This was taken in 1981, in Brownsville, my neighbourhood in Brooklyn. I was 21 and my father, who photographed weddings and took portraits in our community, had been teaching me the science of speed and light, and how to capture decisive moments. When I came upon this scene in an abandoned parking lot, I felt something was coming on. They reminded me of myself as a child. Observing them was like reliving my own childhood. I took three frames, but it wasn’t until I got the film developed that I realised I had created something magical.
This has become one of my most popular images. It’s housed in a number of renowned institutions in the US. It was used on the cover of Undun, the album by hip-hop band the Roots. It’s also the cover of one of my books, Seconds of My Life. A magical image is, for me, one that has a magnetism, that draws you in and holds your attention. You don’t need a caption. You can study it and draw your own conclusion.
I did military service in Germany in the 1970s. I’d often try to visualise New York – the subways, the streets – just to keep my sanity. When I came home, I decided to document every aspect of my life. The camera became a compass that led me down different paths. It drew people to me and allowed me to get a sense of what had been going on in America during my absence. It was a basic manual Canon AE-1 Program that I carried everywhere.
In the late 90s, I decided to become professional. I spent hours in book and magazine stores looking at the work of other photographers, and I’d go to galleries, too. I presented my work to the hip-hop magazine the Source. To my surprise, they told me the timing was perfect: they were having a special anniversary issue and gave me a 10-page spread.
The work I gave the Source resonated with people all over the world. They had not seen images like this – of everyday people they were able to relate to. In 2001, my first book, Back in the Days, was published. I was doing portraits of people from my community and some neighbourhoods I’d visit. I focused on certain themes: homelessness, prostitution, Vietnam veterans, world war two veterans.
My work is often defined as fashion and hip-hop. But people who saw themselves as being cool were more open to being photographed, so they’re a common factor in my early work. It’s deeper than that, though. I was looking into the souls of my people, and of people in general. When I came home from the army, the US was hit by two crises: Aids and crack. My work took on a new relevance, especially among those who fell victim to addiction. I started to see my photography as visual medicine. I would carry my portfolios with me, to engage young people in the street about life and choices. My photographs helped me to speak with them about what was going on, with drugs and other obstacles on the path.
My ultimate goal is to find the young men who are in this picture. That would give me clarity as to why I froze that moment in time. Every week people write to me, seeing themselves or a loved one in my photographs. I don’t look at it as photography any more – it’s alchemy. I freeze a moment, thaw it out and share it with the world, giving it a whole new life.
Jamel Shabazz’s CV
Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1960.
Training: “I was taught photography by my father who was a professional.”
High point: “Winning the Gordon Parks award for documentary photography in 2018.”
Low point: “Witnessing the 9/11 attacks in New York.”
Top tip: “Use your gift to help make this world a better place.”