Legendary Photographer Jamel Shabazz Reveals Profound Depths with “Pieces of a Man”

Photo: Untitled, East Flatbush, 1990.

(Art Voices Art Books), the newest monograph by legendary photographer Jamel Shabazz, is a tremendous undertaking, bringing us around the world and across time, yet always able to center on what we all share as human beings. The title speaks to the way in which each of us are so many things in this life and on this earth, with each photograph capturing a facet of our infinite complexity. The book, like the individual, proves that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and yet sometimes we feel fragmented, or must only reveal one part of ourselves, and still remain authentic to our souls.

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Pieces of a Man is a story of love and loss, of joy and pain, of life and death and rebirth with each page. It’s like listening to a classic album like What’s Going On—absolutely overwhelming and yet, you want to listen to it over and over. Shabazz talks with Crave, providing us with a treasure trove of insight and inspiration.

Waiting, Brownsville, Brooklyn, 2012

Please talk about the inspiration for the book. What inspired you to go back into your archive and create such a powerful edit of work?

Jamel Shabazz: It’s so ironic that you would mention What’s Going On because that was that album that really touched my heart and opened my eyes to a world that I was experiencing personally as an adolescent trying to find my way in the 1970s. I felt a deep connection to every track. Interestingly enough, for inspiration in formulating ideals for Pieces of a Man, I watched the live performance by Marvin Gaye on YouTube of ” What’s Going On ” and “What’s Happening Brother?”  What Marvin expressed in his music, I wanted to similarly communicate in my photography.

Besides Marvin Gaye, I revisited the work of legendary photographer Gordon Parks, first by rereading A Choice of Weapons, which allowed me to understand personal journey, and then studying his retrospective book, Half Past Autumn, to see his creative process.

The next phase was to go back into my archive, which was a task within itself, having amassed so much material over the years. I looked for photographs that made statements, both direct and indirect. Having worked on a series called “In the News” for over three decades, this body of work focused on major breaking news headlines, primarily here in New York. Many of the photographs selected were from the early stages of Iraq war, and after the presidential election of Barack Obama. The various protests behind the invasion of Iraq was another important issue I wanted to include in this project.

Overall Pieces of a Man is a visual history made specifically, but not limited for many who were born between 1960-1990; a very different perspective that may not be found in traditional history/photography books, but now has a place and will hopefully serve as a source of inspiration and understanding.

Lockdown, NYC, 2000

Please speak about the criterion for selecting the photographs featured in the book and how they fulfill your vision of what makes Pieces of a Man.

The titles of my books are just as important as the images. Looking at the thousands of photographs I’ve created over time, I realized that they were all very essential pieces of my journey, each having their own unique DNA. I broke down each individual photograph according to its relationship to my life. I wanted the book to open with a child being born, symbolic not only to me, but to those born particularity during the 1960s-1980s.

Some things have not really changed, for example, young African American males are still being shot down in the streets and we as a nation are still fighting a protracted war. Much of my life has been shaped by the events that transpired during the 1960s. So with Pieces of a Man, I had a vision to incorporate a number of provocative photographs that dealt with politics and protests. My past books are often viewed in terms of personal style and fashion, but with this book, I felt the need to change the narrative. There is an element of fashion in there, but more importantly there are quite a few photographs scattered throughout, representing a host of subject matters from Reagan-ism, poverty, police misconduct, anti- war protestors, veterans and the Presidential election of Barack Obama.

Untitled, NYC, 2004

You have dedicated Pieces of a Man to the Gil Scott-Heron and I would love if you could speak about the man and his legacy. What about his being and his work has inspired and influenced you as both an artist and a man? How do your photographs speak to the on-going issues that he addressed?

I was first introduced to the musical genius of Gil Scott-Heron around 1975, the same year I started making images. It was hearing his hit song ” In the Bottle” on a local radio station that sparked a light in me and allowed me to better understand the struggle of alcohol abuse as well as the complications of being a black child coming of age. Ironically, I had just started drinking cheap wine and malt liquor to suppress my own personal struggle as my parents had divorced that same year, changing my entire life for the worse.

It was the music of that time period that stimulated my mind and gave me a better sense of balance and perspective and during the summer of 1980, I got deep into the heart and soul of Gil Scott Heron. Through his uncompromising music, I learned about history from a whole new perspective. Gil was the first person I knew that rapped about this new synthetic drug called “Angel Dust.” That drug literally contributed to many of my peers losing their minds, necessitating many to be admitted to mental institutions. It really hit home when a close friend of mine committed suicide by jumping off a building after ingesting this dreadful drug.

It was through the music of Gil, that I learned a different spin on American politics, from Nixon’s Watergate scandal to the then actor Ronald Reagan, becoming president. In his profound song “The Prisoner,” Gil brought me into the mind of a black inmate trapped in a cell and surrounded by hatred and racial injustice. That particular song helped me to better understand the plight of those incarcerated. His 1997 album ” Spirits” really opened me up. In that particular album, he candidly discusses his own struggle with drug addiction, but at the same time, spoke about the collaboration between the military and big corporations; as we know war is big business.

I was blessed to have seen and documented Gil during a few of his appearances here in NY during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. What Gil Scott Heron, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield did with their musical talents, I was inspired to do using photography as the medium. Within the pages of ‘Pieces of a Man there are so many images that overtly deal with some of the same issues that Gil spoke of. All of this came full circle as the last time I saw Gil he was a detainee struggling to overcome his own addiction. Personally, there was very little I could do for him at that point, so I opted to use my camera even more as a way to address what Gil so passionately conveyed during his journey as a concerned artist.

Our Loss, Washington, D.C., 2000

The vast majority of my photographs represent a special collaboration between me as a visionary and my subjects. It’s a mutual exchange that is grounded in respect and positive energy. I make it a point to carry this vibration everywhere I go, from encountering a young high school student in Addis Abba, Ethiopia to the homeless person on the street corners of America. Being able to connect and have exchanges with people, is always a gratifying experience; one of the blessings I have chosen to embark upon and various platforms of social media that have enabled me to share much of what I’ve gained with the larger world.

I am able to accomplish this, not only with my photographs, but with the work of other important photographers, inspiring music and provocative movies and documentaries. Like music, photography is a powerful universal language that has allowed me communicate with people both near and far, forging new friendships and special connections. That, I can say, has been the best part of this entire experience!

Couples, Addis Ababa, 2010

All photos: © Jamel Shabazz

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.