Jamel Shabazz has seen it all in his nearly forty years as a photographer. From the crack epidemic that destroyed black communities in New York City in the 1980s to the war on drugs and gun violence in Chicago now, Shabazz has been there every step of the way to capture the effects of these moments in history on the communities that they have impacted. In celebration of his work, the Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne (Germany) is hosting City Metro, an exploration of New York City’s transit system through the eyes of Shabazz, that gives us a less tragic view of American society. 
How do you portray a city as photographed as New York from a different angle? The task is difficult, but Shabazz has achieved it by immortalizing the people who’ve been using the public transportation since the 1980s until now, from effortlessly cool kids in the subway to dressed-up women going to church on a Sunday morning. Before the running of his exhibition from December 7 to February 2, we managed to catch Shabazz from behind the camera and ask him a few questions about his journey to becoming the acclaimed photographer that he is today.
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Firstly, could you please introduce yourself and what it is that you do to our readers?
My name is Jamel Shabazz and I am a New York-based fashion, documentary and street photographer. For the past thirty-five plus years, I have been celebrating this great gift of photography.
When you initially started photography, you were inspired by such photographers as Leonard Freed, James Van Der Zee, and Gordon Parks. Besides their portrayal of the African-American community, in what ways have their photographic styles inspired yours, especially during your formative years as a photographer?
Each of the aforementioned photographers played a vital role in my evolution as an inspiring photographer. I was first introduced to the work of Leonard Freed by way of his award-winning book, Black in White America. It was in this particular body of work that I saw a thematic series of black and white photographs that spoke to me and focused on the struggles of African-Americans both in the eastern region of the country and the segregated south. Along with his provocative images, I gained a wealth of insight while reading Leonard's thoughts that accompanied many of the photographs. What I learned most from studying his work was that he was a concerned photographer and a visual storyteller who used his camera and words to address injustice and social issues.
I was formally introduced to the work of James Van Der Zee in the late 1980s, while attending an opening he had in the city. Upon seeing his work, I was amazed by how he used his Harlem studio, along with an assortment of props, to create beautiful black-and-white portraits of those who sat before his lens. I also enjoyed how he documented various parades and fraternal organizations on the streets of Harlem during the early 1900s. Much of the work I've been doing these past twenty-five years has been inspired largely by him and in essence, I am striving to continue on his path to document the dignity and pride of the Harlem community.
I first became acquainted with the works of Gordon Parks while still in my single digits. His photo essays in Life magazine on poverty really captured my attention. At the time, I had no idea who he was, but I knew that his images were very insightful and necessary, for they shed light on the horrid conditions people were faced with both in the inner cities of New York City and also in Latin America. I had the opportunity to meet him at two of his exhibits in New York, but what was most impactful for me was reading his book, Half Past Autumn.
Why was that? What impacted you the most?
I developed great respect for his work and personal struggle coming of age at a time when it was very difficult for black people in America. I would go on to admire him for his determination and resilient attitude despite all the obstacles he faced.  After viewing his endless collection of incredible photographs, I drew inspiration from him and how he skillfully created images of documentary, fashion and fine art photography, along with authoring a number of books and films. Studying how Gordon Parks gained entry into the photography and film genres set the template for what I am attempting to do today.
“As a child, I was always fascinated and curious about how the trains operated. Later on, when my father became a train conductor, graduating to a train dispatcher, my curiosity widened.”
Your new exhibition, City Metro by New York, focuses on the New York transit system and the melting pot of different peoples and cultures that you meet on it. How did the seemingly mundane nature of the transit system allow you to document the sociology and history of New York City and the minority communities that inhabit it?
As a native New Yorker and aspiring photographer, the subway system was the lifeline of the city with its 842 miles of track and daily ridership of over five million people. I frequently rode trains with my camera in tow and discovered that the subway culture was a microcosm of the life I saw above ground; only now people were confined to small spaces, where they are sometimes forced to interact with one another. As a child, I was always fascinated and curious about how the trains operated. Later on, when my father became a train conductor, graduating to a train dispatcher, my curiosity widened.
It inspired me to take on a self-assignment of documenting the mass transit system from various perspectives, inclusive of the basic rider, the entertainers, the train operators, the police and everything in between – New York being the ‘melting pot’ of cultures provided subject matter that was endless. During my many expeditions on the ‘iron horse’, I was able to cover a lot of territory and discover new and exciting neighborhoods, while growing in knowledge and making new friends. The work that I have had the good fortune to create now serves as an historical record.
One of your previous exhibitions, A Time Before Crack, particularly struck a chord with me as it portrayed black youth culture before crack cocaine and street violence destroyed black communities in New York City in the 1980s. What drew your attention to capture that? Did you realize that you would be preserving a forgotten piece of black history in America before the crack epidemic destroyed the lives of so many families?
As a child coming of age during the 1960s and 1070s, I saw the devastation that heroin inflicted on people in the neighborhood, so during the early 1980s, with cocaine gaining popularity, I had a feeling deep down inside that something bad was on the horizon concerning drug addiction. In 1981, I went on a personal campaign to speak to local high-school-age teens about being mindful of the dangers of drugs and self-destruction that usage could bring upon them, and during these exchanges, I would photograph them.
