Jamel Shabazz

Profile Jamel Shabazz: The eye of NYC’s Streets

© Jamel Shabazz

“To be a great street photographer, in my opinion, one needs to have curiosity, patience, respect, empathy, and a clear vision.” – Jamel Shabazz

─── by Josh Bright, September 1, 2022
  • World-renowned Brooklyn-born photographer, Jamel Shabazz has spent the last four decades capturing the essence of life in his home city.

    Street photography by Jamel Shabazz, portrait, children
    'A time of innocence' Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1981

    Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1981, a group of children pose, crammed in a shopping cart, their youthful vivacity, and innocence, perfectly captured. It is one of Shabazz’s most iconic images, one that embodies the distinct style for which he is renowned.

    Born and raised in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, in 1960, Shabazz grew up in a creative household. As a teenager, his home permeated with the sound of soul and early disco, and was filled with magazines like National Geographic and Life, along with a litany of books encompassing everything from politics to photography (including Leonard Freed’s landmark 1968 monograph, ‘Black and White in America’, which had a significant impact on the young man). 

    Street photography by Jamel Shabazz, portrait of men on subway, Brooklyn, 1980
    'Trio', Brooklyn, NYC, 1980
    Street photography by Jamel Shabazz, portrait of man with boombox, Brooklyn, NYC. C 1980
    Radio Man, Flatbush, Brooklyn, c. 1980

    These diverse strands helped shape Shabazz’s sensibility and inspired him to first pick up a camera, aged fifteen, encouraged by his father, who was himself a photographer.

    “He always had a camera around his neck and when he began to teach me the craft, he stressed that I should carry my camera everywhere, have the cap off, and aperture and shutter set for any occasion; as you never know when you will see something that will capture your eye.”

    Street photography by Jamel Shabazz, boys flipping on mattress
    'Flying High', Brooklyn, 1982

    At the age of 17, Shabazz enlisted in the military and was sent to Germany. He returned to New York three years later, at the turn of the 1980s, a key moment in contemporary US culture. The Hip hop movement (which encompassed music, dance, and fashion) had exploded across some of the inner city neighborhoods, though, simultaneously, industrial decline and stagnation had led to high unemployment, societal erosion, and an increase in crime, engendering a crack epidemic which blighted a number of his childhood friends.

    Driven by a desire to ‘honor & elevate the young people in his community’, Shabazz took to the sidewalks, public squares, and subways of his local area with his new Canon Ae1 35mm camera in hand (a leaving gift from the military), and photographed his compatriots with honesty, artistry, and respect.

    Street photography by Jamel Shabazz, man playing with dog, NYC, 1980
    'Man and Dog', Lower East Side, 1980
    Street photography by Jamel Shabazz,
    Back to the World, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 1982
    Street photography portrait by Jamel Shabazz. Boys, NYC, 1980
    Pool Days, Brownsville, 1980

    Switching between a 28mm wide angle lens, for more candid dynamic shots, and a 50mm, for portraiture, he captured striking images imbued with optimism. The latter was the product of a ‘collaboration’ with his subjects, usually captured after a short, but deep conversation, in which Shabazz would extol the importance of choosing ‘the right path’.

    As a local, who understood the vernacular of the neighborhood – the style, body language, and slang – he was afforded trust, and thus, a closeness that allowed him to capture his subjects with rare veracity. His young subjects are empowered by their experience, conveying a strong sense of pride and confidence.

    Street photography portrait by Jamel Shabazz. Boys, NYC, 1980
    'Young Boys', East Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1981

    Though predominantly known for these striking, color-rich images, imbued with energy and positivity, he also captured more somber renditions. In 1983, eager to further help his community, he took a job with the New York Corrections Department, which took him to the city’s notorious Riker’s Island jail; the State Supreme Court in Manhattan – where he worked primarily with mentally ill detainees and the criminally insane – and various other locations and programs, that included mentorship, drug rehabilitation, and work release.  

    He would spend several decades there, witnessing close-hand the effects of the crack epidemic which had ravaged disadvantaged communities across the city, and conveying his experiences through his lens.



    Black and white photography by Jamel Shabazz, man in prison on phone. Rikers Island. 1985
    Inside the House of Pain, Rikers Island, 1985

    Four decades into his career, his approach remains largely unchanged. However, more recently, in order to better understand the diverse cultures that comprise his home city, he has turned his attention outside of his community. He has attended and documented various cultural events and parades, including, among many others, Pride, Native American Pow Wows, and one that is very close to his heart, the annual Veterans Day parade.

    “When I first started out on this photographic journey, I focused my lens primarily on my community.  As the years progressed and I started traveling, I focused on developing a broader and more definitive body of work. In most cases, my personal approach was engagement, meaning if I saw someone I wanted to photograph, I would take the time to stop and explain my intention as to why I wanted to photograph them. (Where I come from, you just could not take a photograph of a person and keep it moving, as the results could be very negative.) I found it was better to just engage a person and gain their trust first.  That was a common practice I followed for many years.”

    Black and white photography by Jamel Shabazz, subway, train, rush hour, nyc, 1980
    'Rush Hour', 1980

    He notes that the rise of cellphone photography since the mid-2000s has made his approach more challenging. The ability to take ‘selfies’ has rendered many people reluctant to have their image taken by a stranger, and thus, he has resorted to using his 28mm lens more frequently, documenting his subjects ‘using the landscape as a backdrop’.

    Over the years Shabazz has exhibited extensively across the US and internationally, including, at The Brooklyn Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, The J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He has published several books, including Back in the Days (2001), and has worked as a teaching artist in institutions such as the International Center of Photography.

    Black and white street photography portrait by Jamel Shabazz. Boy saluting.
    ‘Salute', 1995

    Today he is widely recognized as one of the most important street photographers of our time, a unique and visionary practitioner whose unflinching commitment to the human spirit serves as an inspiration to us all.

    “Regarding advice, I would have to reiterate what my father passed on to me, and that is to carry your camera everywhere you go, with the cap off, and shutter and aperture set accordingly, to respond to any situation that might arise at any given moment.”


    All images ©  Jamel Shabazz

    Jamel Shabazz was the judge of our 2022 Street Photography Award. You can view the results here.