Last autumn I came across a book called Back in the Days, by Jamel Shabazz. This collection of street photography was taken in some of the poorest parts of New York City, during the early 1980s. The pictures blew me away.
The photographer, trusted by the people he photographed because he grew up there, documented street life of the time in areas like Brooklyn, Harlem and Queens, and captured the style and attitude of neighbourhoods in what was the early stages of the hip hop era.
I bought a copy of the book for Luuk Diphoorn (it’s currently a coffee table book at Akvo HQ in Amsterdam). I felt it was a powerful reminder that out of poverty and struggle often come new definitions of culture and style. People may be relatively poor in those photos but they mainly look great. Shabazz captures the confidence and aspiration of individuals, and the strength and articulation of their collective identity. He helped bring into focus and capture a mood that went on to influence American and indeed global culture.
Growing up in poor neighbourhoods doesn’t necessarily look the way we’re used to seeing it presented. And I think we have to understand and reflect on “poverty” as a phase, not an end point. And it’s something that concerns real people, not nameless faces.
As digital tools get into the hands of vast numbers of people in slums and poor rural villages around the world, I think we’re going to see the emergence of a great many Shabazzes and a pretty amazing creative renaissance – already many trends in music and fashion are coming from Africa, not the United States or Europe. Vast new interconnected audiences in developing countries will begin building a new, contemporary identity. Everyone involved in following this change, especially those who work in international development, should recognise they’re documenting real people with real pride and often an amazing sense of identity that will go on to define what the 21st century will look and feel like.
So I say look out for the new Shabazzes. Because these talented, observant, creative people will play a central role in bringing into focus, and bringing to life, the character of the extraordinary era we’re living in right now.
Mark Charmer is a co-founder and communications director of Akvo.
(This was going to be the topic of my CharmerVision(tm) presentation at the Akvo Amsterdam team meeting early this month, except somehow we never got around to putting it in the schedule. Maybe I’ll do it another time, showing some of the photos from the book.)