By KURT MCVEY July, 2022
“It’s a wonderful feeling, to have that purpose early on in life, to be given that ability to freeze moments,” begins Jamel Shabazz, the remarkably humble yet undeniably superlative photographer, curator, community activist, family man, and the 2022 recipient of the prestigious Gordon Parks Foundation/Steidl Book Prize. “That’s the part that really blows me away, that something subconsciously allows me to look at a particular situation and press the shutter on my camera and freeze it, not realizing that this frozen moment, forty-five years later, being thawed out, would have so much meaning to me and the people I photograph.”
For Ms. Ja’nell Ajani, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, a cultural producer and curator of Peace to the Queen, the current retrospective exhibition of Mr. Shabazz’ photographic works at the Carver Museum & Cultural Center in Austin, Texas, this sentiment would ring especially true.
“So it’s a joy to time travel back,” notes the ever-representing, Brooklyn-born (1960) Shabazz, continuing over the phone from his Long Island home. “It’s one thing to have memories and have a journal, but to have a physical image of a moment I remember so vividly, it’s a high.”
In 2016, Ms. Ajani served as the co-founder of BASQUIAT: STILL FLY @ 55, a one-day symposium hosted by NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs, which sought “to reclaim and raise awareness about the legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat and his significance in art, fashion, music, and film.” In hindsight, STILL FLY was a clear catalyst and cultural tipping point that would effectively re-shape, re-present, and re-contextualize Jean-Michel, the globally famous artist, through a more intentional diasporic lens.
With the intimate and exceptional Peace to the Queen, now properly extended through September 17th, Ajani is once more “re-presenting” the work and legacy of a world-renowned artist, at once both highly celebrated and in certain senses, vastly underappreciated. To be clear, Ms. Ajani is quite transparent about Mr. Shabazz lending, not only his incredible works (spanning four decades and several genres of photography, perhaps most notably his work shooting on the streets of New York City) but his gravitas, friendship and general industry support.
“I recall Jamel telling me over four years ago now, ‘Ja’nell, I’m going to use my platform to uplift you and put your name out there. You’ve been doing this for a long time.’ It was a generous gesture,” she says. “He didn’t have to do that. Our relationship, not only as professionals, but as friends, I quickly understood, was spilling into the show itself.”
“I was invited to conduct a workshop at the Studio Museum in Harlem back in the early 2000’s,” says Shabazz. Ms. Ajani was serving as Program Coordinator for Expanding the Walls: Making Connections Between Photography, History and Community, an eight-month photography-based program for a select group of students enrolled in a high school or GED program. “We were hosting a photo workshop in the fashion of James Van Der Zee (an American photographer, leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance and major inspiration for Shabazz). I saw a woman with great ambition and told her she has my full support. She started looking at my photographs from the ‘80s and saw images reflective of her sister’s generation and how she dressed, specifically works that reminded Ja’nell directly of her sister, who was murdered in the early ‘90s (1991).”
“Jamel and I met maybe twelve years ago,” says Ajani. “We were introduced by Dr. Deborah Willis (Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and Director of NYU’s Center for Black Visual Culture/Institute for African American Affairs). You know when you just really vibe with somebody? I met him at a pivotal part of my life. I was down and unsure about how to enter into the art world in any significant way. At this moment, I was feeling so insecure, but him giving me that encouragement meant the world. He shared with me how he had lost family members to violence in an untimely fashion and I shared how my sister had been murdered at 28. It was all very organic.”
So it was, roughly four years ago, that Ajani found herself in Shabazz’ home, going through his extensive archives with unfettered access, intermittently discussing her recent trip to Jamaica while jamming to Dennis Brown records. Peace to the Queen would ultimately include images from 1980 through to 2020, but it was the carefree images from Brooklyn, Queens, Downtown NYC and Harlem in the ‘80s, of Black women mostly, presented as joyful friends, children, sisters, old and young, that started to remind Ajani of her older sister, Karen Alethea Rose.
“She was dating someone for two and a half years,” says Ajani, quickly, matter-of-factly, from across the telephone wire in Austin. “She didn't know he had previously been in rehab. She had a two-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. They were engaged. He then got hurt on a job, went on disability, and started using again. This of course created a lot of conflict. My sister was planning on leaving him. The day before Halloween, she and I were out having the best time; just me, her and my niece. I remember getting Chinese food and shopping for dresses. I was supposed to stay at her house that night, but my mom called and told me to come back home. That night, she and her fiance got into a huge fight. He leaves, goes and uses some Crack, comes back, and stabs my sister in the chest with a butcher knife. She died immediately, asphyxiating in her own blood. He didn’t kill my niece but left her in the house. They didn’t find her and my sister until late afternoon the next day.”
