Behind The Photo With Jamel Shabazz

Our perception of a photograph can change significantly just by knowing what happened before or after the photograph was taken, or what was on either side of the frame. Our experience can be made so much richer knowing why the photographer chose this particular moment in time. So many stories lie between interpretation and intention.

One of New York City’s most iconic street photographers, Jamel Shabazz is probably best known for transporting us back in time through his photographs of the pioneers of hip-hop music and style in 1980s Brooklyn, as documented in Charlie Ahearn’s Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer. But these photographs are so much more than witness to a cultural phenomenon, they‚Äôre peaceful moments borrowed from a violent time in the city‚Äôs history.

While Shabazz’s work is largely synonymous with New York, it’s not by any means confined to his home city. Shabazz has shot meaningful stories on streets around the world. It’s a privilege to share his words as he takes us through 10 of the photographs that have been important to him, sharing the story behind each.

As a selection, the images highlight issues that are still prevalent today and take us through Shabazz’s career; from a poignant moment in the days after 9/11 to taking one of his very first photographs with a digital camera in Milan in 2008.


Rude Boy

Rude Boy. © Jamel Shabazz
Rude Boy. © Jamel Shabazz

When I returned back to Brooklyn after serving a 3 year tour of duty in the United States Army in Germany in 1980, to my surprise I observed that a number of young men were losing their lives to senseless violence. During my time away there was a lot of internal conflict existing in my neighborhood and I had come home to a war zone. Seeing all of this violence, I took to the streets talking to young men in particular about the need to stop the killing. Kerral who lived around the corner from me was a couple of years my junior. He was charismatic and always a dapper dresser. I took a great interest in him for he was a natural born leader with an inquisitive mind. Unbeknownst to me at that time, Kerral had a lot of enemies, some I even knew personally. On the day I captured this photo of him he was vibrant and very hopeful; sadly this would be the last time I would see him. He was viciously ¬†murdered for reasons that are still unknown to me ¬†This one photograph would be one of my most iconic images from the 1980s and I entitled it “Rude Boy” a popular term from the Caribbean islands meaning in part “Bad Boy.”

Lock Down

The Prisoner. © Jamel Shabazz
Lock Down. © Jamel Shabazz

America has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world and an overwhelming number of prisoners are Black and Brown. Harsh drug laws and a booming business in the prison industry have taken the lives of countless men and women who really need rehabilitation over incarceration.¬†This photograph was taken in a holding cell at Manhattan Supreme Court in New York City. The subject in the photograph is awaiting a court hearing. He was like many defendants who are often poor and battling a combination of drug and mental health issues. In 1983 I became a New York City Correction Officer where I would spend twenty years working in one of the largest jails in the United States. On this day I wanted to capture a photograph from the defendant’s point of view. So I placed myself in the cell with him and made this photograph that represented the condition of countless other young men who were incarcerated. Throughout my career I would often place myself in this same cell to be reminded of how my life could have been drastically different if I had not made the right choices.

In Search of my Father

In Search of my Father. © Jamel Shabazz
In Search of my Father. © Jamel Shabazz

I captured this shot during a 2008 journey to Okinawa, Japan with my good friend, a former United States Marine who was stationed on the island during the 1980s. While visiting his old base in the city of NaHa we came upon the club pictured in the photograph. I found the exterior decoration of this structure rather interesting as the American flag was represented along with red lips. As a former serviceman, I knew what this type of club stood for; it was a place where American servicemen met with local women and liaisons were formed. As I stood studying the club, I saw the young woman in the photograph walking in my direction and I instantly knew that she was Amerasian. Without hesitation, I asked her if I could take her photo. Her English was very limited, but she complied. In conversing with her, she told me that her mother had a relationship with an American soldier producing two siblings, but that their father had returned to the United States never to be heard from him again. I wanted to know more about her father but all she knew of him was that his name was “Joe” and he lived in the state of Georgia. Later I would research and discover that there exist over 4 000 abandoned Amerasian children living in Okinawa; most are poor and face various forms of racial discrimination as well as bullying. This photograph serves as a constant reminder of their struggle.

