Creative Roots Badge

This month-long inspiration series celebrating Black icons and influences features teachers we admire highlighting the creatives who sparked their own journeys. They’ll share their personal projects inspired by these icons, and invite you to create along with them.   

Meet Steve Sweatpants, aka Steve John Irby, photographer, editor-at-large, social director, and co-founder of Street Dreams Magazine. Steve was born and raised in New York City, where he honed his creative vision as a photographer. He’s captivated countless fans and followers through his incredible captures from the protests for racial justice earlier in 2020, and his refined-yet-raw outlook on the place he calls home.

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Steve Sweatpants’ Inspiration: Jamel Shabazz, visionary photographer of Brooklyn’s street scene

Portraits by Jamel Shabazz hung on a wall. © Creative Commons.
Portraits by Jamel Shabazz hung on a wall. © Creative Commons.

If you’re familiar with Steve’s work, you may already know his creative inspiration: Jamel Shabazz. Jamel was also born and raised in New York City, documenting street style and hip-hop culture dating back to the early ‘80s. From then to now, Jamel has been a leading visual voice in portraying life on the streets of Brooklyn. His work has graced the covers of iconic albums (Undun by The Roots) as well as exhibitions and books. Perusing his work is like transporting yourself right into Brooklyn’s very DNA, and we were so excited to hear Steve’s take on the powerful photographs of Jamel Shabazz.

Photography is one of those rare magical tools that you can actually freeze time.

Tell us about your chosen creative icon. How has their creative work influenced your process or style?

I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to the way his work and process has influenced me and my craft. Being from Brooklyn like me, Jamel photographing his neighborhood and the people that live there is some of the most important documentation of our time. 

Being present is half the battle and his fight to show the love and triumphant moments of the Black experience, is what I’ve been very cognizant of since I’ve started my love affair with art.                    

This week, you are releasing a previously unpublished photo from this summer. When you were heading out this day, what were you hoping to capture?

This was on June 19, 2020. Last year was one for the ages with the pandemic, the civil unrest, and peaceful protest against police brutality. The summer had such a frenetic pace to it. As dark as some days felt, there were so many moments of relief and togetherness in a time when human contact was damn near fatal.

I heard that there was going to be a rally and march right by my crib in Bedford Stuyvesant. I took the quick 10 minute walk to make it there and I was immediately engaged with the moment taking place. We started to march down Broadway, and it just felt surreal. I still get the goosebumps thinking about it.  

We eventually made it to the entrance of the bridge, and I thought to myself, “would I really have a chance to march across the bridge?” Everything was happening so fast, that I just made sure that I kept my feet moving and my eyes and ears open. Then it started to happen, we actually made our way across the bridge! I made sure to be in front of the pack, because I wanted to make sure I could get the clearest and cleanest view of the scene. 

It felt like such a powerful and timeless event, so I wanted the photograph to emote those same feelings. I decided to crouch in the front and compose the frame with not only the homie celebrating life and feeling empowered in the photograph, but also with the bridge in the background to show you where we are. 

Photo by Steven John Irby on June 19, 2020 in New York City.
Photo by Steven John Irby on June 19, 2020 in New York City.

What do you want readers to learn from your creative icon Jamel Shabazz?

I want everyone to love the little things first. Life is so fleeting, that photography is one of those rare magical tools that we can actually freeze time. When that happens, we can actually collect our thoughts and get back to remembering why being human is important – how it’s beautiful to see where everyone comes from and the stories that can be shared like folktales. That’s what I feel when I look at Jamel Shabazz’s work, and what I hope I can communicate with mine. 

Photo by Jamel Shabazz   ; Brooklyn, NY in the 1980’s.
Photo by Jamel Shabazz; Brooklyn, NY in the 1980’s.

“Being present is half the battle and his fight to show the love and triumphant moments of the Black experience, is what I have been very cognizant of since I’ve started my love affair with art. ”

What do you want our readers and community to reflect on when looking at your photography?

I want the community and the world to see the full spectrum of the Black experience. I’m proud to be a born-and-raised New Yorker, to be Black and from a family of strong Black men and women. The stereotypes we have to break down everyday is a lifelong fight, and instead of investing into politics, I invest into people. Remember the little things, hug your homies, enjoy this short ride, and leave something real behind.

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Lastly, what’s one thing you’re doing this month (February) to bring you joy?

The best way to spread some joy is supplying everyone with some Bitcoin and some honey buns. But besides that, I’m trying to make sure that I practice self-love and being more present to my mental and spiritual health. Going into my mid-30s, the Black experience has been a full spectrum. But what always gave me the most peace of mind is when I can take care of my people, and they take care of me. So the more that I love myself, I can love my community, and hopefully pass that on to the next young king or queen, so we can keep the progress alive. 

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Photo courtesy of Steven John Irby.
Photo courtesy of Steven John Irby.

Week 2 Creative Prompt

For week 2 of My Creative Roots, Steve invites you to head out into your community at a safe social distance with a camera (smartphones count, too!)! Try to capture the small moments or characters that give your neighborhood its feel and character, paying close attention to those who often get erased in representation.

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Thanks for hanging out with us during Week Two of My Creative Roots. Watch this space and follow along on our Instagram for more spotlights on Skillshare teachers and the incredible Black icons who inspired them. Better yet – sign up for our email list to receive weekly creative challenges from our teachers in honor of their icons.

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To learn more about legendary street photographer Jamel Shabazz, we recommend these interviews: