Jamel Shabazz was an Army soldier, stationed in Germany for three years, before returning home to Brooklyn, New York, in 1980. He began taking pictures around the city as a way to make up for lost time and save new memories.
“I went on a mission to document everything around me, from my friends to high school students, landscapes and just everyday people,” the 61-year-old told QCity Metro.
What was initially a hobby became his contribution to capturing a history of Black culture, one photo at a time.
On Friday, Shabazz will debut “Reflection of a People: Photographs from the Archive of Jamel Shabazz,” an exhibition of photos detailing Black lives over the last 40 years.
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Located at the Gantt Center, the exhibition will feature more than 53 framed works and 40 additional photos in a digital slide show from 1980 to 2020.
Shabazz said his life took a turn at age 15, when his parents divorced. He would often find himself in trouble and enlisted in the Army to get away. Photography, he said, gave him a clear purpose once he returned to Brooklyn.
“It seems that once I embraced photography, the camera became a compass, which helped me to navigate through life,” he said.
Shabazz drew inspiration from noted studio and documentary photographers, most influentially Leonard Freed for his visual storytelling and documentary photography in the book “Black in White America.”
“[His work] exposed me to a world of racism and discrimination and also became the cornerstone for my photographic practices,” he said.
Shabazz roamed the streets and subways of New York to document the various aspects of life in the city.
In the mid-1980s, as the crack cocaine epidemic, HIV/AIDS and violence were wreaking havoc on Black communities, Shabazz shifted his focus to youth in the city, using his photography as a way to connect with them.
“In most cases, that drew them to me, and once I got their attention, I would speak about the importance of education, healthy living and being mindful of the pitfalls out in the streets,” he said.
Over the decades, Shabazz’s work has been featured in exhibitions across the country and around the world, including in Argentina, England, Italy, Germany, France and Japan.
In the past 10 years, he has had more than two dozen solo exhibitions including “Men of Honor,” “A Time Before Crack,” “Pieces of a Man,” “Represent,” “When Two Worlds Meet,” “Back in the Days” and “Seconds of my Life.”
Shabazz said his inspiration for “Reflection of a People” came from W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1900 Exposition Universelle exhibition, a project that featured more than 100 photographs organized to shatter racist, stereotypical images being shown of Black people around the world.
“I feel a great sense of duty to do my part as a documentarian by making sure that the underrepresented communities and people have a place in the annals of history,” he said.
Reflection of a People will be on display at the Gantt Center through March 6, 2022.
In keeping with pandemic protocols, visitors are asked to practice social distancing and wear face coverings.