Child Soldiers

Child Soldiers. © Jamel Shabazz
Child Soldiers. © Jamel Shabazz

This photograph was made in 2009 at the New York City Veterans Day Parade, one of the largest parades in the country. As I walked by I could not help but to notice the faces of these children who were all military cadets in training. The older male dressed in a United States Marine Corp uniform was the center of attention and admiration of the younger boys. As I captured this photograph, I wondered how many of these young boys would graduate from the cadet program and eventually go to war. Since 2001 my government has been at war and thousands upon thousands of young men and women from both sides have lost their lives.

A New Day and Time

A New Day and Time. © Jamel Shabazz
A New Day and Time. © Jamel Shabazz

This photograph was taken hours after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. As a law enforcement officer I was a part of the search and recovery effort. From a short distance, while taking a brief pause from sifting through the massive wreckage, I saw this young fireman sitting alone on a hill, seemingly processing the destruction that surrounded him. I was hesitant to pull out my concealed camera, not wanting to appear that I was exploiting the situation as I made a conscious decision to capture this historic moment, for I knew it would preserve a very tragic day.

When Two Worlds Meet

When 2 Worlds Meet. © Jamel Shabazz
When Two Worlds Meet. © Jamel Shabazz

I was heading home from a day of work and decided to stop by a local coffee shop to decompress. In front of the store was this elderly woman who appeared destitute, sitting on the concrete with an extended cup asking for financial support. I briefly made contact with her and entered the establishment. While inside, I purposely positioned myself in front of the window looking outward as a number of people passed by. Having a unique position, I pulled out my 35 mm camera which had a fresh roll of thirty six frames, and commenced to photograph this struggling woman, along with the various subjects who would either walk by ignoring her or others who sympathetically placed money in her cup. I took this particular photograph 3/4 ¬†through the roll. I thought it would be interesting to show the parallel between an impoverished woman vs a women who appeared well off, passing by carrying a “Gucci Bag”. ¬†As I was about to put my camera away, a disheveled homeless man made his way towards the woman and placed change in her cup. This was a humbling life lesson that will stay with me forever.


Ballers. Toronto, 2007. © Jamel Shabazz
Ballers. Toronto, 2007. © Jamel Shabazz

After completing a photography workshop at the Regent Park housing complex in Toronto, I came upon these young men playing a game of one on one basketball. Viewing the game from an opening in the fence, I anticipated something magical was about to happen, so I lifted my camera and followed the motion. Within seconds, I captured this image of sheer determination between two talented young men from two different cultures. Months later the community in which this photograph was made, and which was home to many of Toronto’s poor and immigrant population, was demolished to make way for high end condos for the wealthy.

Youth and Age

Youth and Age. © Jamel Shabazz
Youth and Age. © Jamel Shabazz

I captured this photograph during a journey to Amsterdam back in 2002. As I was waiting for a train to take me to the airport, I noticed the two couples in front of me. My eye was instantly drawn to every aspect of this image; the age difference, the posture and items that were in their possession. ‘Youth and Age’ seemed to be the most befitting title, reflecting a natural transition we all must go through.

Black in Milan

Black in Milan. © Jamel Shabazz
Black in Milan. © Jamel Shabazz

During a 2008 visit to Milan for an exhibition, I decided to go on a photographic expedition in hopes of capturing an iconic photograph. Moments into my journey I noticed a well dressed young Senegalese man appearing to be in deep thought. At the same time I observed a slow moving trolley car approaching. Without hesitation I raised my Canon 5D, freezing this moment in time. The subject photographed was an aspiring model who had dreams of pursuing a professional career in Italy. This image would be one of my very first using a digital camera.

Stop the Killing

War Protestor. © Jamel Shabazz
Stop the Killing. © Jamel Shabazz

While in the city of Detroit, Michigan photographing the local community, I came upon this gentleman standing outside his unique doorway, in thought. Intrigued by this individual and his artistic surroundings, I couldn’t help but to start a conversation to learn more about him. His name was John and he was a former soldier in the United States Army. Angered by the senseless deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of innocent children and civilians, he created a jacket with replicas of burned body parts from discarded dolls, as a sign of protest against war. His aim was to wear the jacket every day until the United States withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan. John is a true American hero and an artist that is using his talent to address social issues and injustice.


  1. It is a cliche that every picture tells a story bit Jamal’s additional narrative adds a whole dimension. Beautiful pictures that I am repeatedly drawn back to. Well done.

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