Heads Held High: The Work of Jamel Shabazz by Aliana Ho

Photo: Jamal Shabazz

Text by Aliana Ho, Copyright 2021

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Heads Held High: The Work of Jamal Shabazz

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In looking at the work of Jamel Shabazz, an aura of confidence and righteousness radiates out of his images. There is no doubt that each subject is aware, and focused, on the camera, and giving a show to the audience, with chests puffed and heads high. His work radiates a certain something, and is best explained by Fab 5 Freddy’s introduction to Shabazz’s book Back in the Days: “If among the many emotions you feel while viewing these photos, cool comes to mind, here’s why – back then, cool was all about having the right flavor and savoir faire. Such a style blended a certain brand of rebelliousness with a casual nonchalance…” (pg 4). This “cool”-ness is captured with grace, style, and a sense of excellence in all of his work.

Shabazz’s image “Partners”, taken in 1999, is a prime example of his ability to capture the suave nature of his subjects with pride. The two subjects of this image are a classic snapshot of time. The late 90’s aesthetic oozes from the color and framing of the two men, in the flexed muscles and unfazed eyes. “Payback is a bitch” stares you down as the gladiator man at the bottom of the frame looks like he could give a little wink if you looked hard enough. The warmth of their skin tones against the tiled walls feels like summer time, as the gaze of the man on the right pierces through the heat. The use of the flash creates a distinct outline of a shadow behind each man and produces a punchy contrast, forcing the eyes on his subjects, and the gaze of the subjects back to you. 

According to his publisher’s book synopsis for Shabazz’s fourth book, Seconds of My Life (2007), he was “introduced to photography by his father, who kept a signed copy of Leonard Freed’s Black in White America on the family’s coffee table” at the age of nine, and from there on out, he felt a strong sense of obligation to capture and portray “his community and the people who gave it life” (Shabazz, 2007). This sense of obligation to community comes across quite beautifully in his images, especially in the ways his subjects are posed. In speaking from my very limited and novice experiences and perspective, I can see a mutual understanding between photographer and subject that produces respect, pride, and self assuredness in his images. Shabazz knows his subjects well enough for them to trust in his vision, and to know that he is capturing them the way they see themselves.

The personal and intimate work of Jamel Shabazz is inspiring to me and my desire to immortalize the beauty and confidence of my community and my friends. Despite there being limited academic literature on Shabazz’s work, I find the work speaks for itself. The merit is in the body language of his subjects, often in public settings, that appear staged but in an organic, comfortable manner. Overall, Shabazz’s prowess has fantastically captured the pride and joy of existing in community as a form of resistance and survival. 

Citations:

Fab 5 Freddy. Back in the Days, by Jamel Shabbaz, PowerHouse Book, 2001.

Shabazz, Jamel, and Lauri Lyons. Seconds of My Life. PowerHouse Books, 2007. 

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About The Author: Aliana Ho is an Anthropology major, Visual Studies & Health Studie Minor student at Haverford College, Haverford, Pa. Class of 2022. To see additional articles by Aliana, click here: https://tonywarderotica.com/aliana-ho-love-letters/

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