Contact High: Jamel Shabazz On Shooting The Subway

In the series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with the photographers who have played a critical role in shaping hip hop imagery. These interviews offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.

Getting access to the original, unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and look directly through the shooter’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a highly personal visual diary. Negatives on a roll of analog film allow these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to catch the “money shot.”

We caught up with legendary photographer Jamel Shabazz to take us through one of his rarely seen color contact sheets in celebration of street portraiture and the very essence of the everyday people….

Brooklyn, 1982

The contact sheet has a DNA of it’s own.”

Take a walk with Jamel Shabazz. Frame by frame. That’s what this rarely seen color contact sheet allows one to do: step into his thought process and bear witness to life in all of its little details. Many of the photos on the contact sheet were taken on the uptown 2 train, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Other frames capture tender moments of love, stylized bravado and human light. There’s an adage that says “See the light in others and treat them as if that’s all you see.” Shabazz, capturing the style and humanity of defining moments in the New York streets, does exactly that.

Way before “street style” was a thing and subculture became a commodity, Shabazz’s pictures consciously captured New York urban life of the 1980s and beyond. To call Shabazz a provocateur is to only see part of the story. In his own humble assessment, Shabazz sees himself as a community documentarian, having taken a steady stream of photographs of the New York streets for over 40 years. Growing up in the Red Hook projects and in Flatbush during the ’60s and ’70s, he recalls being surrounded by images—Life magazine and National Geographic were constant in his home. His father, a Naval combat photographer, had cameras and equipment around the house. Shabazz became fascinated with engaging in a visual conversation with the city.  

At the age of 15, Shabazz borrowed his mother’s Instamatic camera, taking it along to junior high school to photograph his friends, thus planting the seeds of a rich documentation of the black urban experience. Following a stint in the army, Shabazz became a corrections officer at Rikers Island in 1983 and worked there for 20 years, photographing the streets after his shift, many of his subjects young men from around the way who Shabazz says “represented my ‘younger brothers’.”

The Shoot

Each shot has a backstory of its own, and all hold personal meaning for me. What I find most interesting as I look at this contact sheet is that, oftentimes I would only take one shot per subject, putting my faith in my ability to get the image right the first time. I followed this practice because, at times I may not have always had the funds to buy film, so every squeeze of the shutter release had to be on point. I would also have to say that the images which really stand out for me on this sheet, are the three taken on the train in sequence. These photographs in particular, reflect the look and feel of a city and are of people that are so close to my heart. I have endless memories of exchanges with the people I met and traveled with on trains, similar to the ones in these photographs.

The Shot

The shot was taken on the uptown # 2 train, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn circa 1982. It was used in my first book, “Back in the Days.”

One of the joys of being an image maker, is placing myself in a position to engage my subjects in conversation, whenever possible. As my subject or subjects were standing before me and as I looked through my viewfinder, I would often speak about the greatness I saw in them. These words were sincere and meant to instill greater appreciation for self love.  One thing I have observed over time, is that words can  break or make a person and I have witnessed the effects of both .  So, whenever the opportunity presents itself, I make it a point to share words of upliftment and encouragement  by telling people that I see their greatness, as I would take their photograph. It was a powerful seed that was used to instill a greater sense of self.

I can can honestly say, that the majority of my subjects were very keen on how they wanted to be represented and I wanted them to play a major role in that decision.  They knew that once I recorded their image it was going to be placed in the annals of history, so there was a lot of thought put into every session; from setting up the right pose to finding a suitable backdrop.

The Camera Nerd Out

During that time I used a Canon AE1 program with standard 50 mm 1.8 lens. I was trained to use available light, so very rarely would I have a flash unit.

The Q+A

At 19, you met the leader of the Jolly Stompers from Brownsville who also happened to be an amateur photographer. Tell us about that experience. How did it come about? At what point did the two of you talk photography and how did that interaction influence your evolution as a photographer?

Actually, I was around 15 at the time. Cornell Reid, aka Sundance was a major figure in the Brooklyn based gang called the Bad Ass Stompers. They were a division of the Jolly Stompers, a noted gang that has roots going back to the 1950s.  Along with them was also a female division called the Jolly Steppers.   Their members were a combination of African American and Caribbean descent.  

