FEATURE///AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMEL SHABAZZ…

October 11, 2007  |  art, Feature, NYC, Origins of Style, Photography

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Urban photographer JAMEL SHABAZZ has been capturing some of New York's most powerful street images for over 30 years now, so it's a fitting tribute that on the eve of the release of his new career-spanning coffee table book, "Seconds of My Life," POWERHOUSE BOOKS has staged a retrospective art show at their Brooklyn-based gallery, the POWERHOUSE ARENA. Having worked as a NYC corrections officer for twenty years, the 47-year-old artist remains remarkably unjaded and has always sought to capture the life in his subjects from criminals and rappers, to politicians and children, with an uncanny eye for the humanity in all. On exhibit alongside Shabazz's tour-de-force is "Black in White America," an overview of the artist whose work inspired Shabazz to pick up a camera in the first place, celebrated photojournalist LEONARD FREED. Speaking with Shabazz before the show's opening was PowerHouse publisher SARA ROSEN who conducted the following interview:

JAMEEL SHABAZZ:
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"Seconds of My Life" portrays people from all races and ethnic backgrounds, leaving the viewer with a very positive image of human mankind. How does this correspond to your vision of the world?
The images in my book reflect an edited view of the world as I see it daily. I appreciate the fact that the viewer acknowledges positive images of mankind; however, my particular vision of the world is unadulterated. I see tangible images of war, poverty, homelessness, and despair every day of my life and my heart is pained by it all. I pray for a better world where envy, jealousy, greed, war, and poverty are a thing of the past. There are people of many races and ethnic backgrounds in my book, but if one studies their faces, they reflect expressions of uncertainty.

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What do you look for in your subject?
In looking for a subject to document, I search for attributes that project dignity, pride, style, beauty, and intrigue.

In your photographs, people look really confident and relaxed even when they strike a pose. How do you manage to create so much intimacy in such a short period of time?
The key to creating an intimate relationship with my subjects is to first show them proper respect. I always make it a point to introduce myself and explain my purpose as a documentarian. I then proceed to show images from my portfolio, followed by engaging them in conversation about their lives and purpose, if time permits. I conclude by passing on my business card and expressing to them my appreciation for allowing me to document their lives, for coming generations to see.

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You have been documenting urban life and culture for over 30 years now, in the USA and abroad. What inspires you today?
My inspiration is grounded in my desire to leave behind a positive legacy. I also feel that it is my duty to combat negative stereotypes in the media that are being transmitted around the world, creating misconceptions, particularly about African-American people here in America.

In the process of photographing your subjects, particularly young people, it seems you have been able to establish a relationship with them, not only for the sake of the picture, but also in an attempt to help and mentor them. How do you do that and why is it so important to you?
My motivation to mentor my young subjects is a direct result of me having numerous mentors throughout my life. I witnessed firsthand the impact a caring individual can have on one's life. I now feel compelled to share my talents and experience with young people who oftentimes have suffered some degree of hardship in their lives. There are situations that occur in life that young people just need someone to talk to about. I listen and try to help them find realistic solutions, such as encouraging them to learn how to play chess. I feel that learning to play the game of chess can help them understand the importance of making the right choices under pressure. Secondly, teaching them photography affords them a career option and helps give them a sense of purpose.

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Regarding "A Time Before Crack," you once said that you chose to portray people that helped in the development of their communities in order to offset the negative image given by the media. Is there a political statement you want to convey through your photographs?
There are statements in my photographs that may be deemed political. As a socially conscious artist, I feel obligated to use my craft to provoke thought. I refuse to be mute at such a critical time in history. Every day we see the devastation that the war in Iraq is causing both here and abroad. Three billon dollars a week is being spent to fight the war and to rebuild in that country, when American citizens here are struggling to make ends meet. Working people here have become the new homeless. My images do convey certain messages and that is the fact that we must do better.

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Seconds of My Life is dedicated to your daughter, Nieema, and the children of her generation, born in the 1990s. You describe them as “the new visionaries, who hold the keys to make the world a better place." What makes you feel so optimistic?
With all honesty, I am not optimistic. Uncertainty better describes what I feel. In this post-crack, post-9/11 era, a lot has changed. Life as we once knew it is never going to be the same and being a parent has never been more challenging. My daughter and her generation are the most technically proficient we have ever witnessed, having an abundance of high-tech gadgets within arm's reach. However, they are faced with the possibility of going to war, being exposed to mindless television programs, gang culture, and a host of other distractions that can cause them to falter. I would like to see a better world, but realistically I don't think that it is going to happen in my daughter's generation, nor her children's.

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LEONARD FREED "BLACK IN WHITE AMERICA":
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