For Ja’nell Ajani, Peace to the Queen isn’t about trauma, but transforming trauma-transforming memories-into something uplifting, something healing. It’s about evoking the positive elements of nostalgia. This is very much in line with Shabazz’ ethos around photography itself. “In the beginning, all I wanted was to have memories,” he says. “I never wanted to be without memories.”
Shabazz, somewhat famously now, started taking photos in earnest at fifteen with basic Kodak Instamatic cameras (110 and 26). It was 1975. His father was a photographer as well. At seventeen, Jamel’s father enlisted in the Navy, serving on an active USS Intrepid, now quite conspicuously a floating Sea, Air and Space Museum on Manhattan’s West Side. “He served in the 1950s, and for him to be a Black man and a photographer was very rare at that time. One of his duties was to document all the personnel on the aircraft carrier. He traveled throughout the Mediterranean, and it’s through that work that he really inspired me. When he came home from the Navy he tried to be a professional photographer but hit a lot of roadblocks and became very frustrated.” Jamel’s father ended up getting a “city job” in transit when he retired, starting off as bus driver, matriculating to conductor, then a motorman, and finally a dispatcher. He did some wedding photography on the side. In looking through his father’s negatives, Shabazz discovered his father had at one point converted their little apartment in Brooklyn into a studio. On holidays, families and various people in the surrounding community would dress up, come over, and get their picture taken. “He would always carry his camera around his neck,” recalls Shabazz. “I’m still learning more about his photography now, but my work is totally different. Though I always, always keep my camera with me.” Shabazz’ father had a massive library of photography books and subscriptions to magazines, such as LIFE, National Geographic, even Playboy. “All that fed my mind as a child,” he says. “I saw the value of images early on in my life. My father took great pride in those photo albums; the process of laying them out, in size, order, and storytelling. He would build model airplanes, build puzzles, he was also a cartoonist and collage artist.”
Following in his father’s military footsteps, Shabazz joined the Army, spending most of his tenure stationed in Germany in the ‘70s. His camera was always with him, along with a portfolio of images that reminded him of home. He was determined to return with freshly captured memories from his experience abroad, while daydreaming about his return to America, often in the shivering cold, staving off boredom, loneliness, and insanity. In returning home, his camera would continue to function as both compass and time machine, a means to free time itself, but most importantly, to reacquaint himself with his community, the people, the streets. His people. His streets. It wasn’t until the Crack epidemic hit that things changed drastically.
“I had been documenting a better time and now my work was becoming visual medicine,” he says. “My purpose went beyond taking images. I became a street activist-Crack, AIDS-people were dying and I was concerned. I had a mission bigger than photography. And I had a lot of questions. The photography let me get answers because I trained my camera on the right things. Vietnam started ten years earlier. I was talking to veterans about the war. I started to believe I was on a path for a reason. I would travel throughout the City and soon discovered I was meeting people for reasons beyond capturing an image. Without the camera, I couldn't have these interactions with incredible people, often troubled people, that could enrich my life.”
Shabazz also sensed a void in the magazine and publishing game that reflected people from his community. He submitted photos to Vibe Magazine, The Source and other international publications. They all accepted his work. “I quickly knew I had to work towards a book and exhibitions to share with a broader audience and that felt good. I had yet to see a book that represented my New York City. In 2003, Shabazz published his first photography book, a collection of street-style images. This was Back in the Days (powerHouse Books). “It was a bestseller instantly,” he says. “I knew I had something and had to maintain the momentum. I knew my work could have a place in history, while consciously contributing to history and culture. I started studying the greats: Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson. All the giants before me. I felt like I had the torch to make sure our community was represented in the annals of history.”
Shabazz’ recent acceptance of the Gordon Parks/Steidl book prize only further cements the fact that Jamel is indeed carrying the torch, Gordon’s torch especially. Though Shabazz broke into the industry early with contributions to hip hop magazines, largely out of necessary and scarcity, it’s important to understand that his work on the streets, or in shooting famous characters in the Rap game, is only one dimension (albeit important) to his larger oeuvre and general expansive means of artistic expression. Like Gordon Parks, who passed in 2006, Shabazz is a legend, bridging Norman Rockwell Americana with Ralph Ellison’s voyeurism, swapping out the latter-half of the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement perhaps for the destructive age of Crack and AIDS. Both possess an uncanny ability to find light in the darkness, the beauty in pain.
