Jamel Shabazz / Traveling back in time so that we can move forward

{image via Jamel Shabazz} Armed with a Canon AE-1, an enduring spirit, and a clear vision, Jamel Shabazz captured iconic scenes of New York City life in the 1980s earning international praise.

Shabazz's photographs of young Black men donning shell-toe Adidas and cazal glasses pigeon-holed him as a "hip hop photographer". However, Shabazz is more than that. He is a historian. He is a mentor. He is an educator, captivating audiences in university halls and street corners alike. He is a lover, unabashedly approaching his subjects with "I see greatness with you" and ending with, "I both love you and recognize your power".

Standing 6-foot-3 tall, Shabazz wore a cognac colored leather jacket, square-framed gold glasses, and a low cut caesar with a left part. As he addressed the audience at the April NYU Symposium on Black Portraiture, he spoke with the excitement of the 15-year old kid who first picked up his mother's Kodak Instamatic camera.

His eyes were alert. He moved in closer to the audience as if he were about to tell us a story or maybe a secret.

Proudly standing next to a projection of his images in Vanderbilt Hall, Lonnie Liston Smith's ethereal "Astral Traveling" (1973) lulled the audience. Shabazz narrated with restraint. Each photograph settled gracefully into a saxophone note that led us on a journey through the 1980s: Puerto Rican lovers in matching outfits sharing an embrace on the train; young black men posing in tailor made leather jackets kangol caps and cazal glasses; sisters and brothers from the Fruit of Islam in a dignified pose; gingerly dressed women sporting Shearling Sheepskin coats during the New York winter; boys playing in the summer heat, clothing sodden, whilst drinking from an opened fire hydrant--a row of generously windowed brownstones resting in the background. He chronicled an entire generation.

With Sun Ra's 1978 "That's How I Feel" as a close second, Shabazz could not have chosen a more apropos set of chords than "Astral Traveling". The spacey and spiritual beat conjured up an oddly textured nostalgia. It was odd for us 20-somethings in audience, who had at most five good years in the 80s and relied on lurid film remakes and abandoned photo albums to scaffold our memories of that decade. It was textured for the others who saw themselves, their family, and their neighbors floating across the screen. As the echoes of the electronic keyboard receded, and the show transitioned into its final white slide, we begrudgingly traveled back to the present.

In a time when the Black community's sense of hope is blunted by a ceaseless economic depression, a mounting AIDS epidemic, massive unemployment, and escalating incarceration, the present feels bleak. Like Sun Ra's music lets us imagine a glorious future, and Gil Scott-Heron doled out a rhythmic indictment of the present laced with a story of survival, Shabazz's images offered possibility. And maybe, escape.

"Visual Medicine" is what he calls his work, particularly A Time Before Crack. "It was then that I realized that the images I made had a certain psychological impact on the viewer" Shabazz recalls. With the "countless stories of grown men emotionally breaking down in bookstores across the city while looking at that book" he came to see how his photographs "reminded them of a better time when African Americans in this country were making strides and we had a spirit of love and unity in our communities." On an almost somber note, he concluded, "for some they find both an avenue of escape and healing in looking at my images. Just like an old love song can conjure up certain feelings and emotions that will temporarily ease pain." Shabazz's photographs go beyond escapist politics. Not only do his photographs illustrate what we were; they also show us what we still have the potential to be.

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