March 28, 2012
The Biggest Cat on Earth: The Siberian Tiger
by Clara Lehman
The Panthera tigris altaica, Siberian Tiger, or Amur Tiger as it is also known, is matched in size by no other wild cat. The Tungusic people of North China and Russia regarded the animal as a deity, and gave it names such as ‘Grandfather’ or ‘Old Man.’ There is no denying the majestic nature of this special animal, and even when looking at contemporary Chinese culture the Siberian tiger is seen again and again. Adult Siberian tigers can often reach lengths of 3.3 metres long, and a weight of 300 kilograms, but there have been recordings of animals larger than this. One Siberian tiger, called ‘Jaipur’, who was kept in captivity, reached a staggering weight of 465 kilograms.
Their Natural Habitat
Right now the Siberian tiger is mostly confined to the cold birch forests of eastern Russia, but they can be found in China, and also Korea. In centuries past these magnificent creatures were much more prevalent across a large area cutting through Russia, China and Korea, but in modern times their numbers have dwindled. Siberian tigers prospered in the isolated habitats away from human settlements, but as the human race grew and spread, the Siberian tiger began to lose its territory.
In a rare instance of the natural world, these animals sometimes engage in a losing battle with humans, often after being provoked or from an attempt to capture them. While they are not considered to pose a specific threat to humans, they have been known to defend their territory, and are more than capable of killing a man. These wild cats are so strong and powerful that they can successfully hunt brown bears, and make it difficult for wolves to exist in the same environment because they dominate the food source.
They hunt alone, without a pack to help them catch prey, and their technique is to sneak up on their next meal. They hunt a variety of different animals, but their usual diet consists of deer, wild boar, fish, and birds. Their habit of occupying areas with the lowest human density is a great advantage, because it offers them the most complete natural ecosystem where they can reign supreme.
The Strive to Protect
The Siberian tiger is currently in the endangered bracket in terms of conservation. There are no definite figures as to exactly how many still exist in the wild, but it is estimates from 2005 put the figure at between 300 and 400. There is a large effort to protect these now rare animals, but still they succumb to the poachers and deforestation, especially in China. The extent of poaching is surprising considering how dangerous these animals can be, and the damage they can inflict. Opportunist poachers with cheap van insurance really are risking life and limb when attempting to capture and transport a Siberian tiger.
One instance in 2002 saw a man from Jilin province in China survive an attack by a Siberian tiger. He claimed the tiger attacked him without any provocation on his part, but his story raised suspicions, mainly because Siberian tigers very rarely attack humans. It was later revealed that the man had actually set traps to catch the animal, and he was only attacked once the tiger in questioned had a snare around its neck, causing it untold pain. The damage and infection caused by the snare eventually killed the tiger, even after desperate surgery to try and save it.
Rarely thought of as a man-eater, the Siberian tiger now benefits from a large conservation effort that strives to protect the animal and ensure that their numbers stop declining. The majority of Siberian tigers, maybe as many as 95% of the wild population, live in the Russian Far East. The World Conservation Society Russia has a Siberian Tiger Project that focuses on collecting scientific information connected to Siberian tiger ecology and using it to help conserve them. They have been tracking the animals through the use of radio collars since 1992, and are building a complete understanding of how Siberian tigers live, their eating habits, preproduction rates, social structure, and use of territory. From their research they have concluded that around 80% of Siberian tigers die because of human influence. It seems that only increased efforts to keep deforestation and human expansion away from the environments that Siberian tigers inhabit, along with stopping poachers, will stop their numbers decreasing.
March 26, 2012
Revulsion is a red flag. It’s Nature’s alarm system. It’s the way of letting us know we must avoid in the interest of self-preservation. But what if your system was overloaded, fuses tripped and never fixed. What if your system was rewired, and that which was repulsive became compulsive, because you thought, if only it could be fixed…
Pure pathology, this attraction to disgust. This constant back and forth, fix it, leave it, fix it, destroy it, ad nauseum. This is the essence of pain, the inability to let go. The desire to run away, to return, to push, to pull, to fight, to scratch, to kiss, to love, to never know. Not until it is finally over and then it is understood. All that was ever needed was, none of the above.
