Most photographers give Jamel Shabazz the credit and the respect that he deserves. Read that sentence again — and notice how I talk about photographers. When I use this word, I’m referring to people who genuinely care about photography as a still image and not as a reel to be thrown together and forgotten about by an algorithm. But the larger art world doesn’t seem to hold him in the reverence that truly should be given to him. His work is incredible, and more importantly, he’s been able to do things that few other photographers have ever done. What’s more, there aren’t many photographers, even today, that are trying to do what he does.
Images in this article are used with the permission of Jamel Shabazz in our previous interviews. Please follow him on Instagram.
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Jamel Shabazz is a Master Documentary Photographer
I can’t call Jamel Shabazz a photojournalist. Photojournalists often abide by terms of ethics and remain very neutral in their storytelling — though they can surely push agendas when they’re making it transparent. It’s a truly important part of what you’re trained to do in newsrooms and in college. Instead, Jamel is a master documentary photographer. The difference here is that he embedded himself in with these people for a really long time, gained their trust, and photographed them in a way that he wanted to portray. All of his photographs are posed; and he gained the trust of these people by having conversations with them, showing them the work he’s done, and so much more.
Of course, there’s work by Jamel that’s also considered street photography. The distinctions are important, because they build up on how you interact with your subjects, treat them, etc. And ultimately, they help with community building around who you are as a photographer.
In Jamel’s spirit, a photographer that I’ve seen do something similar is Jens Krauer (@urbanframes), who we’ve talked to when he stayed in Bed-Stuy, documenting the people there. He still keeps in contact with those people and does trips where he lives amongst them all and integrates into their culture rather than just observing. Xyza Cruz Bacani (@xyzacruzbacani)is another who often builds deep relationships with her subjects, even calling them her family at times. Where Xyza’s work feels more candid, and Jens’s is a combination, they’re both channeling Jamel’s spirit of becoming one with the people that they work with.
This type of work is incredibly important to storytelling — ICP recently did an exhibit featuring Gregory Halpern, Raymond Meeks, and Vasantha Yogananthan, who did exactly this. In many ways, integration often tells a story from the perspective of an insider, where photojournalism tells it from the outside looking in. Jamel’s work is never from the outside looking in.
The Long Game of Building Rapport and Legacy
Back in 2022, Jamel told us the story of the two women in the photograph above. He said:
The first image was made during the summer of 1981, on an uptown Number 2 train in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. What I discovered early on as a photographer was, that people who are dressed fashionably tend to be more open to being photographed. In the case of these two women, I noticed them immediately when they got on the train, particularly due to their matching outfits. Having my Canon AE1 out and properly set, I approached them introducing myself and complimenting them on their beautiful look. Once I got their trust, I asked if I could photograph them standing up against the pole so that I could get a full view of their outfits; both agreed without reservation.Jamel Shabazz
They never followed up with him when he gave them his business card. But Jamel has actively posted about how he’s kept up with the people that he’s photographed over the years. It’s an important part of the relationship process that is highly underlooked. When some of the people pass away, he will post about them on social media — which not only shows his character, but also displays how he worked to maintain those relationships.
Notice how I’m using the word relationships. A lot of it is building a rapport and maintaining it. I can think of tons of people that I’ve worked with briefly that I never kept in touch with or vice versa despite my efforts. Those folks disappear. But with Jamel, they stuck around. In 2021, he told us about how he even went about dusting off his cameras when many of his friends and the people he knew started to pass away. But instead of shooting again, he worked to teach people what it’s like to shoot and all the ins and outs of photography.
The Power of Face to Face Connections
Perhaps most importantly, there’s a cadence to what Jamel does with making face-to-face connections. It’s something that we don’t do these days because we don’t slow down. And obviously, it’s a far different time period than when Jamel was making most of his images. But here’s how I look at it these days:
- If you’re just trying to get a fleeting task done, then there is no really big reason to do much beyond virtual meetings, emails, calls, etc. If this is the case, then treat it as a task or a chore.
- If you’re trying to build a long-term relationship, then a face-to-face connection can be much more important. Calls can work in this case, but meeting for coffee, dinner, or something else can help with connection building between you and the other person.
In modern photography, we’re not taught this enough when you’re starting out. But as you become more advanced, you start to understand why this is such a big part of things. Modern marketing like to call it community building or building a fan-base. But this is all actually about building a symbiotic relationship. A community doesn’t necessarily do that — Sony’s Kando trip might seem cool, but it’s really contingent on a few things that they deem fit. That’s not a symbiotic relationship.
In contrast, consistently going to a set of art and photo openings at a gallery or a museum where you can meet with the curators and continue to build relationships is part of community building and a symbiotic relationship if you find ways to help one another. For Jamel, it was all about taking pictures of people and delivering them to folks. And over the years, he did much more by actually keeping in touch with these folks and being there for them.
I truly hope that this sort of engagement doesn’t end with his era of photographers.