Brooklyn, New York
How did you get your start in street photography?
My father is a photographer. He picked up the craft when he went into the Navy. My home was rich with photography. So early on, I remember reading various books on photography. I developed a deep appreciation through these publications although I didn't physically pick up a camera and start making images until I was 15-years-old.
I had a friend whose cousin was a member of a gang and a street photographer. I remember going to his home and looking in his photo album, being astonished by his images of young men on the street of Brooklyn. It was at that point I decided to pick up a camera and shoot in a similar way. It started with me shooting portraits in my community. When I returned home from the Army in 1980, with the increase of homelessness and prostitution at the time, I became passionate about documenting the streets to try and better understand what was going on around me.
Your photos truly embody the essence of young black urban life in 80’s, what messages should viewers garner from those photographs?
My primary focus is people from my community. Sadly, a lot of men and women died from that era. When I share these photos with individuals who grew up and understood what occurred in the community at that time, it can be very personal and emotional for them. I want to them to remember the time, and the impact crack and war had on our community. My photos serve as a form of visual medicine. Some of the people I photographed never made it to 25 years old, so I'm finding a lot of the children of the men I photographed who died prematurely, reaching out to me and thanking me for having pictures of their loved ones. I've had young men whose picture I took back in the day hit me up and tell me they didn't have pictures of themselves from that time and I was the only person to photograph them.
On a global level, I strive to show the world a counter-narrative to the negatively we all too often see in the predominately black and brown community. I aim to show images that display friendship, love, unity and style at the same time.
You have a new book "Sights in the City: New York Photographs." Can you give us some insight on what we can expect from this release?
Unlike my traditional work that typically consists of posed portraits of people I meet on the street, the majority of the work is hardcore documentary and street photography. This work is more intense and very political to a degree. I've shot veterans who had just returned home from war, poverty, despair, as well as friendships. I'm also introducing a lot of prostitution images that I had documented over the years as I was doing proactive work to get women off the street. This book has a different feel; I collaborated with a different publishing company from my previous books, and a lot of the images in this book have never been seen before.
What I wanted to do with this particular book is give balance to the misinterpretation of my work. Many people speak to me about my photos are posed, but over the past 30-40 years I have been taking pictures, there has always been a balance of posed and spontaneous photos. I decided to put a book out with images that are predominantly spontaneous moments.
Gentrification is constantly changing the landscape of New York, what are your thoughts on the evolving culture shifts and its effect on street photography?
Regarding street photography, [gentrification] has brought new people into the community which has increased your ability as a photographer to capture diversity. Now, you can find people from France, Japan, and China living in Harlem and Brooklyn where you didn't see that before. As a photographer, your eye can go beyond the local people in your community, and you can enhance that by documenting these new people.
Do you have a favorite photo?
All my photographs are special and dear to me, but the covers of my books do resonate greatly with me. The cover photo for my new book, Sights in the City, is special because it represents me following the instructions provided by my father who guided me into photography. He told me to carry my camera everywhere you go regardless of the weather conditions, always have it set at 1/25th of a sec at 5.6, and keep your eye open. When I look at that photo, I remember it was raining, I had my camera, and it was correctly set; so when I came upon the man swinging the dog, I was able to capture it instantly. It went on to be one of my most iconic photographs.
With the introduction of camera phones and social media, what direction do you think street photography will go in the future?
I appreciate the fact so many people are picking up photography and they are using their camera phone as a tool to capture those moments. I see some excellent work, and I'm impressed by that. It has become this global phenomenon where everyone in this generation is a photographer and seeing the beauty in visual storytelling.
What’s next for Jamel?
I'm working on two new book projects, one featuring all my subway photographs from 1980 to the present. I spent a lot of time in the New York City subway system over the years, so I'm gathering up all those images and putting them in book form. The other will feature the neighborhood I grew up in, East Flatbush, which is the community I have documented more than any other community throughout my travels.
I was asked by the City of Philadelphia to participate in A Mural’s Art project, where I will be developing a mural on African American veterans in Germantown, Philadelphia.
What quote or motto do you live your life by?
Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def) has been a great inspiration to me over the years. His song Umi Says is reflective of what I feel each and every day. There's a verse in that song "I ain't no perfect man/I'm just trying to do the best I can with what it is I have" I live by that verse, and it keeps me humble. In addition to what Confucius says: "Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it."