My introduction to Cornell came by way of his cousin Winston, who was a good friend of mine and classmate, in junior high school. One day he invited me to accompany him to meet Cornell at his apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn; just a short walking distant from our neighborhood. I was very eager to meet Cornell, because Winston had spoken so highly of him over the years; sharing all the things he taught him from self defense to street survival. When I first met Sundance, I was surprised by his warm and friendly demeanor, as he did not strike me as a gang leader, much less one holding the position of  ‘warlord.’ His rank indicated that he had to be ‘official’ on all levels. He was only about 19 at the time and  the son of Caribbean parents; spending his earlier years in England.  Entering his small duplex apartment, I was impressed by the ambience as I clearly remember Kool and the Gang’s song “Caribbean Festival,” playing on the turntable.  For reasons unknown to me, the Stompers  had a great love for the music of Kool and the Gang.

I sat in total awe observing the relationship between Winston and his cousin, as they spoke about family and other various topics. During a moment of pause and with Cornell’s approval, Winston handed me a thick photo album approximately the size of a traditional telephone directory.  Upon opening it up,  I was blown away looking at well posed and dapperly dressed members of both the Jolly Stompers and the Bad Ass Stompers.  There were countless pages of professional looking ‘4 x 6″ black and white and color photographs; most being group shots of members  standing erect and looking very serious. They wore freshly oiled beaver hats, sharkskin two piece suits, and an assortment of footwear; from Playboys to Pumas and Adidas Sneakers. To complete their outfits, some were adorned with designer gold framed glasses and a number of them, with gold capped tooth fillings.

Many of these shots, were taken in front of the famed  “President Chateau Night Club,” which was their number one spot for clubbing back then.  Other locations included, Wingate High School and inside Lincoln Terrence Park where they held their meetings. These were by far the best photographs I have ever seen, ’til this very day, not just of the Jolly Stompers, but also of any gang in general. For such young men, they seemed to have been ahead of their time. That one encounter, propelled me further to want to become a photographer and create images that mirrored what Cornell made.

In the years that followed, I lost contact with Winston, but  would always search out Cornell. I wanted to share with him, the impact he had on my life and to discuss his classic photographs, in hopes of having that history preserved; but to no avail. In the early 1990’s I would learn that he had been in a bad accident and was paralyzed; getting around only in a wheelchair. I found a very short piece of him on YouTube, taken at a Jolly Stomper/ Dowoop Reunion, briefly  reciting various street names he would go by. I would later learn, that he had passed away.    

Many people may not be aware of your photography practice while working as a corrections officer at Rikers. Can you talk a bit about that?

My decision to become a correction officer was guided by my father, who suggested to me at twenty years of age,  to take the tests for every major city job that was hiring, that I qualified for. Like many from his generation, they saw city and government employment  as a gateway to financial and economic stability. So during the 1980s, I applied for a number of jobs ranging from the post office, to  the Transit Authority and the Correction Department. In 1982, as fate would have it, all three agencies contacted me with notifications that I had passed their exams. The department of Correction seemed to have some of the best health and retirement benefits at the time, so I decided that would be the best path for me.

After meeting all of the required qualifications  and completing the academy, I was assigned to Rikers Island, one of the largest jail complexes in the country.  At the time the overall jail population was about 11,000,  housed in 6 main jails. My first assignment was ARDC, better known as “Gladiator School.” This facility consisted of pretrial adolescent detainees from throughout the 5 boroughs of the city. My first week was an eye opener as I was truly taken aback by the massive amounts of young people, predominantly of Black and Hispanic descent, who were incarcerated; the vast majority indigent and unable to make bail.

What I was most alarmed by, was the atmosphere of pure hate and disregard for life. Every single day there were fights, slashings, and stabbings, in addition to the air of racial tension between many Blacks and Hispanics. The jail itself, carried a constant scent of decomposing rodents and second hand cigarette smoke, which made the conditions even worse, especially for a non-smoker like myself. A typical housing area could consist of 60 or more detainees divided on two sides, with two or three officers on duty. The atmosphere was always unpredictable, with a survival of the wisest and fittest type atmosphere.

