On a slow, sunny summer day during 2000, while working at powerHouse Books, there was a knock on the door. I jumped up to open it. A tall and stylish man stood before me, graciously introducing himself as Jamel Shabazz.
As Jamel recalled for this interview, “I decided that it was time to move forward and produce my first monograph, so I found the address to powerHouse Books and took a chance. Once I arrived, I remember standing outside the hallway to the office for a few minutes, going over my strategy, one final time. I then took a deep breath and knocked on the door. My world would never be the same. Once in, I introduced myself to the vibrant, Miss Sara Rosen, who greeted me with a million dollar smile, she then referred to Craig Cohen, Associate Publisher, whose disposition was warm and genuine.”
Although Jamel did not have an appointment to meet with us, when he showed us a catalogue from an exhibition of his work in Paris, Craig and I nearly fell over from excitement. We had never seen anything like his work before—bold portraits of people on the streets of New York City during the 1980s revealing the original style and fierce pride as hip hop first made its way into the culture. I remembered my childhood in the Bronx; Craig recalled that of his in Brooklyn; and we both decided to publish Jamel Shabazz’s first book, Back in the Days, the following year.
Nearly ten years have passed since that fateful day, and powerHouse published additional books by Jamel Shabazz including The Last Sunday in June, a ten-year retrospective of New York’s Gay Pride Parade, Seconds of My Life, a thirty-year career retrospective, and my personal favorite: A Time Before Crack, which revisits Jamel’s archive and reaches new depth and understanding of street culture with a collection of images which span 1975–1985. I am honored to have helped introduce Jamel and his work to the world, and humbled by the outpouring of love and admiration his photographs have inspired. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to speak with him about his work. Enjoy the interview!
I developed a theory a long time ago about why your work inspires so much love among people who see it. I believe every photographer is “in” their photographs just as much as their subject is. For example, when you see a cold photograph, you also see a cold photographer. I always thought what was amazing about your photographs was that you had first spoken and connected with the people in the photos by engaging them in conversations about pride, self-love, respect, and self-empowerment. And after your conversations, you had taken their photos. So when they looked into your camera, they radiated back to you the positive energy with which you imbued them. And that we, as viewers, look at these people looking at us with so much love, pride, respect—power—that we get a jolt. It is as if what you said to the people in these photographs is now being then transferred to us, the viewers.
So that’s a long theory yes, but it is the only way I can understand how people react so strongly to these photographs. Believe you me, I have seen a lot of people look at a lot of photos but never have I seen the reaction your photos get. And I don’t think it’s because of the shoes, or the glasses, or the coats. I think it is because there is something about Jamel that is coming back through these photographs, and we feel it when we look at it. But I wanted to ask you: why do you think people have had the reaction to the work?
Jamel Shabazz: Your observation is 100% right on. Before each photograph, I took the time to engage most of my subjects about life and making the right choices, in order to survive. I did this because when I was younger, the older guys, in my community did it to me, so it was ingrained in me as a young child to give back, and I vowed that I would reach out to the youth in my community at all cost. They respected me because I wasn’t afraid of them, and I took an interest in their lives. It was beyond the photograph—I help many make career choices; I spoke to them about diet, education, and how to select the right mate.
Each image that you see in my book is a visual record, of the countless encounters that I had with young people. I did it out of love and concern. I saw the crack epidemic making it’s way to my community and I wanted to avert as many as I could away from its destruction. So when you study the faces of those in my book, you are seeing faces of young men, women and children, who I just finished bonding with, young people who I told were special and were our future.
Often times I would departed them with the words, “Everything you do today will reflect on your future.”
When you began work on A Time Before Crack, you were adamant that this book not through of as Back in the Days Part II. Please elaborate.
Jamel Shabazz: The book was originally called Strictly Old School and I decided to change not only the name, but the images. With the success of Back in the Days, I felt at first that a continuation would be a good ideal, however I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a fashion photographer, so I came up with a title that reflected a social condition rather than trying to make a fashion statement.
To make the book different from my first, I used photographs that I took in the mid-70’s and that alone separated it from Back in the Days. In addition I included more group shots, women, children, and families. Using the collage in the front and back gave it a little more edge and allowed me to have over a thousand faces in this work.
I enlisted four writers (Claude Gruntizky, Charlie Ahearn, James “Koe” Rodriguez, and Terrence Jennings) to give commentary of their choice, each one from a different racial back ground, African, White, Latin, and African American.
A Time Before Crack is about a people who lived in a time before crack cocaine destroyed communities, and ruined lives. This book books serves as visual medicine for those that were affected by the epidemic.
You have been labeled a “Hip-Hop fashion photographer,” but you would prefer to be recognized as a street and documentary photographer. Please explain why.
Jamel Shabazz: I have been called a Hip-Hop photographer on countless occasions and those that see me that way really don’t understand my history or work. Yes, I have shot Hip-Hop fashion for magazines but that only represents such a small body of my work. I started taking photographs, when the term “Hip Hop” wasn’t even in the dictionary. To accept this label would limit my creativity.
Photo documentarian is the proper term for my work. It’s broader and has greater leverage. For thirty years have traveled travel both far and near and document varies people and cultures. I have shot homelessness, prostitution, military culture, the law enforcement community ,the horror of 911, and so much more. I look forward to the day, when I can share that part of my work. Every chance I get, I make it a point to display images that reflect that side of my craft.
The international success of hip hop has allowed me to share it’s platform. I am very grateful for that and I will continue to incorporate it in all I do—but there is so many other things that needs to be recorded as well. For example, I have a desire to go to Vietnam and document the children of American service men that were left behind over thirty years ago. No one really knows that side of me.
What do you hope the publication of these photographs, taken over 20 years ago, will do for the people and the culture today?
Jamel Shabazz: My objective with A Time Before Crack is to create conversation about how life was before the great crack and AIDS plagues of the 1980s—when women were treated with respect, when the majority of us had two-parent house holds.
Crack cocaine snatched the lives of so many innocent souls. Thousands of young men and women have had their lives ruined by drugs, and many linger in prisons through out America today due to them.
I have heard on numerous occasions how people broke down and cried while looking at my photographs, remembering a better time.
My goal is to make being positive and caring popular again.