In the street photography of Jamel Shabazz, the subjects almost never fail to look the camera in the eye. They are more than aware of their position in front of the lens, and in fact revel in it. Standing on the streets of New York City, they smile and pose. They actively take part in their reproduced image. In every sense, Shabazz’s documentations function to take control of the representations of black New York.
Shabazz has been documenting life in New York City for decades, and throughout the years, his pictures have never failed to express warmth, joy, community and confidence. Looking through a gallery of his series “Back in the Day,” which features pictures taken in the early days of Shabazz’s photographic career, what stands out is the practically unwavering presence of smiling faces. Shabazz’s subjects are proud, fashionable, and often quite celebratory.
Unlike certain street photographers of the past like Robert Frank, who captured moments unbeknownst to his subjects (moments that often demonstrated misery in America’s unequal society), Shabazz’s pictures are decidedly posed, though by no means forced; they are exceptional versions of the photographs you take of your friends when they feel the most at ease, the most elated. While photographic depictions of racism and other inequalities in America are important to the progression of society, there is something incredibly powerful about these images, which are frank in their representation of joviality and swagger. They are representations of inner-city urbanity that refuse to conform to society’s expectations and misrepresentations. In short, Shabazz and his subjects take control of the gaze. After all, the act of documentation is an act of proclamation. – it is to put something on the record. This is what life is, this is what is real, this is who we were, how we were, and what we were. This is the proof.