Within a few months of my hiring, crack cocaine was introduced and the jail population soared, escalating the negative conditions even more. It was very troubling for me  to see so many people of color and my community falling prey to the system. Unbeknownst to some, there is a thin line between a correction officer and detainee in that, in most cases we came from the same neighborhoods and went to the same schools together. I saw a number of people I knew from various aspects of my life locked up. There were quite a bit of really good people, who for whatever reason fell victim to the system, and in some cases were falsely arrested.

I came on the job, understanding my higher calling and purpose in life and I executed it by trying to use my voice to inspire peace and unity.  That work is reflected in my photographs, even before I became an officer.  So my work, which was now in a controlled environment, provided me with greater reach. Every chance I got, I tried to guide and encourage anyone that was sincere and willing to elevate themselves and during that process I met a number of positive individuals that were determined to transform their lives.

Lack of funds and outside activity were key components to a lot of the problems within the cell blocks.  So, I worked hard to get young men jobs  within the facility; either in the mess hall which employed a lot of inmate help or other areas that utilized detainees and paid them. One of the things I observed about this atmosphere was that if you lacked funds, you were more apt to steal or rob another detainee.  Being confined to violent situations, frustration, and constantly being challenged, led to many altercations. So, employment and outside activity served as a way to cut back on the tension. Despite all efforts to prevent it, suicide was a common occurrence.  The violence and fear were ever so present and some could not cope, so they chose death over a life of fear and degradation. Mental illness was another key factor and today, reports have indicated that over 40% of inmates incarcerated on Rikers Island, suffer from mental illness.

As an officer, I went to work everyday with a desire to provide guidance and direction  The task wasn’t easy, but I remained steadfast and focused. During my time there, I managed to touch the lives of countless men and women through my interactions, just as they have touched my mine.

Photography was an outlet that provided me with an escape from the misery and despair I dealt daily with at work.  It would help me processes all of the events that would haunt me from the days’ events. Some of my most important photographs are of young me I would reconnect with on the street, who would tell me how much of a positive influence I had on their lives while they were incarcerated and enduring some of the most challenging moments of their lives.

You’ve said in an interview at Shomburg Center that Gil Scott Heron was an inmate at Rikers while you worked there. Tell us a bit about that interaction? I understand it left you somewhat heartbroken?

I started listening to Gil Scott Heron during the mid 1970’s as a teenager.  It was his insightful song at the time “In the Bottle,” that caught my attention.  From that moment on, I was inclined towards everything he created. During the 1980s, Gil was hot and performing a lot of gigs in NYC.  The first chance I got, when I came home from the army, I went to see him perform live at the famed Village Vanguard and the Blue Note; photographing him up close and personal. It was his socially conscious songs that provided me with a glimpse into the world of substance abuse and governmental policies and I first learned of  apartheid through Gil’s album, “From South Africa to South Carolina.”

Unfortunately, Gil and I would later cross paths under some of the worse circumstances. In the year 2000, while at work, in the Supreme Court in Manhattan, I received a phone call from a coworker, informing me that Gil was in Central Booking being arraigned.  Without hesitation, I left my post and  went to see him which was a short distance away. Upon my arrival, I observed him stretched out on a bench looking extremely thin, and non communicative. He had succumb to much of what he sang about over the years and I was so pained seeing him in such a broken state. I chose not disturb him from his rest nor, did I pass judgment on him, but when I left him I felt a bit of sadness. I would go on to see him one other time during a court appearance and he would eventually go on to be sentenced to a one to three year bid in state prison. Interestingly enough, this was only a few years after his CD “Spirits” came out, which dealt with his internal struggle to combat his own personal demons of substance abuse. It brought to mind his 1988 song “The Prisoner,” which reminds me of those broken and struggling souls who endure the harshness of incarceration and solitary confinement in particular. I  would go on to listen to it almost every day, during my 20 year career, as I made my way to and from work each day. Gil is no longer here in the flesh, but his music and legacy lives on today and I hold a great respect for him as a socially conscious artist.

Tell us about your upcoming book with Damiani.

