Exploring Jamal Shabazz's candid photographs of 80s New York
Who? Born in 1960, American photographer Jamel Shabazz was raised on the streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. He was frequently exposed to violent and disturbing imagery during his formative years, but at the age of 15 discovered a means of escapism when he picked up a camera and began to document his own view of the world. "It allowed me an opportunity to have a voice and use my voice in a way that could inspire love and unity," he explains. When he turned 17, he spent three years with the US army in Germany before returning to New York to work as a correctional officer – a career he pursued for the next 20 years. Throughout these years, Shabazz kept his camera close to hand, documenting the New York streets, and the young people to whom he devoted his time, and creating a candid visual journal of the era.
What? Now a new exhibition at Hardhitta Gallery, Cologne, allows the public to explore a wonderful selection of Shabazz's works, with a specific focus on those taken during the 1980s. New York was a tough environment in that decade, punctuated by gang warfare, drugs and frequent police raids, but out of the darkness grew a new generation of artists, bent on the expression of the social and political injustices of the African-American community. It was this spirited youth that Shabazz befriended and photographed (many considered him a mentor) and as such his works exude a rare honesty and openness that is utterly captivating. A group of girls peer out of the window of a crowded subway train, flashing cheeky smiles at the viewer; a boy is captured high in the air – upside-down, mid-backflip – above a pile of tattered matresses in a shot aptly titled, Determination.
Why? Shabazz is celebrated as one of the key documenters of New York street culture in the 1980s, and with good reason, his iconic images capturing the vibrant energy and prevailing sense of hope, like no other. Shabazz once expressed that his goal is to contribute to the preservation of world history and culture, and that is just what is achieved here as one finds oneself transported to a bygone era with vivid intensity.
Jamel Shabazz: Refections from the 80s is at Hardhitta Gallery, Cologne until March 29.