Several years ago I discovered the photography of Jamel
Shabazz while searching for photo resources to share with high school students that
were equipped with Kodak disposable cameras and the instructions to capture
their every day lives for an NMSU book
project titled Pages in our Minds. The Jamel Shabazz text, titled
A Time Before Crack, would become a part of my workshop curriculums
years after and in 2009, I finally got around to ordering Shabazz's text titled,
Seconds of My Life, a photo-biographical journey through the 80s, 90s
and on into the early millenium, including September 11, 2001. At the turn
of the first few pages, I paused, and for quite a while observed a photograph
subtitled, "The Kingdom of Brooklyn, 1981" (parts of the photograph are included
in the header above). I was born in 1981, and many pieces of this photo
resembled items that I'd grow to appreciate throughout my years, for example, the cassette tapes, turntable, literature, head-phones, and of
course, the chess board. I ended up scanning the image with the hope of
contacting Jamel Shabazz to learn more about the photograph and his background
with the lens. The opportunity presented itself a week before September
11, 2010, after finally finding the time and inspiration to move forward with
the request. In less than two days, questions were drafted and sent by
email for the interview you're currently viewing on this page. This is the
first interview published through HHA. Enjoy, and I encourage you to check
out more on Jamel Shabazz at the following link:
All photographs included
below are from the Seconds of My Life
text by Jamel Shabazz.
"A Change in Time, NYC"
"Mr. Gordon Parks"
"Pride, Harlem, Manhattan"
"A Day of Infamy, NYC, 2001"
"Sisters, Philadelphia, PA"
Lee Rhyanes:Your photographs
speak as loud as words, beats, films, etc… and with such a deep interest in
photography, Soul & Hip Hop culture, it’s a task thinking about which question
to begin with. We’ll start with the photograph that inspired this interview that
you have subtitled “The Kingdom, Brooklyn 1981” in your text; Jamel Shabazz,
Seconds of My Life.
Who is the individual in the photograph? And if your memory is with you on this
one, what’s coming out those headphones?
Jamel Shabazz:The person in this photograph is a close
friend of mine, by the name of Malik and we have been friends since 1976.More than likely, the side he was listening to Gil Scott Heron’s song
entitled “In the Bottle.” Malik and I both had love for his politically charged
marked the year I came into this world… There are several pieces of equipment
situated throughout the room in the picture. I’ve listed a few points in the
photograph that I’m hoping you can identify and detail. Looking back, what do
these pieces contribute to the “Kingdom” that the lens
captured in 81’?
JS:Regarding the pieces of equipment in the room, every
item is of great importance to me. All of the stereo equipment that you see was
purchased in 1979, when I was a 19 year old soldier stationed in West Germany.
The main piece is a pioneer [7”] 707 reel to reel. Also a reverb, equalizer, Technic
turntables, mixer, and a Pioneer cassette deck. The two hats on top of the
equipment were velour hats that I purchased also while in Germany.
Every item in this photograph represents
a unique part of me and some of the materialistic items I purchased while in the
military from 1977 to 1980.
LR:The stack of tapes in the background… what would we find within that
stack? With your collection of photographs that you’ve presented to the world in
the past decade… there was a lot that you must’ve decided to consciously save
early on in life. As a collector of vinyl, my interest was born out of all the
records that my family discarded over the years as music found its way into the
cassette/CD/digital world. So collecting records ends up supporting this sense
of preserving a sound and memory that has since been lost. With your
photographs, when was it that you felt the need to save as much as you could?
JS:The music on the stack of cassette tapes ranged from modern jazz
(Grover Washington, Lonnie Liston Smith, Donald Byrd, and Roy Ayers), Reggae
(Steel Pulse, Peter Tosh, and Bob Marley), and Hip Hop (The Funky Four Plus one,
Kurtis Blow, and Positive Force).
When it comes down to saving material,
I save almost everything. I have a profound love for reading so I have amassed a
vast library of books, which I started collecting in 1975. They consist
primarily of non-fiction, photography, and self improvement text.In addition, I also collect vintage magazines. I
have saved every letter that has ever been written to me, from my first love to
young men doing life in prison. Each
letter reflects a small piece of the puzzle that constitutes my life and those
that I met upon my journey.
Scanning all the activity
of the music and equipment, it took me a lil’ while at first glance to notice
that “The Kingdom” also included a chess set… What is the story behind the chess
set? For how long have you been playing the game? I understand you also
incorporate the game into many of your programs. In what ways and when
presenting the game to someone that is not familiar, how do you open that
individual or group to the game?