From the beginning, it was No. And No meant Yes. So Yes became sickening. And then it became a matter of time before it all fell apart. But there was always a greater purpose, and the purpose was to destroy the entire system without destroying myself.
I couldn’t see the system, though I could feel its effect. I couldn’t understand the pattern, though I could reap its punishment. It was so damn deep, I had to go all the way in. To the darkest recesses of my mind, to the things I had buried and tried to forget. All that was repressed was controlling my life. All that terrified was that which guided my ship. Into rocks, over waterfalls. Always, always I remember Mr. Brown saying “Go with the flow,” and I would bristle at the thought of letting go because all I could see ahead of me were rocks.
Were the rocks ever there, or did I put them there because that’s all I knew? Did I set myself up for failure because that’s what I had been taught how to do? I am learning that the essence of trust is faith in myself. No matter what. Aint no such thing as failure. Or success. Only faith and doubt. I feel which one is happiness. And that is enough.
Everything had been doubt, because everything had been undercut. There are people who believe in No. I had been one of them. No was all I had to protect myself from what was happening. No. Make it stop. No. I don’t deserve this. No. This is wrong. No. I didn’t do anything.
But somehow No came to mean Yes. And everything that was negative held my fascination. Misery and shame and violation. The darkest hearts shone bright. The most painful lives magnetized. These were my people, or so I believed. They want to heal. No, they don’t.
The principle of No is absolute. It denies all possibility. It denies life itself. Which does not mean, unfortunately, that it does not reproduce. It introduces innocent life to the principle of No, creating a new recruit. An army of anger that finds itself in need of a purpose. How to destroy—from within, or from without, or both at the same time.
The greatest practitioners of No are the criminal class. They take what is not their own, and they do it with a sense of entitlement. This is said without judgment. They were set up as much as I had been. And by criminals, I do not mean the incarcerated. Plenty of people live with spotless records, their crimes known only to themselves and their victims. Plenty of crimes are not criminal; they are not on the books. But the lines were crossed, in fear and anger and entitlement, and the damage is real.
Perhaps the greatest sin of No is the silence it requires of its army. The silence that is so profound that most people cannot speak it to themselves. It has taken me two years to go through this, from the first time I opened that door to the darkness that lay deep. Two years of stripping everything away, and of realizing that in doing so, relationships were at stake.
For it was only in my silence that certain people would accept me. And after all that rejection and abuse and neglect, it finally dawned upon me. The nature of the mammal is community. To be isolated from the group goes against our biology. And if the group is bound by the power of No, then there is no divergent speech allowed, because to speak against No would destroy the system from within.
Many people will live and die in No, and that is their right. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord (that is, karma), I remind myself every single time. But for the innocent whose lives they destroy, to this I do bare witness. With my voice, I finally speak. In speaking my truth, I have lost so much, but I never lost anyone who loved me, and that is what is magnificent. To know that all who have fallen away never loved me no longer hurts. It feels like freedom, true freedom, from the need I had to do anything to prove I was worthy of what could and would never be given.
Freedom was an assumption, until it was an Ideal. And until it became as such, I couldn’t see that I was a slave. I bristled at that word because I went willingly. That’s the thing about indoctrination, it leads you to confuse free will with freedom, It makes you think that because you have been put upon a path that the choices you make are yours. But the real choice is the path: did you choose it or was it chosen for you?
Of this, be absolutely sure.
March 22, 2012
March 18, 2012
I have come to understand that dreams are not what they seem. For me, dreams are visions, spaces in which reality plays out in a non-ordinary way. This is why we believe them. This is why they feel real. Because they are happening, but we do not understand how or why. Dreams are proof that space and time do not exist. That we all belong to one mind. That separation is an illusion and the individual is a myth.
Something keeps echoing inside me. The way in which we cling to differences to divide ourselves from the source. The way we do not listen. The way we assert ourselves, needing to be right, needing validation at best—dominance at worst. His words echo over and over again, although it is not what he said but the way his words made me feel.
