FFor decades, photographer Jamel Shabazz has used his camera to connect with New York’s diverse communities, producing iconic images of topics as varied as the emergence of hip-hop culture, black incarceration, innocence of children playing in the streets and gay pride. celebrations. Until September 4, the Bronx Museum of the Arts is celebrating Shabazz with Eyes on the Streets, a retrospective spanning more than 40 years of the photographer’s work.
Shabazz’s photographs are powerful in their intimacy. Unlike many street photographers, Shabazz tends to photograph his subjects looking directly into the camera lens, their eyes beckoning, their postures and facial expressions forming an instant connection with the viewers. This intimacy comes from the long encounters that often precede the photo itself, with Shabazz approaching his subjects on the street and engaging in conversation before photographing them. “It takes time for people to feel comfortable and to get them to that point,” he told the Guardian. “And then the photographs become the evidence of the conversation. The key really is communication. When you approach someone with good intentions, they feel it.
The bonds Shabazz forms through his work can last a lifetime, as it’s common for him to hear from people he photographed decades ago – or those people’s children. Sometimes the form this reconnection takes is dramatic. “On my social media,” he said, “I recently posted a photo of a man walking alongside his pregnant wife and their baby in a horse-drawn carriage. He wrote to me and told me says his wife had just died last year, and this photo meant the world to him.
These personal and deeply rooted relationships are reflected in the vulnerability exhibited in Eyes on the Streets. A Time of Innocence, one of Shabazz’s most iconic photos, shows a group of black children posed in and around a shopping cart on a sidewalk in Flatbush. From the quirky way three of the children sit in the body of the cart, to the shy and modest child leaning against it, to the confident child standing on tiptoe, the image comes across as carefree and authentic. Instances of playfulness and emotional openness are common in Shabazz’s work, with his subjects frequently showing a glint in the eye or a knowing smile that reaches the viewer and evokes empathy.
The work in Eyes on the Streets is notable for the way it breaks through the facade of masculinity, a goal of Shabazz. “In my photographs, you see young men kissing,” he said. “It was very important to me to have these handshakes, these hugs, to show this love and this unity. I wanted to capture the love, the smiles and the joy. In Shabazz’s famous photos of hip culture -hop of the 80s, it’s typical to see dramatic group photos that erase the typical reserve of young men and replace it with exuberance.Even a more standard photo like The Kings of Queens, showing three b-boys trying to appear imposing, the expected swagger is replaced by something closer to contemplation or uncertainty, giving the image a sense of weirdness and existential appeal.And then there’s the remarkable inclusion of Father & Seeds, from 2014; this photo of two black men holding young children exudes a sense of caring and gentleness.
Shabazz, who worked in the New York Correctional Service for 20 years, is a terrific chronicler of life behind bars. Inside the House of Pain, taken in 1985 at Rikers Island, shows a black man talking on the phone; with his face obscured by streaks and stains on the window through which he is seen, the tongue-in-cheek slogan on his tee shirt stands out all the more: Alive with Pleasure. This photo is on display with 1999’s Inside the Belly of the Beast, in which an imprisoned man is framed by the slit that allows objects from the outside world to enter behind the bars of his cell. Here, Shabazz deftly uses a fish-eye lens, which makes the subject even more isolated and makes the bars of the prison cell stretch seemingly endlessly.
During Shabazz’s years working for the Department of Corrections, he usually photographed on his way to and from work, and the human connections he thus found became an essential corrective to what he encountered in his work. “I have worked in an extremely negative, violent and hateful atmosphere for much 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 men facing decades behind bars. “A lot of the footage I took, I would bring to jail. I showed them what hope and joy looked like, what family looked like. This work was done with the intention of bringing it into establishment, to use this language to connect people.
Now 61, Shabazz has withdrawn into himself, photographing less often in favor of revisiting his archives to fuel his memory. “Through my photographs, I can relive moments that are now gone forever,” he said, “and that brings me great joy. So many things have changed since I started. I like looking at places that no longer exist. Shabazz also looked to his earlier work because post-Covid and the rise of smartphone culture, it can be harder to bring up topics and engage in the handshakes and warm hugs that have been the mainstay of his practice.
This makes it perhaps the perfect time for Eyes on the Streets, which is the first museum study of Shabazz’s work. Although it’s been a while, the photographer thinks the Bronx Museum is a suitable place. “It means the world to me to have it over 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 has not only been a way to give meaning to others, but also to himself. “I photograph because I want to know more about why we followed this life path,” he said. “I believe we met for a reason. I learn so much from the people I meet and I truly believe in angels.