Within just two years, crack cocaine was introduced, and ironically, the blockbuster hit Scarface (which I personally feel planted a seed in the minds of people to sell and use drugs,) was released and life as we knew it would never be the same. As crack started to gain a devastating momentum, I felt a great sense of duty to do my part in sounding the alarm in hopes that I could save some lives. My efforts garnered a few positive results, but in the end, some of the very same people I had exchanges with would fall victim to crack; an even split between users and dealers. It was not until the late 1990s did I realize that I had documented an important time in history that represented a time before crack and mass incarceration.
Sadly, what happened to black communities in New York City in the 1980s is eerily reminiscent of the current social climate in Chicago. Having been witness to an experience similar to this, what do you believe is at the root of the gun violence and drug use in these communities? Can any one party take responsibility for this epidemic that seems to only be worsening as time progresses?
This is a very complex question to answer for there are a number of root causes that have contributed to the escalation of violence not only in Chicago but also throughout America and the world at large. In my humble opinion, violence is celebrated in mainstream movies, music and various video games. With the advent of modern technology via the form of the cell phone, it has never been easier to access and promote violent material. I am astonished by how much violent and negative behavior I am seeing on my Instagram feed alone.  It appears that we as a society have become desensitized to the point where people are witnessing fights, standing by watching and, in many cases, encouraging the fighting with the hopes of capturing footage to post online.
In my research of television programs such as Jerry Springer, Basketball Wives and a host of others, fighting is ever present and seen as a normal form of conflict resolution, fostering a violent prone society. Responsible citizens must raise their voices and demand that those in positions of decision-making address these pressing issues. Why are these negative programs even being allowed to be greenlighted? How are the guns and drugs finding their way into cities like Chicago? And with drugs playing a major role in much of the violence, what should be done to rehabilitate those addicted to drugs because locking them up is not the solution? Those are the questions they should be asking.
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But nobody is asking them…
During the war on drugs, conservative lawmakers took the position that the answer was to build more prisons and lock up anyone associated with the drug itself.  Caught up in this indiscriminate web were many who suffered from mental health issues at a time when mental institutions were closing all over the country, along with individuals who fell victim to drug use and needed some form of rehabilitation versus incarceration.
So incarceration is not the best solution.
Prison and jail life only make matters worse and if educational programs were put in place, those incarcerated would have had a chance to become better citizens instead of returning back to prison. So this issue is far bigger than Chicago. There is a whole lot of blame to pass around from government policies, corruption,  greed, addiction, poverty, lack of education, institutional racism, poor parenting and those media outlets who promote this type of behavior.
As a portraiture photographer, it must be important to forge a connection with your subject before performing an intimate act, such as taking a picture. Thus, how do you gain the trust and respect of your subjects before you take their photographs?
Gaining the trust of a potential subject is key to being a successful portraiture photographer. When I go out in the field to document, I always make it a point to have a small portfolio of my work and some form of credentials that identify me as a legitimate photographer. The very idea of approaching a total stranger and convincing them to stand in front of the lens is not easy; there is a process and strategy involved.
“The definition of street style has not really changed over the years. What has changed is the fact that more people have taken an interest in photographing it.”
Does this process change depending on the subject and the environment in which you are photographing them?
Every situation is unique, but I find that if you are sincere and show your legitimacy, folks are more open to letting you photograph them. One great advantage due to the advancement of technology is that I can (and oftentimes) suggest that a would-be-subject google me or view my Instagram page, so that they can garner a better idea of who I am to further understand the relevance of the work I am doing.
Street style culture has evolved over the years and its introduction to the mainstream has cemented it as one of the most popular forms of creative expression in contemporary society. Do you believe that the original definition of street style has changed to the point where it is unrecognizable now, especially as every creative field from art to fashion has adapted it for its own purpose?
In my opinion, the definition of street style has not really changed over the years.  Having viewed an endless stream of ‘street-styled’ photographs, images I am seeing now are just a continuation of what was done in the past. What has changed is the fact that more people have taken an interest in photographing it and again, with the boom of social media platforms, have created a space for such images.
With the advent of social media and photo-sharing networks like Instagram, it can be easy for a new photographer to follow the trends and only produce what’s popular and can garner many likes. If you had to offer one piece of advice to a budding photographer who is struggling to define their style, what would it be?
My advice to an aspiring photographer would be to carry their camera everywhere they go, undertake a theme that is very close to their hearts, work with great diligence to build a body of images based on that subject, enter respectable photo contests and focus on having the work exhibited. Lastly, subscribe to Photo District News Magazine (PDN), for it is considered the guide for both aspiring and professional photographers alike.
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In addition to the upcoming exhibition at the Galerie Bene Taschen, are there any projects or works that you are working on or planning on pursuing sometime in the future?
Currently, I have redirected most of my time and energy towards developing content for television networks. Ideally, I would love to bring my book A Time Before Crack to life in the form of a mini-series. It is a project that I have been working on for a number of years now and since joining forces with a notable writer, the vision is becoming more clear. In conjunction to the project series, I am also working on a new photography book titled Honor and Dignity.
The exhibition City Metro, by Shamel Shabazz, will inaugurate on December 8 and will be on view until February 2 at Galerie Bene Taschen, Moltkestraße 81, Cologne.
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