For decades, photographer Jamel Shabazz has used his camera to connect with New York City’s diverse communities, producing iconic images of subjects as various as the emergence of hip-hop culture, Black incarceration, the innocence of children playing in the streets, and gay pride celebrations. Through 4 September, the Bronx Museum of the Arts celebrates Shabazz with Eyes on the Streets, a retrospective coving over 40 years of the photographer’s work.
Shabazz’s photographs are powerful for their intimacy. Unlike many street photographers, Shabazz tends to photograph his subjects looking directly into the camera’s lens, their eyes beckoning, their postures and facial expressions forming an instant connection with viewers. This intimacy comes from the lengthy encounters that often precede the photo itself, Shabazz approaching his subjects on the street and striking up a conversation before photographing them. “It takes time to make people feel comfortable and to get them to that point,” he said to the Guardian. “And then, the photographs become evidence of the conversation. The key is really the communication. When you approach somebody with good intentions, they feel it.”
The connections Shabazz forms through his work can be lifelong, as it’s common for him to hear from people he photographed decades ago – or those people’s children. Sometimes, the form this reconnection takes is dramatic. “On my social media,” he said, “I recently posted a photograph of a man walking alongside his pregnant wife and their baby in a carriage. He wrote me and told me his wife had just died last year, and that picture meant the world to him.”
These personal, deeply rooted relationships come across in the vulnerability on display in Eyes on the Streets. A Time of Innocence, one of Shabazz’s most iconic photos, shows a group of Black children posed in and around a shopping cart on a sidewalk in Flatbush. From the off-kilter way that three of the children sit in the body of the cart, to the shy, modest child leaning up against it, to the confident child looming behind on his tiptoes, the image comes across as carefree and authentic. Instances of play and emotional openness are common in Shabazz’s work, his subjects frequently showing a glint in their eye or a knowing smile that reaches into the viewer and evokes empathy.
The work in Eyes on the Streets is noteworthy for how it pierces the facade of masculinity, a goal of Shabazz’s. “In my photographs you see young men embrace each other,” he said. “It was very important for me to have those handshakes, those hugs, to show that love and that unity. I wanted to capture love and smiles and joy.” In Shabazz’s celebrated photos of 80s hip-hop culture, it’s typical to see dramatic group photos that erase the reserve typical of young men and replace it with exuberance. Even a more standard photo like The Kings of Queens, showing three b-boys trying to look imposing, the expected swagger is replaced with something closer to contemplation or uncertainty, giving the image a feeling of strangeness and existential appeal. And then there is the noteworthy inclusion Father & Seeds, from 2014; this shot of two Black men holding young children radiates a sense of care and gentleness.
Shabazz, who worked in the New York City department of corrections for 20 years, is a formidable chronicler of life behind bars. Inside the House of Pain, taken in 1985 at Rikers Island, shows a Black man speaking on a telephone; with his face obscured by streaks and stains on the window we see him through, the ironic slogan on his T-shirt stands out all the more: Alive with Pleasure. That photo is exhibited along with 1999’s Inside the Belly of the Beast, in which an imprisoned man is framed by the slot that allows items from the outside world to penetrate behind the bars of his cell. Here, Shabazz makes skillful use of a fish-eye lens, making the subject appear even more isolated and causing the bars of the jail cell to seemingly expand out indefinitely.
During Shabazz’s years working for the department of corrections, he habitually made photographs while walking to and from work, and the human connections he found in this way became an essential corrective to what he encountered at his job. “I was working in an extremely negative, violent, hateful atmosphere for much of my life,” he said. “So when I came home I was looking for love because I was working in an environment of war.” Shabazz also used his photography to bring hope to the lives of young men facing decades behind bars. “A lot of the images I took I would bring into the jail. I showed them what hope and joy looked like, what family looked like. That work was made with the intent of bringing it into the facility, to use that language to connect people.”
Now 61 years of age, Shabazz has turned inward, photographing less often in favor of revisiting his archives to stoke his memory. “Through my photographs, I’m able to relive moments that are now gone forever,” he said, “and that brings me great joy. So much has changed since I first started. I like to look at places that no longer exist.” Shabazz has also turned to his prior work because, after Covid and the rise of smartphone culture, it can be harder to approach subjects and to engage in the hearty handshakes and hugs that have been a mainstay of his practice.
That perhaps makes this a fitting time for Eyes on the Streets, which is the first museum survey of Shabazz’s work. Although it has been a long time in coming, the photographer believes the Bronx Museum to be a fitting location. “It means the world to me to have it there in the Bronx where it’s free to the public and it’s in the heart of the community,” he said. The show is a valuable opportunity to experience the hope and joy that Shabazz has dedicated himself to finding in spite of life’s harsh realities. This work has not only been a way of spreading meaning to others, but also to himself. “I photograph because I want to know more about why we’ve been on this path of life,” he said. “I believe that we’ve met for a reason. I’m learning so much from the people I’m meeting, and I really believe in angels.”