FOr decades, photographer Jamal Shabazz used his camera to communicate with him New York The city’s diverse communities, producing iconic images of topics as diverse as the rise of hip-hop culture, the imprisonment of blacks, the innocence of children playing in the streets, and gay pride celebrations. Until September 4, the Bronx Museum of Art celebrates Shabazz with Eyes on the Streets, a retrospective that covers more than 40 years of the photographer’s work.
Shabazz pictures touching their intimate relationship. Unlike many street photographers, Shabazz tends to photograph his subjects looking directly into the viewfinder, their eyes flattering, and their poses and facial expressions form an instant connection with viewers. This intimacy comes from the long encounters that often precede the photograph itself, as Shabazz approaches his subjects on the street and initiates a conversation before photographing them. “It takes time to make people feel comfortable and to get them to that point,” he told the Guardian. And then the pictures become evidence of the conversation. The key is really communication. When you approach someone with good intentions, they feel it.”
The bonds Shabazz forms through his work can last a lifetime, as it is common to hear from the people he photographed decades ago – or those people’s children. Sometimes the form that reconnection takes is exciting. He said, “On my social media, I recently posted a picture of a man walking alongside his pregnant wife and their baby in a stroller. He wrote to me and told me that his wife had just passed away last year, and this picture means the world to him.”
These personal relationships are rooted in the vulnerabilities presented in Eyes on the Streets. A Time of Innocence, one of Shabazz’s most famous photographs, shows a group of black children in and around a shopping cart on a sidewalk in Flatbush. From the uncomfortable road in which three children perch in the body of the carriage, to the shy, humble child leaning on it, to the confident child looming on tiptoe, the picture seems carefree and authentic. Cases of play and emotional openness are common in Shabazz’s work, his subjects often appearing with a glint in their eyes or a thoughtful smile that reaches the viewer and evokes sympathy.
The work in Eyes on the Streets is notable for piercing the facade of masculinity, a goal of Shabazz. “In my pictures, you see young men cuddling each other,” he said. “It was so important to me to get that handshake, that hug, to show that love and that unity. I wanted to capture the love and the smiles and the joy.” In Shabazz’s famous images of hip-hop culture in the 1980s, it is usual to see dramatic group portraits that erase the typical sanctuary of youth and replace them with exuberance. Even in a more popular image such as The Kings of Queens, which shows three boys trying to appear imposing, the expected bravado is replaced by something akin to contemplation or uncertainty, giving the image a sense of alienation and an existential allure. Then there’s the noteworthy inclusion of “The Father and the Seed,” from 2014; This shot of two black men holding young children radiates a sense of nurturing and gentleness.
Shabazz, who has worked for the New York City Department of Corrections for 20 years, is a wonderful chronicler of life behind bars. Inside The House of Pain, taken in 1985 on Rikers Island, a black man appears talking on the phone; With lines and stains obscured by the window we see through, the sarcastic motto on his shirt stands out more than ever: Alive with Pleasure. This image is shown alongside the 1999 film Inside the Belly of the Beast, in which a prisoner is framed by the hatch that allows elements from the outside world to penetrate behind the bars of his cell. Here, Shabazz skillfully uses a fisheye lens, making the subject appear more isolated and causing the prison cell bars to expand seemingly indefinitely.
During his years in the correction department, Shabazz made a habit of taking pictures while walking to and from work, and the human connections he found in this way became an essential correction of what he encountered on his job. “I’ve been working in a very negative, violent and hateful atmosphere for most of my life,” he said. “So when I came home I was looking for love because I was working in a war environment.” Shabazz has also used his photography to bring hope to the lives of young people who face decades behind bars. “A lot of the pictures I took I would have put her in prison. I showed them what hope and joy looks like, what a family looks like. This work was done with the intention of getting it into the facility, to use that language to connect people.”
Now 61, Shabazz has turned inward, not photographing much in favor of revisiting his archives to stoke his memory. He said, “Through my photos, I can relive the moments that are now gone forever, and that brings me great joy. A lot has changed since I started. I like to look at places that no longer exist.” Shabazz has also turned to his previous work because, after Covid and the rise of smartphone culture, it can be difficult to get close to the topics and engage in the handshakes and hearty hugs that were a mainstay of his practice.
Perhaps this is a good time for Eyes on the Streets, the first museum survey of Shabazz’s work. Although a long time has passed, the photographer thinks the Bronx Museum is the place to be. “It means the world to me to be out there in the Bronx where it’s free to the public and it’s at the heart of the community,” he said. The show is a precious opportunity to experience the hope and joy that Shabazz has dedicated himself to finding despite the harsh realities of life. This work was not only a means of spreading meaning to others, but also a means of spreading meaning to oneself. “I’m shooting because I want to know more about why I’m on this path of life,” he said. “I think we met for a reason. I learn a lot from the people I meet, and I really believe in angels.”