Travelling around North America, the Caribbean and Europe, Jamel Shabazz has spent his life documenting special moments in history. His goal: to inspire people to make the necessary changes to develop a positive culture. Nick Hanekom met the man to discuss three decades behind the lens.
The ‘Picture Man’, as he’s been known, may not be widely recognised outside of North America but the prolific photo-documentarian has a compelling story indeed. In Seconds to My Life, his fourth book published by Powerhouse Books, Jamel recaps his life in what has been labelled by some as ‘a visual diary that spans 27 years’. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Jamel says, ‘It was a life-changing experience for me when I picked up the camera at age 15.’ He has since captured the essence of urban American culture through three generations. His grainy black-and-white prints bare witness to the emergence of hip-hop culture (‘Back in the Days’), the atrocities of crack cocaine (‘A Time Before Crack’) and youth violence among African Americans, not to mention the more recent tragedies of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. As one would imagine, some of these experiences have left him with a somewhat jaded outlook on humanity.
Viewing his life’s work in the hipster-infested downtown district of Toronto’s Queen Street West makes it tough to grasp the sheer magnitude of the events he has captured through the lens of his Contax medium-format camera. Jamel, though, feels that, as a photographer, he has to show the reality.
Often times we don’t want to see the reality. We want to see things that look good. We want to pretend, often times, that it doesn’t exist – but I find it necessary to document the reality.
I document homelessness in America and war [in Iraq and Afghanistan]; we’re not talking enough about the war going on right now, so I find it necessary to use my art to do that, so I like to produce images that are thought provoking.’ It’s not all doom and gloom though. Jamel says of his inspirational work over the last 30 years, ‘It allows me to have gratitude for the ability to see. I’m grateful that I had vision and was able to capture these very deep moments in my life. It really moves me. One of the greatest joys for me today is to be able to share my vision with a broader audience.’ He hopes this will encourage others to document their own lives and ‘have respect for life and appreciation for it at the same time’.
Jamel has also gone to great lengths to change our perceptions of African-American people who, he believes, are being portrayed in a very negative light, something that pains him to see. ‘I realise these images are being transmitted around the world, formulating misconceptions, and it’s troubling you know. I’m faced with it as an African-American man, so I have a responsibility to show the positive, and the reality.
His grainy black-and-white prints bare witness to the emergence of hip-hop culture (‘Back in the Days’), the atrocities of crack cocaine (‘A Time Before Crack’) and youth violence amongst African Americans…
In his attempts to actively change the tragic cycle that plagues many inner-city kids, Jamel is working tirelessly with the youth. His most recent project was in conjunction
with Project Positivity. This saw him spending a week in Canada, mentoring and sharing stories with 20 kids from Toronto’s urban neighborhoods. What he imparted was his passion for photography, not to mention his work with Manifesto and Project Remix (Torontonianvolunteer/community-based organisations that centre around music, arts and culture). These projects help empower young people with the camera, giving them career options in photography and helping them to boost their self-esteem, while giving back to their communities. This is something Jamel refers to as ‘passing the torch’. As the conversation nears an end, it’s clear that Jamel’s vision, guidance and mentorship will eventually drive home the message of positivity; photography is merely a medium with which to convey that message. Proof, perhaps, that Jamel Shabazz deserves a much larger audience.
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