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Ask any of the OGs in and around New York City, Jamel Shabazz has earned his stripes. Taking on the task of documenting the whole grassroots hip-hop movement through the years, he has followed and documented many living legends. Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn instantly recognized the power of Shabazz’s photography when he first picked up his “Back In The Days” book in 2002. Since then, Ahearn has followed Shabazz in documenting his life from his beginnings with a camera to army service and his job as a corrections officer. The upcoming documentary Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer produced in conjunction with Kenzo Digital will premiere at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 26 at BAM Rose Cinemas. Below is a short piece written by Ahearn about Shabazz. He talks intensely about their relationship and the role Shabazz has had on New York’s African American community.
BAM Rose Cinemas
30 Lafayette Ave.
Charlie Ahearn June 22, 2011
I have worked with just about all forms of film making. I began with a 16mm Bolex, then working with MOS and adding the sound later. In 1978 I made a super 8mm kung-fu movie, The Deadly Art of Survival, where I did everything including sound, lights, camera, editing. It was great because there was a sound stripe on the super8 film and I was free to work spontaneously. With Wild Style, I was directing a small crew shooting in 16mm. Both of these films were pretty experimental trying to bridge narrative and documentary elements such as all the amazing locations and talented people. After that I was shooting with Hi8 video to document the Times Square street scene where I lived through the ’80s. In the ’90s I directed a 35mm feature called Fear of Fiction starring Melissa Leo, who incidentally just won an academy award. For the past decade I have been shooting and editing my own films, musicals and documentaries, on DV and HD video. It’s nice to have the freedom to produce whatever you like on your own time.
When I picked up Jamel’s “Back In The Days” book in 2002 I immediately recognized that this was a uniquely original statement on street photography. It was a departure from the snapshot Robert Frank approach. His images reflected Hip-Hop culture without branding or selling anything. It was beautiful. Jamel and I began working together the following year after he invited me to document his life behind the camera. We spoke on the phone regularly and everything came out from those discussions. Jamel would call me if something was coming up and we went with it. I wanted to find a way to express the dual nature of his life up to that point, as he had been a corrections officer at Rikers for 20 years during the time he was creating his iconic street photographs. I also felt it was essential to work with many of the people Jamel had photographed “back in the day” and hear their stories reflected in the work. When Jamel was photographing a crowd like the African American Day Parade, his energy and focus were Herculean, going for hours and hours non stop without a breath, it was a challenge just to keep up with him.
Jamel Shabazz’s images absolutely reflect the kind of portrait photography which was on the street in the 70’s, like the Polaroid guys on 40 Deuce, but had not yet been crystalized by the dedication of an artist working in profound depth like Jamel did over two decades. Jamel was never distracted by the music and fashion business of Hip-Hop. These are people on the street and their credentials are kept to themselves. Right below the surface of the Kangols and the square pose is a story of a hard life lived in pride and dignity. Eye contact rules each of these images and they are iconic because they are true.