“Gordon paved the way for me,” admits Shabazz. “I needed direction, someone to mirror. My father wasn’t around anymore. Leonard Freed was gone. Black and White America: 1963-1965 (Grossman Publishers, 1967) helped me develop and appreciate, especially the images from the racially segregated Angola Prison in Louisiana, but I wanted to do everything Gordon did. What I got from (the 2000 Parks documentary) Half Past Autumn, was the fact that he did documentary, fine art, street and fashion. That’s the secret; he did a little of everything.”
Shabazz met Gordon Parks twice when he was alive, though they were deeply, immediately kindred. It was their last meeting, when from across the room, separated by a dense sea of people-friends, fans-that they spiritually connected and the torch was passed. “It was non-verbal because he had a toothache,” Shabazz adds with a laugh. “But just the way he raised his fist and threw it in the air, and we were eye to eye, he was telling me, ‘This is on you.’ ”
Shabazz was especially moved by Parks’ extremely hands-on work with Flávio, an asthmatic child living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, photographed and profiled for LIFE in 1961 and later in 1967, his work with the Fontenelle (the father, Norman Sr., an immigrant from the British West Indies) family in Harlem. In both cases (poverty, obscurity, a sense of other-edness and systemic oppression) Parks directly transformed and improved his subjects’ lives, while bringing an unprecedented amount of attention to their macro situation in these otherwise invisible, previously unfathomably impoverished communities.
It’s forgivable, when contemplating Shabazz’ career as a storied photographer, to overlook the fact that he served as a corrections officer for twenty years at Rikers Island, one of the most notoriously violent and abusive prisons on the planet. For two decades, before retiring, Shabazz would work grueling, often terrifying twelve-hour shifts, only to hit the streets of New York and continue to engage people-with a superhuman capacity for empathy-in his community, the same people who would often move in and out of Rikers itself in a hellish, mind-numbing hyper-loop.
“He takes his role very seriously,” says Ajani. “When he went away to Germany to serve, then coming back and seeing the social ills of his community and in my mind, using his photography as a ministry to basically combat against the stereotypes and disparaging images you might normally see in the media of Black people. Can you imagine working at Rikers, then hitting the streets after your shift? I think that he has gracefully carried the torch. Jamel is really engaged with his subjects. I appreciate how he often asked many of his subjects, and always with respect,‘Can I capture your legacy?’, as I once read in an Aperture interview with Jamel.”
“Twenty years in the Department of Corrections,” confirms Shabazz. “From 1983 to 2003. About five years ago, through knowing Gordon’s niece, I found out Gordon spent a lot of time mentoring young men in prison as well. From the moment I got called for the job to the moment I retired, I was taking photographs. It’s in alignment with my father’s teaching to carry your camera everywhere. I didn't make an exception. It was illegal. I captured my co-workers as well as the men in my protection and the young men under my direct supervision. It was part of my visual diary. I engaged them with images of freedom, joy, and love to create conversations and give them a sense of hope. These are men incarcerated for over thirty years. I wanted to give them a glimpse of what freedom looks like. These interactions can change their lives.”
In the early days at Rikers, Shabazz noticed, as an officer doing cell searches, that a lot of young Black prisoners had photos of their fathers that had served in Vietnam. Like Shabazz, this was the generation born in 1960. As a Black man and veteran himself, he looked at it from a different perspective. Perhaps a father comes back with PTSD and maybe an addiction. “I saw how Heroin destroyed the family,” says Shabazz. “The word empathy; you have to have it and I did. It was an extremely violent atmosphere. Rikers was hell. I went in before the Crack epidemic. Adolescents were stabbing, slashing, and hurting each other. They needed guidance.” His time in the military also gave Shabazz insight in how to move as an officer, in terms of discipline, confidence and organization. “It was very violent,” he says. “Officers and inmates were brutal. Someone described the smell of it. Smoking was allowed at the time. Imagine the smell of cigarettes, dead rodents, and sour milk. But I knew I couldn’t quit.”
Photography was his therapy and the fruits of his photography-fractal, exponential therapy for a diverse and often surprising audience. “Back in the early ‘80s, young men felt going to Rikers was a right of passage,” he explains. “I had to tell them that wasn’t the place to be. Inmates write to me on my Instagram feed, telling me, ‘Thank you. Not only did you inspire me, but so many other young men.’ I helped them understand atonement. We all make mistakes in life. Some people weren’t trying to hear it, as they never experienced love in their life. Or hope. There was a point of my life where I felt I failed. I felt like I was in a lifeboat that could only fit so many people with many men in the water screaming, ‘Help me! Help me!’ Men in the mental health unit with serious mental health problems needed treatment. I saw the disparity. Addiction needed rehabilitation instead of incarceration. Crack gave them a five minute high to help them cope with society and despair. I went to work every single day to be a light, not only to the inmates but to the new officers coming through to help them navigate the challenges of that job.”
