Defying Gravity: Jamel Shabazz Makes the Ordinary Extraordinary

This image showcases the New York photographer’s ability to find the magical in the everyday.

Jamel Shabazz, Flying High, Brownsville, Brooklyn, 1982. Courtesy the artist

Street photography is usually concerned with capturing the everyday, the mundane even, when subjects are often unaware of the scrutiny of the camera lens or otherwise merely tolerate its presence. By contrast, Brooklyn-born Jamel Shabazz seeks out moments of joyous theatre, camaraderie and posturing, from all across New York’s outer boroughs.

The photographer is unconcerned with the heavily documented glitz of midtown Manhattan’s main streets, instead focusing on Red Hook, Brownsville, Flatbush, Harlem, and the formerly downtrodden Lower East Side, where every sidewalk nevertheless serves as a stage. He snaps groups of kids playing in abandoned shopping carts, carnival dancers rehearsing, loving embraces and powerful poses, all of which serve to present a rich picture of multicultural life in the metropolis.

“Jamel Shabazz seeks out moments of joyous theatre, camaraderie and posturing, from all across New York’s outer boroughs”

Take this image, aptly titled Flying High. It captures a moment of suspended thrill, as a child performs an acrobatic backflip above a pile of used mattresses. It isn’t possible to know whether the trick will end in triumph, and in this shot it seems less as if the boy is in motion, but floating. Shabazz chronicles a slice of magic in an otherwise unremarkable setting, where even the accompanying friends seem unfazed by the action taking place.

Shabazz refers to his practice as “visual medicine”, one that began at the age of fifteen as a way of documenting his peers, and still strives to dismantle negative stereotypes surrounding the city’s Black and brown youth and show the rich communities that come together on the street. The result is images of joy and playfulness, where active participation supersedes the covert and at times invasive process so often expected from the genre.

Holly Black is Elephant’s managing editor

Jamal Shabazz: Eyes on the Street is at the Bronx Museum of the Arts until 4 September



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