Recently previewed at BFI Southbank, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer is the new documentary from the director of the trailblazing hip-hop film Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn.
The film looks at the late-twentieth century work of New York-based photographer Shabazz, who's camera has captured the fashions, music tastes and politics of New York's urban cultures, including the rap/hip-hop community, from the 1970s onwards.
Q&A With director Charlie Ahearn at BFI Southbank, 12 June 2014
BFI: Why did you decide to make this film about Jamel?
CA: Well, around 2002 Jamel released a book called Back in the Dayz, it is very well known around the world now. A classic of hip-hop photography as it were. When I saw the cover of the book, I was struck by the imagery of these two hard rocks who were clearly only about 15, standing in B-boy square poses on 42nd street. I know that street well, I moved there before making Wild Style the movie in the summer of 1980. That is the same exact time that Jamel had returned from his military service in Germany, and moved back to Brooklyn. So this photo immediately resonated with me. Anyone who has been to 42nd street knows that it is chaos itself, but the way he has posed the two subjects in that photo shows a lot of patience and control, he hasn't just snapped something.
In a sense he made a monumental portrait in this most chaotic of situations, which was really known as a crazy area, though of course now we have a Disney-fied version of New York City. That was a place for hookers, porn, kung-fu movies, and there was a lot of street trade. So, a pretty iffy place for two teenage boys. But it was also a magnet for young kids from all the boroughs, which was why I moved there to make Wild Style. So I felt very connected to the imagery. I saw him out in book signings, and we hit it off immediately.
Jamel is a hard person to get to know - he doesn’t even have portraits in the back of his books. He tends not to expose much of himself as an individual, he was more about serving the community with these images. So as a subject he was fascinating but also challenging for a filmmaker, it was challenging to get under the surface with him.
I see this film as about coding: there is a language of code, a visual code, hip hop culture has a lot of coding to it, like if you are involved in graffiti and you know the codes, you can read a lot just by checking out the way that someone colours something our outlines something. You can tell where the artist is from, what group he adheres to, his beliefs. What this film does is it takes hip hop coding to a whole other level. I see it as being about hip hop culture, but Jamel would argue that it is not hip hop itself, it is about people on the street with possibly others sets of cultural adherences.
But there are codes that run through the film. For example, one code that is mentioned is that if you are somebody who once worked in a prison: you do not talk about it, or someone else’s experience. I’ve known people in hip hop a long time, back some thirty years, and those who originated the genre in my experience never wanted to talk about their time in prison, if they'd been there.
BFI: Hip hop was as much social movement as a musical movement. Looking at the photographs in the film, it struck me there are so many happy, smiling faces. But when you hear the interviewees going down memory lane, most of them talk about the deaths and prison sentences. It is interesting to me that although Shabazzz worked at a correctional facility, his photography doesn’t seem to be in keeping with a grim social realist vein, it seems to show a community at ease with itself.
CA: In the film what you see are people wanting to represent themselves as people who are in control of their lives. A lot of street photographers have used the street to show someone, say, who was shooting up drugs or something, or something ‘wrong’ with street life. There is a section of his work though that looks at homeless people, on the subway and such.
BFI: I wanted to ask about the fashion. In the film Claude Grazinsky, from Trace Magazine, says something along the lines of how he was over in Paris but longing for ‘that New York experience’. That was resonant for me, as being a kid growing up before the age of the internet with its instant access to knowledge at the touch of a button, I and my friends were also longing to know more about this culture that was exploding over in New York City.
CA: A very specific kind of New York experience; you identified yourself as a member of some kind of hip hop culture, and there were visual codes you looked at.
BFI: Back then it was more difficult to find out about this stuff though. One of the first things that was, for me, a signifier, was Wild Style. When you were making Wild Style, were you aware that you were trying to capture something that would go on to be so powerful? How does this fit with your work with Jamel?
CA: When I was producing Wild Style, the two places that I originally got funding from were Channel 4 in London, and CDF in Germany. There wasn’t a lot of money, but this all said to me and people around me: ‘yes this is really happening, we are doing this, this is not just going to get made but it is a worldwide thing going out to people around the world’. The film was actually first shown in Japan. One of the Japanese artists who worked with James Lavelle, who is curating this year’s Meltdown Festival, was DJ Krush. He pretty much learned about hip hop from watching our tour when it came to Tokyo in October 1983. I had a feeling that what we were doing was being done on a shoestring, but our film did have to represent to a world audience in some fashion. When Jamel was taking his pictures, he was more thinking about if his pictures were going to be representative of so-and-so person, and if they would earn their respect on the street. I think that is a very different kind of frame that we are looking at.
Wild Style went out around the world, whilst Jamel was known for 15 years as just a prison guard; it is I think an amazing testimony to an artist’s progress and faith in what he is doing. Jamel was not consciously thinking: ‘this is hip hop’ when working, he was thinking: ‘this is the guy on the corner who I might have to relate to in the future.’