Jamel Shabazz: Legendary Street Photographer

The 80s was a troubling time for New Yorkers. There was gang violence, the rise of drugs such as crack cocaine and not to mention poverty for people of color. The city was dirty and dangerous and through it, emerged a kid with a Canon AE-1 photographing this time. This was Jamel Shabazz. He was a young charismatic photographer born and raised in Brooklyn. At 15 years old he picked up his first camera and inspired by the works of Leonard Freed, James Van Der Zee, and Gordon Parks, he began taking documenting his world.

This was quite an easy transition for him because he was always a person who got along with everyone in his neighborhood from families to even rival gang members. He photographed friends and acquaintances who later became friends. His style consisted of spontaneous and posed photos. He often asked his subjects to pose themselves however they wanted in real locations. His camera and composition rang true to real life because of this and it made his photos feel more like a collaborative effort. It gave these people a visceral feel like they jump out of the frame and focusing on the positivity of some of the more dangerous and poverty-stricken neighborhoods helped break down racial barriers and stereotypes.

Rush Hour 1988

Now in his 60s, Shabazz continues to inspire others with words of encouragement. I personally have shared correspondence with him and he shared a couple wise words with me about being an artist. When I asked for what advice he would give to new photographers he said this “Focus your lens on issues that are close to your heart.” We often lose sight of what moves us, be that in a positive or negative light. Being aware of these issues in our lives and having the bravery to highlight them to others should be the main goal of any aspiring street photographer. Jamel Shabazz’s work can now be seen at The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Flying High 1982

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