Jamel Shabazz is a photojournalist with an edge. Driven simply by a deep curiosity for other human beings Shabazz creates electrifying images of equally electrifying individuals, all of whom hinge on the cusp of regular society.
Memorialising New York’s Stonewall Riots of June 1969, which marks the birth of the Gay Pride movement as well as the mutual recognition of rights for gays and lesbians, every year on the last day of June, Gay Pride engulfs Greenwich Village in a phenomenal parade which attracts millions of people of all ethnicities, sexualities, genders and classes. Shabazz with an aching desire to find “drama and flavour” began documenting the celebration annually, showcasing the diversity and energy of the gay community. This resulted in the publication of the mesmerising book entitled, “The Last Sunday in June” which acts as a ten-year retrospective of New York’s Gay Pride Parade.
The Last Sunday in June
The book consists mainly of colour images, dispersed with text and colours of the rainbow reflecting gay pride symbols. Usually I like neutral or muted colours in photographs, but the richness and vibrancy evident in the images of “The Last Sunday in June” reflect the individuals being depicted perfectly. The series features a glittering cast: luscious lesbians, tasteful transsexuals, delightful drag queens and garish gay men, all dressed up in their Sunday best. Shabazz captures people in love to people who are transgender. It’s a whirlwind and highlights the fluidity of gender magically. A few of my favourite images are the more outlandish ones. Some images reinforce what makes up a “gay” appearance: leather, bondage, thongs and cowboy hats are all employed. However cliché it puts into perspective how certain fashions are seen to reflect a gay sexuality. By taking on all those signs of homosexuality, in a way they are mocking and making a laugh at what we consider to be gay and saying “And what?”. I also like the close up shots of peoples clothing and lover’s hands. It forces you to pick out the smaller details as well as intimacy.
The black and white image of three individuals who at first glance all appear to be female is also deeply intriguing because of its attention to detail again. Upon further examination, and carefully deconstructing the appearances within the image i.e. what is masculine and what is feminine about these individuals you realise that two (at least) are drag queens. The chiselled jaw, the muscular arm and the large fingers, all male attributes, reveal their “true” identity. However, upon first glance you see only three beautiful women, one of which holds a striking resemblance to Cameron Diaz. For me this element of investigation and making you, the viewer, think what is masculine/feminine is what is so exciting. This attention to minor details and inviting the audience to challenge what is before them is something I want to create in my own images.
Outlandish, raw and striking Shabazz’s photographs of the gay community go above and beyond the usual images churned out by other photojournalists. Shabazz is not simply photographing an unknown world or strange community from afar or with discomfort, this is his community. These are the people that excite him, these are the individuals which break the mould and express what it means to be human. These are the remarkable individuals who are still marginalized, criticised and seen as “outside the box”. Ease and humility exude from the images which is what makes the images so thought-provoking. By highlighting their beauty and warmth, Shabazz puts into question why are these individuals marginalized and treated with hostility still? Why should we accept the binary nature of gender? Why can’t this diversity be seen as the true “normalcy” within society?
Images of the queer community often have negative connotations: aids, disease, misery and even death. But Shabazz highlights the queer community’s utter strength, diversity and love: it is quite overwhelming. It brings into light how ridiculous hegemonic “norms” are as well as the rigid views society holds in regards to sexuality and gender. Whilst fashions are now changing, welcoming a break from gender “norms” these images would still be deemed shocking or even wrong by some people. That’s why I find it so important in producing work which gives the individuals within the queer community a voice and a chance to be seen in a way they want to be.
As a reader you are invited into the celebration as well as the excitement and happiness expressed by each of the individuals photographed. For me Shabazz captures the very essence of these remarkable human beings, highlighting their glamour as much as their dignity in a series that truly sparkles. I too want to capture the essence of the unique individuals I choose to photograph. I hope to capture individuals who aren’t afraid to break away from the rigid gender binary and feel confident in their identity and appearance when taking on the opposite gender. Masculine women and feminine men, a touch of lip gloss or a shaven head, I want to highlight the strength of being diverse and show how the binary nature of gender will one day be a thing of the past.
What strikes me most about this series of images is that all the individuals appear relaxed, lost in a whirlwind of excitement and liberation. My subjects comfort level and ease is of utmost importance to me and I hope I can gage this feeling of “this is my tribe” like Shabazz has when embarking on my own project. I don’t want my models to appear afraid or vulnerable. Rather liberated, showcasing the fluidity of gender and excitement for the future of gender and sexuality. Society has grown so much already but I feel that these individuals: gays, lesbians, transsexuals and so on are still often ignored and marginalized. By highlighting their beauty and humility as well as their uniqueness, like in the images from “The Last Sunday of June” I feel I can show that these individuals pave the way for a brighter and more diverse future. The book has inspired me to search out “drama and flavour” like Shabazz and to get involved in the gay scene. It’s inspired me to visit gay bars and to get acquainted with individuals who tint this colourful community.
Shabazz, J (2003) The Last Sunday In June PowerHouse Books: New York
Publishers Weekly (6 January 2003) THE LAST SUNDAY IN JUNE: Photographs by Jamel Shabazz [online] available from< http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-57687-172-0> [4 March 2014]
The New York Times (18 July 2003) ART IN REVIEW; Jamel Shabazz — ‘Last Sunday in June: A Decade of Photographs’ [online] available from< http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/18/arts/art-in-review-jamel-shabazz-last-sunday-in-june-a-decade-of-photographs.html> [4 March 2014]