He knew things I did not, and that is why he came into my life. I knew things he did not, and that is why I came into his life. When I listened, I could hear him. And when I could hear him I could let go. And the wall I put up just crumbled and fell when I opened my heart to love. Because what I had taken as a principle was nothing more than a defense, and when I let go of my defenses, I grew closer and deeper. And I drew breath.
But I don’t know if he ever heard me because he needed his walls more than anything else. And he told me he could not let go, and that was where it all fell apart. Because, I took it personal. I had constructed the most pitiful defense. I believed that if he held on to his walls, he would never be my friend. But I was wrong. And I was terrified to admit the greatest truth of all; that everyone must be accepted on their terms, and no one must be asked to compromise who they are.
I see how it is that I had gotten it wrong. Because I had been so deeply compromised, I would roll over any time anyone did anything to violate my boundaries. I did this unconsciously, I did this without awareness. But I could feel something in me screaming. But I wasn’t listening. I thought the answer was for other people to do the same for me, rather than to finally learn that I could never compromise my integrity.
It’s funny, as in pathetic, some of the things I said. Because when I consider them in retrospect, I see they were lies I was telling myself. Right up until the end. I was lying. Because I could not speak my truth. Because I do not know how to tell people about themselves. Because I am still not sure if I hold that right.
There is nothing I hate more than people telling me who they think I am. Because if I didn’t ask, I don’t want your opinion. And I mean that, both good and bad. Compliments and insults are one in the same. And observations can be very dangerous because they are projections of the speaker, but the speaker almost never acknowledges this. I remember the first time we met, he told me I knew him better than he knew himself. But I didn’t know him at all. I only knew myself. And I saw myself in him: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I saw who I am. All that is within me. And it is through his presence in my life that I could grow in the most powerful way. I could take down my walls. I could be naked and free. I could take his courage and strength as inspiration to find my own. But I could not ask him to do the same. Because I cannot ask. Because it is not on me. One of the first things I learned with him is that you cannot make anyone else happy. They have to do it for themselves. And that is one of the last things I was willing to accept—that some people prefer to suffer because they want to continue punishing themselves because they think that is the honorable way to live.
And I get that. It is not until the guilt for a crime I did not commit lifted off me that finally, it was over. That finally, the rollercoaster ride had come to an end.
Last night, I dreamed of him. For the second time in my life. But I don’t remember what happened, though I know his message was important. I know he came to me to tell me to let go. And after I accepted his words, he turned into my father. And I stood before my father with all the courage I had and I heard my voice shaking as I looked him in the eye. And he looked at me, and denied me everything because that is the way he walks through this life.
And my mother sat right there, validating him because, for her, the other option is to die. And now, compassion comes to me, because imagine if you believe your only options are lies or death. And, well, death is lovely but imagine you don’t know that. Imagine you think death the worst thing to happen to you. You might lie so long as you draw breath.
And I knew, as I have always known, that my parents have defiled themselves. And suddenly, I think, this is not my problem. God bless. And in thinking this, my father turned into Danny, and that was the strangest thing. Because Danny is where it all began, and I have missed him, strangely.
And Danny is all I remember from my dream, because he was finally out of jail. And he told me he had been in Europe since 2005. And he had just come back to America, and he needed to see me, because he wanted me to hold on. And I wanted to, but I knew it was not possible. I had come too far. And I had to move on. To let go. To complete what I have begun.
I was just trying to write a sentence about the circle, about it completing a full turn, and I realized this word I am looking for is … revolution. And this reminds me of why I love to write more than almost anything in the world.
March 13, 2012
March 13, 2012
Rain is the most beautiful thing. It washes away all that is unclean. It nourishes the earth and all the creatures that walk upon it with all that is fresh and pure. I had a small epiphany. Seventy percent of the earth is water. Sixty percent of the human body is water. We are one with the earth, ruled by things we may not realize. The moon rules the tides. The moon rules my life. My body is fully in sync with the phases of the moon. And thus there are times when I am pushed and pulled by forces I do not understand. That is to say once a month, something happens to my brain.
