Photographer Jamel Shabazz wants people to know that, while he’s best known for his 1980s photographs of young Black people stylishly posing on the streets of New York City, his work is “bigger than hip-hop.”
His current exhibit, Reflections of a People: Photographs from the Archive of Jamel Shabazz, is currently on view through March 6 at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. The exhibit takes viewers inside Shabazz’s 40-year career of documenting the lives of Black Americans.
Walking into the exhibit is like stepping into a Black family reunion. Music from artists like Teddy Pendergrass; Earth, Wind & Fire; and The Isley Brothers sets the ambiance, a playlist curated by Shabazz to help the viewer better experience the time and the feelings surrounding the images.
Affixed to the walls are images depicting faces that could have been pulled from a family photo album. A full community is represented: students on graduation day; lovers hugging in the park; Black fathers with their children; church ladies; groups of friends in matching outfits; celebrities, servicemen and women; Black police officers; Nation of Islam members; African immigrants; and even the New York City Federation of Black Cowboys.
Shabazz included more than 50 photographs in the exhibit, taken primarily on the streets of New York City from 1980-2014. They exemplify the love, unity and pride that are so often missing in the mainstream depictions of Black Americans.
Speaking with Queen City Nerve on Jan. 28, the day the exhibit opened, Shabazz said he believes Charlotteans with no direct connection to New York City will still be enriched by the exhibit.
“I’m hoping that through the images they get a glimpse of another side of New York,” he said. “Often we hear about the violence, and the negativity and the poverty. I want to show images that reflect pride, dignity, families, and togetherness … that’s very important to me.
“A key cornerstone of my work is love,” he added. “I want people to see the love and unity within the Black community. It’s not about New York City, it’s about Black life in general.”
Shabazz, who was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, NY, was heavily influenced by the protest music of the 1970s. He cites Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On? Along with songs by Curtis Mayfield such as “Move On Up” as important to understanding his mission as a photographer. Shabazz was also a student of the Black Arts Movement, which was premised on the belief that artists should use their work to advance political and social change.
When he returned to New York City in 1980 after a stint in the military, he saw a city that was unrecognizable. Once tight-knit, supportive communities had been ravaged by the crack-cocaine epidemic – the results of gang warfare as factions jockeyed for control of street sales of the drug, worsened by the slashing of the social safety net by President Reagan.
Shabazz leaned into photography as a form of activism.
Similar to the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of Black photographers that formed in Harlem in 1963, Shabazz sought to use his photography to present a counter-narrative to the barrage of images of criminals and “Welfare Queens” shown on the nightly news. His subjects exemplified the sense of pride, family and friendship that still existed in Black and Brown communities throughout the city.
Shabazz didn’t just anonymously shoot a photograph and walk away. Whenever possible, he first engaged the people he photographed, sometimes taking the role of older brother, encouraging his young subjects to see their own potential in the face of challenging circumstances and what could sometimes feel like impossible odds.
From the 1980s to the 2000s, Shabazz served as a corrections officer at the infamous Rikers Island jail complex in The Bronx. He still shot photographs in his spare time, and that work became his solace – an escape from the despair, injustice and hate that he experienced in Rikers.
He was particularly affected by the influx of young Black and Brown inmates he saw entering the facility. Shabazz wanted his photography to be “visual medicine” to people and communities that were reeling in pain.
Today, Shabazz regularly receives messages from people who come across pictures of parents, old friends, and loved ones on his popular Facebook or Instagram pages. Sometimes the person he photographed has died and, for the person contacting him, the moment in time that he captured holds cherished memories. Sometimes Shabazz’s photo is the only image they have of the deceased.
Shabazz said he encourages everyone to document their relatives and community elders, as their stories and legacies are important and worthy of being preserved for future generations.
Yvonne Bynoe is an author, lecturer and founder of the online platform, @SheLovesBlackArt. She will lead the Homage to the Black South: Art and Culture Appreciation Series on each Wednesday this month. The next event, scheduled for Feb. 9, is titled Preserving Our Legacy: Black Art Collectors Roundtable.
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