The marble chess board was purchased in Stuttgart, Germany in 1979. During
that same year a good friend who was also a soldier, taught me how to play the
game and chess would forever be a very intricate part of my life. The ceramic
pieces on the board were custom made for me by my aunt, who had a passion for
ceramic art. Upon
returning home from military service in 1980, I would teach all of my peers how
to play. Besides having my camera with me at all times, I also had my portable
wooden chess set. In explaining the principles of the game to potential players,
I would tell them that all great military leaders played the game to better
understand strategy and decision making. In addition, I would stress to the
student that chess was the game of life and in learning the basics fundamental
principles of the game, one could better navigate through their journeys.
In teaching a wide range of youth from different backgrounds, I explained to
them that chess is about conflict resolution. In life we are all
going to be faced with hardships at one point, so it is important to learn how
to use critical thinking in making decisions and being prepared to accept the
consequences of those decisions. Another point I explained, is that if you have
taken a loss in life, the game is never over; one has to learn how to expect the
unexpected and learn to make sacrifices in order to gain victory.
LR:As a freelance novice of photography, I’ve always had my ear open to the
knowledge of other photographers and I’m also just as interested in
understanding the next beginner’s perspective on the photographs they decide to
shoot… In photography workshops or activities that you’ve instructed… as a
teacher/mentor, what are the most important aspects that you hope to get across
to individuals or groups that are interested in carrying their interest and
craft with the lens further? In “The Kingdom”, I also noticed several text in
the background… what text would you say helped shape your discipline/philosophy
on photography and how much did your community and the life around you inspire
your view on how important your photographs were and would become?
workshops consist of exposing photography students to two award winning
documentaries that reflect international social causes, “Baraka” by Ron Fricke
and “War Photographer” by James Nachtwey. As
a teenager I was drawn to National Geographic magazine and this monthly
publication exposed me to life outside of my environment.
In reading the various articles I
learned about different countries, customs, and people from numerous regions of
the world. Besides the texts, the
photographs were spectacular and rich, which stimulated my vision and
appreciation for life. In addition, the nightly news reports on the war in
Vietnam afforded me the opportunity to see the horrors of the world, as well as
the uproar of national protests against it, in the safety of my living room. I
was intrigued with all of this visual simulation and as time would pass it would
play a major role in my life as a photographer and a conscious civilian. I often
reflect on my thinking back then and how current events played a role in my
development. Being that the majority of my students are teenagers, I would hope
that they will learn tolerance, embrace other cultures, and grow to despise
The books you see in the photograph "Kingdom," included
texts from health and nutrition, African American History, the Vietnam War,
psychology, and sociology.
LR:Several years ago, a good friend of mine,
Edgar Ramirez, passed me a text by Gordon Parks titled Voices in the Mirror,
Autobiography that he purchased while visiting South Gate, California… It was
the first time I learned about the life of Gordon Parks and his travels and
lens. Have you read this text? While you have many pictures of your time in
NYC’s boroughs, Seconds of My Life also includes pictures taken in France,
Chicago, Florida, California, etc. When did you first get the opportunity to see
other parts of the world? Do you recall the first time you brought along a
camera to shoot pictures in a new place you’ve never been? JS:
Regarding Gordon Park’s book “The Voice in the Mirror” I have not read that
particular book, but I did read his book “A Choice of Weapons” which I enjoyed.
I got my first start at traveling when I enlisted in the US. Army in 1977 and
was stationed in Swabach Gmeud, Germany for 2 ½ years. During the mid 80’s I would embark upon
a journey traveling throughout the Caribbean. In the late 90’s, my travels would
extend to England, France, Italy, Japan, Thailand, Brazil, Korea, and Morocco to
name a few.The first time I brought
along my camera and really created a body of work is when I traveled to Saint
Catherine, Jamaica and documented the local community in the hills and
mountainous regions. This body of work is very close to my heart, due to the
abundance of love that was shown to me by the people of Jamaica and some of
these photographs are included in my book “Seconds of My Life”.
LR:I’ve found a couple
of photos of individuals such as Bruce Lee and Malcolm X holding cameras and
have read about their interest in the craft of photography, but I’ve never had
the chance to see the photos they captured… Have you ever seen a photograph that
was credited to Malcolm X? In what instances have you discovered the craft of
photography through an individual that may have been known for something, but
overlooked when it came to pictures that they shot? How about amongst your own
family, were there family members that inspired you or who’s perspective on
photography you changed as a result of your work? As a child what other
influences would you say lead to your creative control of the lens?