But all that is affected are the lies. They are dredged up from my depths and roll in like waves, and if the lies are bad enough, they take me under in the most violent way. They awake me in the middle of the night and won’t let me sleep. They demand I take responsibility. But until I had the courage to speak my truth, I could do no such thing. Instead, I suffered, and I made others suffer along with me. Because fear ruled my life like the moon rules the tides, and I was drowning in a terror that closes my throat as I type. It won’t let me speak it’s name.
This morning I awoke. I barely slept. But I did something different. I spoke my truth. I did my best to own everything I could, while avoiding putting anything on the person with whom I spoke. I only wanted to be heard. To be understood. I didn’t even realize I could ask for something as simple as understanding. But if not me, why not?
And as I spoke, tears fell from my eyes and splashed upon my cheeks and washed away everything that was unclean in me. And though I was in pain, I maintained my control. And then Joe Conzo called me and he said, “Has anyone told you they love you today?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “I love you.” And I am so grateful. Who could be as lucky as me to have a love so beautiful?
He told me to go outside. And he was right. It is the most beautiful spring day and the sky is blue and the sun shines down upon my face. But before I set out the door, I decided to do something different.
Last night, when speaking with Ms. Fitts, I was talking about friendship. I’m trying to understand it, because I realize now, I don’t know what it is. To be a friend. To have a friend. To accept people on their own terms. To love unconditionally. To ask for nothing in return. To have boundaries. To act without expectation. To give with kindness and to receive with grace. To respect and cherish and honor those to whom I most deeply relate.
And then it hit me. “A friend is someone I can call when I am crying,” I said. And I realized how few people I could trust like this. And there was one person in particular I wanted to trust. So I reached out. I left him a message. I asked for help. And he did not acknowledge me. And so I let go.
And when I let go, I began to smile. And once I started smiling, I could not stop myself. I walked through Brooklyn, my home. Yea, I just realized, I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world. And as I walked towards Smith Street for a glass of green lemonade, I found myself the object of admiration. This is nothing new, but something has changed. I receive it graciously. I appreciate the compliments being paid. Because they are respectful. And, well, they are better than that. They are genuine, friendly, and they don’t want anything from me except my thanks.
And I am thankful. To them for what they give me, and for me finally able to receive their honor. And some of them are so sweet, saying things like, “Keep up the good work.” And it’s funny to me, to see how afraid I had once been. And to no longer have this fear. And to be without the wall between myself and them.
I cannot stop smiling. I died today. One of my nine lives is gone, returned to from whence it came. And death, death is the most beautiful thing. And I don’t mean this in a morbid way. It is as Loucious Broadway wrote, and so I quote, “Death is freedom.” And finally, I understand his words.
March 12, 2012
This evening I discovered I was wrong. I am not guilty and I have pardoned my soul. All of these years I spent blaming myself, saying it was my fault I couldn’t save her—only to discover she does not want to be saved. All of these years I spent hating myself, thinking it had all been on me—taking all the blame instead of seeing it was a fait accompli. I forgot that all relationships are two-way streets. Everyone wanted me to be the bad guy so they had someone to hate …and I agreed to play their game because I needed yet another reason to hate myself.
I was the person who had the least to gain, so everyone made sure that I felt her pain. The head games in my family are so fuckt that they used me to absolve themselves of what they had done. Scapegoat Central, the Rosen Home. But here’s the thing: never once did I consider that (somehow) (how?!) she liked this set up. I couldn’t see how sick it was—that for her, abuse was better than neglect, that malicious attention was better than none at all.
This evening I realized something else. All this time I thought I had abandoned her, only to discover that she, too, she had abandoned me. She made it that I was “perfect” so she did not have to deal with my pain. She made it so that she could be jealous—of what? I will never understand. Ain’t nothing pretty about the life I have lead, that is, if you scratch beneath the heavily lacquered surface. But I didn’t realize that for all my guilt about walking away, I was walking away from someone who did not want me around because it threatened her game.