The book is entitled “Sights in the city: New York Street Photographs.” This particular body of work is centered on my street photography here in New York City between 1980 – 2016; the overwhelming  majority of which, have never been published. Having been noted as a street photographer, I felt that it was time to produce a monograph solely on that genre of photography. I initially shopped the idea to a couple of publishers to no avail.  So, through author and photography enthusiast, Marla Hamburg Kennedy, I was connected  with Andreas, editor of Damiani Books; who almost instantly agreed to do the book upon viewing my proposal and seeing the images. The book itself consists of over 120 black and white and color photographs. Some, I selected in the earlier chapter of the book were just recently re-discovered in my archives. They consist of  photographs from my days documenting prostitution and alcohol addiction on the Lower East Side, along with a series I made on 42 Street/ Times Square aka ‘The Deuce,’ during the early 80’s. Unlike my past books, the majority of the photographs selected for this project are spontaneous moments, with the exception of a few classic environmental portraits. More current photographs were made with a digital SLR camera. Filmmaker and street photographer Cheryl Dunn, who produced the great documentary “Everybody Street,” conducted an interview with me, which is in the book and Marla Hamburg Kennedy wrote the introduction. I am very grateful to Damiani Books and Andreas for green-lighting this project and I feel very optimistic about it and look forward to sharing it with universe. 


How did you decide where to shoot? Did you always carry a camera with you?

I was very strategic in picking locations to shoot at and I had a number of places that I  frequently traveled to on a weekly basis. During the week, I would go to two local high schools; Tilden in the morning and Erasmus in the afternoon.  Both were just minutes away from each other and had an endless number of students that were open to have exchanges with me. After the school session, I would travel downtown Brooklyn, a major conduit that was always full of activity and subjects. There, the famed Albee Square Mall became my primary base of operation,  where one third of my earlier photographs were created. During the weekend, my favorite spot was Times Square;  42nd Street. A place where there was never a dull moment, especially during the summer months.  For many of the urban communities, that was like our Hollywood. Shooting there allowed me to meet and photograph people from all of the five boroughs, as well as those from out of town.

Another favorite spot was the surrounding area of the lower east side of Manhattan. I would often start my journey around  Bowery Street, where I would converse and photograph prostitutes and men struggling with alcohol addiction. I would  then proceed just a few blocks east to Orchard and Delancey Streets.  Back then, that was a place to not only shop for the latest gear, but a central place to photograph the young shoppers from many New York neighborhoods. The camera became a part of my being.  It is my third eye, that is always with me, and at the ready.         

What was the process of looking at the contact sheets like? Did you develop the film yourself? Was there obvious stand-out shots?

For me looking at contact sheets allowed me to see the sequence of events that happen during the creation of a roll of film.  The contact sheet has a DNA of it’s own, in that  I can see my thought process, errors in lighting and composition, and winning images. As a young photographer, I wasn’t 100% comfortable in processing my own film, so I would go to a professional lab and get contact sheets made. From that point, I would then make 8 x 10″ prints in my makeshift darkroom.   

What made you first want to become a photographer and who were your inspirations?

During my early days, I was inspired by a wide range of photographers;  Magnum founder and war photographer Robert Capa, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullins, Tim Page, Leonard Freed, and my father. The majority of my friends were emerging graffiti artists.  I found great delight in tagging with them in the beginning, but it was something about taking making images that really resonated with me, just having the ability to freeze a moment in time, and interact with people was rewarding.

Do you still shoot analog?

Yes, I still shoot analog and my primary camera is a Contact G2 range finder, which I use mainly for black and white street photography, it’s a compact camera with a sharp lens.

How do you decide which images to share on Instagram?

My decision to post varies from moment to moment. There are times in which I post images to provoke thought, or it could be nostalgic in nature or  a current issue such as injustice. My primary objective is to post images that inspire feelings of love and hope. Viewing  photography as a universal language, I have at my fingertips and thought process,  the ability to inspire people from around the globe, in a world so full of war and sorrow. Mostly, I feel a great sense of duty to post stimulating images.

Follow Jamel Shabazz on Instagram and website. Check out his monographs Back in the Days (2001), A Time Before Crack (2005) and Represent: Photographs from 1980–2012.

The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.

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