I can’t recall ever seeing Bruce Lee with a camera. I do remember seeing Malcolm
X with one on a few occasions, but never saw any images credited to him. I
remember hearing an interview in which Malcolm spoke about losing all of his
photographs when his house was firebombed. I vividly recall hearing the pain in
his voice as he recanted that horrific experience. I believe that Malcolm’s love
for photography came from time he spent with Gordon Parks. I can only imagine
the photographs he captured! The person whose work gave me direction when I
first started, was a major official in a Brooklyn based gang called the Jolly
Stompers. His name was Cornell Reid, better known as ‘Sundance’ and he was only
about 19 years old when I meet him. I was stunned to see that he had amassed a
serious body of color photographs based entirely on his gang. When I first saw
them they were in large photo albums as big as yellow pages. Each page was filled with some of the
most intriguing images I have ever seen of a N.Y. centered gang from the 70’s.
These young men were all dapperly
dressed and posed with dignity and strength. In seeing those images, I
immediately knew I wanted to be a photographer.
In regards to my family, my
grandfather and seven of my uncles were military men. Each one of them had photo
albums of their experiences while in service. My Uncle Charlie who we shared a
two family house with, would often treat us to slide shows of his work at family
gatherings. My father who was a naval photographer during the 1950’s, also had a
vast collection of photographs from his travels throughout Europe and during his
six year tour of duty aboard the aircraft carrier, Intrepid.
LR:You have a section in Seconds of My Life titled, “Septemeber 11, 2001”… At the
time of this interview we are arriving onto the 9th year since the attack. You
have a picture titled “A Day of Infamy”, with a photographer covered in ash. Who
is this individual? The attack left a profound impact on the minds of many that
watched the news that morning miles away from New York City. At times, I’ll get
into a discussion with individuals about what they remember from 9/11 and where
they were, and how it affected them. Being over 2,000 miles away from NYC on the
border city of El Paso, it is rare to be engaged in a discussion with someone
that was born and raised in NYC and present when the towers fell. Would you
provide some background of the photos that you decided to include in Seconds of
My Life and what your recollection of responding to what had just occurred?
Where were you? How did you find out? What went through your mind throughout the
aftermath of what had just occurred?
JS:On Sept 11, 2001, at about 8:40am, I had just arrived at my job at the Supreme
Court building in lower Manhattan.A few
minutes after I arrived, one of my co-workers informed me that a small plane had
hit the World Trade Center, which was approximately 15 blocks away.Having my camera with me fully loaded with a fresh roll of film and time
to spare before my work day was scheduled to begin, I decided to make my way to
the site and get a few images and return to work.I proceeded to the site which would take me about 10 minutes. I got
within a good distance to see what was going on and I was in shock!
There were hundreds of people on the
street in a state of confusion. As I
reached about 2 blocks from the center, I was stopped by a police officer. So I
stayed where I was and starting taking photographs. I aimed towards the two
massive structures and witnessed 5 bodies falling from the upper floors. As I
trained my lens on this ghastly occurrence, I saw the impact of a large
explosion which created a massive fireball. At
that shocking moment, I remember hearing that same police officer screaming to
the crowd that had gathered “Get out of here or you are all going to die.”
Looking up in the sky I could see debris falling and coming toward us, so I ran
for my life to safety.Once I composed
myself, I returned to work.Upon
arriving all of my co-workers were gathered around the radio talking about what
had just occurred at the World Trade Center and the fact that the Pentagon had
just been attacked.At that point, I
went to a spot where there was a pretty good view of the towers and as I looked
at the smoke and fire, the first tower would collapse before my eyes. I was at a
loss for words!A few hours would pass
and I decided to travel outside to see what I could do to help.
As I made my way all you could see
within 5 block radius was black smoke, an army of police officers, firemen,
military personnel, and a few civilians that had escaped and were covered in
ash; that is when I captured the photograph of the African American male holding
2 cameras. At this time, I cannot recall his name, but he was a novice
photographer who worked for an insurance company in the vicinity. Hours later I
would be at ‘Ground Zero’ with volunteers from my command looking for signs of
life. There were none! I would spend three days at ‘Ground Zero’ rendering my
support in every way possible and only on occasion, lifting my camera to take an
important photograph. My book “Seconds of my Life” reflects some of the images I
recorded during that dreadful period.
LR:For those individuals
that are interested in learning more about your work, please provide the titles
of text that are currently available, upcoming projects and links online that
will direct people to more information.