Divide and conquer is a bitch. It does a number on the mind. Stockholm Syndrome. I actually had it that I could not tell her the truth, that I would be compromising her integrity—so, in my infinite guilt, I compromised my own. Only, I’ve hit a dead end. Hard. Every time I try to compromise myself, I vomit up the lie.
And that is a blessing like no other because it forces me to transform, to drop the veils and the deceptions and the delusions and speak my truth—without trying to make the other person wrong. I get that even when you speak your truth, people will hear things you did not say, and they will believe you are making them feel something you had no intention of making them feel. And that’s because you triggered them, but they don’t even know it. So they put it on you. So be it.
This evening, I told her who I was and who I have become. I stopped hiding in the dark and put it all in the light. And the result shocked me more than almost anything in my life—but hey, it was karma so bring it on.
She abandoned me.
In the middle of dinner.
Got up and walked out of the restaurant,
after all-too-casually making sure that I would pay her way.
Ohh, sorry, I forgot to mention.
She didn’t eat.
She had her food wrapped up,
I almost want to say I deserve this, only I was not wronged. I was wrong. I don’t deserve to be abandoned for finding the courage to be honest. But I was. Better it happened exactly like this for I was given the key to free myself from a terrible cage. It’s fine that she abandoned me. Because I finally saw the truth. She wants to be the victim because there is no other role she can play. And for knowing and feeling what that truly means, I am sickened.
But hey, what did I say earlier?
I am sick of being sick.
Ladies & Gentlemen, it’s a wrap.
I’m done. Dead & Gone & this part of me ain’t coming back.
Now here’s an ironic little addendum:
I called Ms. Fitts this evening with tears in my eyes, because although I am being flip, it was much more painful than I describe. And to this tale, Ms. Fitts replied. “I don’t even know her name. You’ve never said it before. She is only a pronoun. She is a non-person.”
Well, if that wasn’t the greatest come-uppance of the year. For all I have felt about being nameless, suddenly it all makes sense. I know why it is that he never said my name. And it no longer hurts. Because somehow, yesterday & today, I saw something that freed me from the shame of other people’s wounds.
March 4, 2012
For two days, hot tears have fallen from my eyes. It is like this, letting go, freeing myself of the demons that have haunted my soul. Tears fall in a baptism of sorts, holy water from the Holy Spirit, cleansing me of the dark forces that have stolen my life, of living death without being dead. Tears fall to set me free, to force me to let go of the lies I believe, of letting me be with what is most ugly in myself and in others. Tears fall to remind me that I am human, fallible, flawed, but most of all—full of hope, of infinite possibility, of knowing that it is only the truth that shall set me free.
In the past two days the most amazing thing has happened. I discovered what the word “friend” truly means. I always thought myself a good friend, only to find out that many of the people I had taken as friends were anything but. Wolves in sheep’s clothing for so long, they had taken themselves for sheep, but the trail of blood suggests otherwise.
But don’t get me wrong. Wolves have their rightful place. Nature designed them to thin the herd. They belong amongst themselves, in a pack. They hold together and feast upon others, and that is what gives them life. But me, I am a sheep. I eat things green and have fluffy hair. I prefer to be docile, I prefer to be calm. I know that when I am not, it is only because I am in the presence of a wolf. I am unconsciously highly alarmed.
But back to the sheep, back to where I belong. This is a metaphor, so I don’t want to string it along. I do not mean to suggest that I am a sheep in the sense of a follower, though I do take God, the Tao, and Nature as my guiding force. I trust in energies larger than me because I am an animal and I am ruled by biology, chemistry, physics, and beyond that—the mysterious.
Spirituality is something I have begun to discover, something I have begun to investigate, on my own and with people who are receptive to greatness. To be receptive to greatness means to be humble for it is only in the state of humility that we can grow. To think we have all the answers, to think that as we are is all that there is, is to be a member of the living dead. For there is no life where there is no growth, there is only self importance blocking out all hope. And having, once upon a time, been filled with this, for having been a sheep in wolves’ clothing, I know for myself that this is not living as it is meant to be, but quitting life long before you die.
