The Backstory Podcast: 'Black in White America' Taught Photographer Jamel Shabazz to See the World

Otis Staff

Today on The Backstory, Sean and Dan talk to legendary photographer Jamel Shabazz. Shabazz, an early pioneer of what we now call "street style" photography, has work in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and many more, and his iconic, black-and-white photos of New York City in the '80s encapsulated cool. He sits down with Sean and Dan to take an in-depth look at Leonard Freed’s Black in White America, a classic collection of kinetic civil-rights era photography.

An edited transcript follows; listen to the full episode below.

Jamel Shabazz: The book that my father had that really informed my photography was a book he had on the coffee table, unlike the ones he had in his library. There was one book in particular, Black in White America by Leonard Freed, that really opened up my eyes because what made it unique was the fact that it was signed and it sat prominently on our coffee table.

We never had a chance to talk about it, but it exposed me to a larger world outside of my community that I wasn't aware of — because for whatever reason, my parents weren't talking to me about what was going on. I learned through the books, from going to the library, what was happening. Walter Cronkite informed me — during that time we had the assassinations and I was traumatized as a child. And no one is explaining to me, "Yo, look Martin Luther King was assassinated today." How do you deal with that? How do you move on?

Robert Kennedy, I remember those assassinations so well, and no one said anything to me so I was constantly digging. But Black in White America took it to a whole ‘nother level because it allowed me to see that I'm living in a very different world, that I'm about to step into a world that's very different. I'm seeing the segregated South for the first time and not only seeing it, but in reading this book here, I'm understanding that I'm going to be growing up in a world that I'm going to have some problems. So Black in White America informed me early on of the challenges that I would face as a young man at eight, nine years old, in addition to everything else that was going on in the world.

Sean Williams: Sure, sure. So did that lead to the collection of books that you collect now? Was that something you knew was going to be the thing that you collect and embody as something you were going to always look into and seek refuge in when you look at the images?

Jamel Shabazz: Not necessarily. I think that the idea came to me when I was in the Army in Germany, because we had a lot of time to read. And at that point we had a really comprehensive bookstore. So I started with my collection then, and I couldn't throw books away and I couldn't give books away. I could maybe lend one, but I felt the need to hold onto all of the books. So my collection really started in 1977 when I joined the Army. That's when I saw the value of books and I started to just build up a massive library. It's there I learned about the Black Arts Movement and literature. I learned about J.A. Rogers and other photographers. So at that point I invested in both music and books. There was an even balance, you know what I mean? Stereo was everything in Germany so I collected albums. And then besides the albums — I have a massive album collection — I started to collect different books, primarily biographies, nonfiction, and photography books.

Dan McQuade: That's so interesting that it started when you were in the army in Germany, because I believe that's the genesis of Black in White America, where he's a freelance photographer in Berlin. 

Jamel Shabazz: It blew me away because that became me. And that's what really captivated me; because at the same time he took that photograph, I had two uncles that were serving in Germany that same time period. So that really caught my eye. And how ironic that later on, about maybe eight years later, I would be in a similar situation. So it's something that you would bring that up.

Sean Williams: You mentioned the collection of the books and how it coincides with the music too. Have you ever referenced the books and the music and see how they've kind of correlated and spoke to a certain particular time?

Jamel Shabazz: Always, always. That's very vital for me because I mean, being a child in the 1960s and having grown up during the time of the Vietnam war. It's Marvin Gaye's album, What's Going On, that I like to play when I'm looking into the 1960s and Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, they go hand in hand. You know what I mean? That helps me to get on a certain frequency. It's one thing to hear the music of What's Going On, but in looking at the photographs now and seeing the Vietnam War unfold in front of my eyes, in addition to the mass protests that were going on in America, it's a really perfect balance to give me a greater understanding on the vibration of that time. And not only music from that time, Marvin Gaye, but I'm one that really appreciates growing up in the music of the 1960s.

There's something about that protest music that really resonates with me. I didn't understand it when I was coming of age, but as I got older and I started to listen to the things that was being said, I realized that artists was using that great platform of music to educate people about what was going on in the world. And I admire the fact that cultures came together and they spoke about issues that were relevant, mainly the war in Vietnam that they had a problem with. So the music goes hand in hand — Curtis Mayfield, the Superfly album, that was reflective of the time growing up in the 1970s when the heroin epidemic hit the street. So when I listen to Curtis Mayfield, I have a tendency to revisit my imagery that deals with the heroin epidemic and the crack epidemic and prostitution.

So music is a very instrumental part of my entire process, even my photographic processes. When I came home from the Army, when The Message came out by Grandmaster Flash, that was the music that fueled my desire to understand what was going on. When “Self Destruction” came out, that was the vibration that I was feeling every day when I took to the streets, looking to capture images, that song was playing. And I felt that inside. So music is always a very intricate part of my entire process. Even on my social media feed, you'll find I'm always sharing music because I want people to understand my particular frequency.


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