The magic and power of Peace to the Queen is in the sacred collaboration between artist and curator. Through direct lived experience, these powerful individuals can together encompass a full, multi-dimensional spectrum of what, for the Black community in America, and especially those on the outside of it, can only approach as some kind of alien, historical hyper-object. Photography, the freezing of moments, can bridge this gap, and a retrospective exhibition spanning four decades can bridge it further with an obvious order of magnitude.
“It’s about the ways in which these women not only present but amplify themselves,” explains Ajani. The opening corridor of the exhibition also intentionally highlights the more positive examples of how Black men (all men) can more effectively hold space for (Black and Brown) women, with images featuring Black couples embracing and posing together affectionately. The title of the show stems from Shabazz’ penchant, as well as other men from the era, for calling Black women, in an effort to show reverence and respect, Queens.
“I started to refer to our women as Queens as far back as 1975,” says Shabazz in a quote featured in the exhibition. “At that time, it was largely inspired by reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, where Malcolm stated that we as a people came from Kings and Queens. In a time in which Black women are viewed in a very negative light, I feel a great sense of duty to remind them that they are in fact Queens."
The images Ajani chose, not only reminded her of her sister, quite often from A Time Before Crack, to borrow a term from Shabazz’ 2005 hardcover coffee table art photography book (which he hopes to expand into a feature documentary or scripted premium TV series), but of a time when women, Black women, consciously embodied this ideal and the ongoing struggle to maintain it, despite cyclical, external assaults on this particular demographic. The show, itself a rebuke of the white-box museum paradigm, is a post-modern, 21st century embrace, interrogation, projected understanding, refusal, and fierce rebuttal to a different Malcom X quote from his 20th century (1964) speech to women: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
For Ajani, the show is more of a portal or an experience, than an exhibition. The lead-in and packaging of the exhibition itself was cathartic, inspiring, and uplifting. “I had just entered grad school at the time,” she recalls. “And it’s fair to say it was a culture shock moving from New York to Texas. At times I thought, ‘What century are we in?’ In moving through Jamel’s images, I was reminded about how we can respect and protect Black and Brown women. School was tough in the beginning. Seeing these women reflected back at me in Jamel’s images, with all their joyful, embodied essence, helped me to keep going and not give up."
“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was different,” notes Shabazz. “Women were ladies, gracious, and raised in a different way. We were greatly inspired by the movie Roots. Women weren’t bitches and hoes. When the Crack epidemic hit, suddenly women were saddled with these derogatory words. We had love songs, but the love started to fade away. Women started to be looked at as objects. Jerry Springer and Maury Povich were presenting Black women as these loud, arrogant, mean-spirited creatures. This angered me as a man who has aunts, was raised by a great mother, a wonderful person, a nurse, with other amazing women around me. I saw it shift. I saw how their image was being compromised and I wanted to do something about it.”
The show was created during a particular socio-political moment. In the advent of the last federal election, Ajani had her eye on Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Keisha Lance Bottoms. “This room, when you first walk into the exhibition, is the visual representation of the exchange we saw between (Senator) Cory Booker and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the way he showed up for her (at the 2022 Judiciary Committee Hearing).” There are many images of Black men, both famous and unknown, showing love to their queens. The show is also complex, nuanced, putting that good pressure on the prevailing collective consciousness of the State and also, on the Black community itself, men and women alike. At its core, however, it remains a sacred, deeply personal eulogy to the Sisters, the Queens, these shining avatars of Ajani’s sister, a queen taken far too soon.
“There’s an image in the exhibition, a larger than life vinyl image, a truly grand image of this Black woman holding space, positioned over a white elevator shaft in the museum that I made them paint Black. It was one of the first images I selected, this picture of a woman wearing a shearling coat,” Ajani says with a preemptive, defiant giggle. “My sister loved shearling coats. We all did at the time. She had just got hers. It was custom made, gray with white fur around the collar. One day, two men approached her on the street and tried to rob her. They said they wanted her purse and her coat. She said, ‘You can take my purse, but you can’t have my shearling coat.’ I still have that coat to this day.” WM