Ahh, but none of that. Not today. The tears are gone and I am okay. Not okay meaning healed , not okay meaning that the pain is gone, but okay as in, I accept everything as it is, for what it is. I accept that I did not listen to the words that were howled with the anger of a thousand wolves. The Walls Stay. Sheep Be Gone.
I accept what could never be. I accept that I deluded myself into dreaming of love because I believed that no one would choose to suffer at their own hand. But I was wrong. And for that I pay. I failed myself as only I could fail. I lead myself to believe lies rather than walking away. But this has served its purpose, a greater one than I could ever imagine for it has only been a matter of three months, but everything has changed. I am not the person I was before, and I see this in the air I breathe.
This morning I rediscovered something about who I am. I am a collaborator, I believe in connection. My girl, Miss Jong, she has her first solo New York City exhibition coming this June. And we met the other day to discuss the project. And while I first met her under one context, that is as an author in my imprint, my imprint is gone but we are still here, both of us growing, expanding, reaching beyond who we once were.
In speaking with Miss Jong I was reminded of who I am, for it is she that said the words I quote more often than not. Two years ago, she said to me, “Your gift is articulating other people’s ideas.” I love that. I love her precision with words, her ability to say exactly who I am and for me to embrace it to the fullest. Because she has reminded me of what makes me human—of our need to connect intimately, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.
What we need—as animals—is to be part of a loving community. What we need—as artists—is to build a community based on our truths. Miss Jong has an exhibition and I have this blog. What I write, the images I publish, the quotes I discover, the artists I revere—this is my interpretation of myself and I speak for no one else. No longer am I fraught with having a legacy, of leaving a mark after death—because death is no longer a fear. Life, life is what is scary. And this is what it takes to face down my fears: speaking my truth, finding my voice and using it. To sing, to scream, to giggle, to hum, to moan, to growl, to laugh, to sob.
Emotion is the core to all human connection. What makes us go beyond our boundaries is trusting ourselves in order grow and expand and move towards other people. I know this is true for me, and I take some of my more deeply ingrained psychological truths as universal.
But I also accept that though I am right for me, I am not you. You know your truth. Let go and find the place where you can go deeper into yourself. What is beautiful is that we all work in complementary mediums. My skill with words serves your ideas. Your skill with ideas serves my words. This is what I love most about collaboration. Discovering myself in the space between us.
November 23, 2011
A man once told me he never wanted to be beholden to anyone in this world. When I heard those words, I was frozen, unsure of what this meant. I was confused. I literally had to go look the word up.
under an obligation to somebody because of something helpful that person has done
Synonyms include: obliged, grateful, indebted.
And so it was that I understood my shock. How could gratitude be mistaken for debt?
It was later that this same man talked to me about sacrifice. And once again I was stuck. Sacrifice? Virgins in a volcano type of ish? Or is it that the act of giving—or rather, the act of sharing—could become tainted as such. What is it in our world that we do not know how to share, to be grateful, without turning it into an ugly expression of the ego?
I don’t know. But ..
.. I am thankful for this knowledge, for being given the understanding that some consider generosity—in themselves and in others—to be a sin. A sin to give, a sin to receive, all and all, a terrible thing. It becomes a litmus test of sorts, a way to determine the toxicity of the person before whom I stand. The more poisoned a soul has become, the more it retreats into itself, despising others for what it denies itself.
Loss is self imposed. The Universe is generous to a fault. And if you cannot see that, it’s because you prefer to be a victim of your own hand. Been there, done that, yup yup.
I like the idea of Thanksgiving, if only because it reminds me to reflect. No matter what pitfalls befall my path, I lead a charmed life. And every day, I do my best to remember to give thanks.
As the year comes to a close, I cannot help but to reflect upon where I am and how I reached this place in my life, complete and total freedom—the only truth on this earth. And so it is that I would like to thank everyone who has given and who has received, everyone who has shared and has contributed and has been a part of this journey.
Most of all I would like to thank God, to thank the Universe, to thank Nature, to thank Time and Space and Everything and Nothing(ness) for having my back.
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.