That’s how I see it. Being able to see something that just touches your heart and take that camera and capture that moment, freeze it and then throw it away and share it with the universe.

Jamel Shabazz: eyes in the street, Bronx Museum of the Arts, until September 4

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