Jamel Shabazz reveals one of the first photographs he’d ever taken. It’s on film, which he still uses today (and bless him for that). Against a brick backdrop on a sunny winter day, three beautiful young women pose. “They were the popular girls at school.” All are fresh faced and smiling but one of the girls in the photograph stands out and I begin to examine why. She seems to shine a little brighter, smile a little bigger than her friends. Then Shabazz explains how he had a crush on her and it all becomes clear. She stands out because he made her stand out. He evoked a certain energy that can only be described as je ne sais quoi. Shabazz goes on to discuss how whenever he’s taking a photograph of a group of people, he identifies who the alpha is and makes them feel comfortable. He compliments them to assure that they give him their all, while posing and the ‘troops’ all follow suit.
In the autobiographical documentary Street Photographer the audience is introduced to intimate, behind the scenes details of how such an accomplished photographer came to be. His monographs Back in the Days and A Time Before Crack are analyzed and interpreted by a panel comprised of a wide variety of people. From old friends who grew up alongside him in Brooklyn to hip hop legends such as Fab 5 Freddy and KRS-One, all go into great depth about the semiotics and signifiers that are carefully crafted into each individual photograph. The sheer number of people who know someone in the monographs is a testament to Shabazz’s ability to not only create timeless images, but also his ability to create a sense of community through art.
The photograph that pulled at my heart strings the most was that of Brian and Tanya. Young love is the enchantment that adolescent dreams are made of, that eventually transcends into warm and nostalgic memories later on in one’s life. Shabazz perfectly captures the dynamic of the star crossed lovers as Brian stands firm in his warrior stance while Tanya playfully peeks from behind. Brian’s essence is strong and masculine, but it is Tanya whom I remain fixated on. Her smile is as cheerful as the sun, her wavy hair surrounds Brian’s head like a halo. A commentator in the film speaks on how “Tanya was his heart” and this becomes so blatantly evident upon examining the photograph. It is truly amazing how Shabazz, an outsider is able to infiltrate the relationship with his camera to withdraw such an intimacy that is reserved for the privacy of two lovers. It is mentioned in the film that Brian’s life was tragically cut short. After being involved in an altercation and shot, Brian was arrested. He told police officers that he had been shot but they refused him any help, and he bled to death in the police precinct. Tanya was left with a baby girl as her and her beloved Brian’s legacy. To associate such heart wrenching stories with such beautiful, hopeful imagery truly is a testament to the sort of immortalization that Shabazz creates with his photographs.
In a day in age when mothers sternly warn their children not to play in the streets, Shabazz’s photographs serve as a reminder of a time when being out on the block didn’t mean loitering or causing trouble, it meant socializing and living a life out in the world. It tells the story of a more humane time. A time when hip hop’s style and flavour was still organic and pure. A time when social and racial injustice (unfortunately not too different from present time) was met with the hopes and efforts of young men and women trying to better society through themselves. A time when there was something magical happening in the mecca of New York that needed to be documented for generations to come.
Jamel Shabazz’s autobiographical documentary may be entitled “Street Photographer”, but above all else, he is a human photograph. He flawlessly captures both the triumphant and devastating human condition and brings together both the viewer, the subject and himself in a space where art unites us all. Street Photographer is most certainly a documentary worth watching, especially for artists who crave inspiration and motivation.