One of New York City’s most discerning and essential documentarians, photographer Jamel Shabazz has built a career around capturing the unique visual lexicon of the outer boroughs. His images are deeply empathetic and resolute in the value of all life regardless of race, class, and social status. With a self-described goal of preserving “the world history and culture,” Shabazz continually finds the joy and vibrancy emanating from communities like Brownsville, Red Hook, and Harlem.
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His first institutional survey, an expansive exhibition of Shabazz’s photos is on view through September 4 at The Bronx Museum. Eyes on the Streets contains more than 150 images from his extensive archive, some of which are shown for the first time. Distinctly rooted in place, the collection transcends neighborhood and time period, creating a rich, photographic mosaic of New Yorkers through the last four decades. The exhibition also speaks to current conversations around policing and alternatives by showing how tight-knit communities and street activity have long bolstered public safety.
Often recognized for capturing hip-hop culture and the fashions of the 1980s, Shabazz’s photos range from the stylishly posed to the candid and serendipitous. He frames a pitbull mid-air as it grips a strap, children flipping onto a frayed mattress, and a beaming, rush-hour crowd grinning through an open window. Having recorded poverty, the widespread effects of racism, and those housed at Rikers Island during his time working for the Department of Corrections, Shabazz continually chooses humanity and happiness. “Some of the people in the community might see themselves when they were at a really bad point in their lives,” he told The New York Times in reference to the images he chose to leave out of Eyes on the Streets. “I wanted to focus more on the joy.”
Shabazz has published multiple monographs throughout his career, and his new A Time Before Crack is available for pre-order. The forthcoming Jamel Shabazz: Albums, which won the Gordon Parks Foundation/Steidl Book Prize, is also slated for release next fall. You can find more of his photos on his site.