Photographer Tarique Al-Shabazz is fascinated by human intimacy. We’re at a studio in east London that belongs to a couple he knows. They have been together for just under a year, and pad around the space in matching bathrobes, offering me something to drink while Al-Shabazz sets up for the shoot. “I won’t really have to direct them much,” he tells me. “The way they move together is crazy. You’ll see what I mean.”
The couple remove their bathrobes and are almost completely naked, apart from matching lace underwear. Al-Shabazz asks them to do whatever feels comfortable, and starts taking photos. There are no awkward pauses, no hands in the wrong place, or falling over one another – they stop only to kiss when they catch each other’s gaze. It’s completely natural. I immediately see what Al-Shabazz means. “They’re my favourite to shoot,” he smiles.
Al-Shabazz began taking photos of people sharing intimate and sexual moments two years ago, and now has more than 13,700 followers on Instagram. His subjects are usually people he knows, and inspiration for the photo series initially came from one of his own relationships.
“We met in the shop she worked at, and the first time I saw her, we kind of just gave each other eyes,” he remembers. “It’s the most non-discriminatory approach by just thinking, ‘I don’t know her but I like this person’s energy and I’m attracted to her.’ So I knew I really want to work on exploring how important intimacy is in terms of it being such a good foundation for non-discriminatory behaviour.”
Al-Shabazz’s photos feature nudity, but not in the gratuitous style of Terry Richardson. Instead, subjects pose with their friends or partners, lounging on beds or draped across one another. While sex is implied in the photos – in "No Shame", a woman appears multiple times on the same bed with different men – it isn’t explicit. Al-Shabazz prefers to explore the stories behind relationships.
“I always try to create something that accurately represents the individuals I’m working with," Al-Shabazz explains. “Although it showcases my artwork, it shows the behaviours of the youth, more importantly."
The 24-year-old photographer's upbringing has an influence on his work. Growing up, his strict Nigerian father wouldn’t let him go out to socialise with friends, preferring that he concentrated on school work. “I knew I wanted to do art and design, so I had to do it on the side," Al-Shabazz remembers. "When I was younger, I’d be doing art pieces in the middle of the night. My dad would come in and be like, ‘Put that down, that won’t help you get into medical school.’”
Al-Shabazz deliberately focuses on shooting young people, in particular those from the African diaspora. He also works to include a mix of genders, sexual orientations and races. “It’s hard to build the courage to do things when you can’t see other people doing it," he says. "But I think people should take advantage of social media and when they think something is important to talk about you’ve got an opportunity to show people who might have never acted on it before.”
This focus on representation has earned Al-Shabazz many fans on social media – especially those with a similar family history. He plays me a voice note from one of his followers, which states: “Growing up, my parents were very strict traditional African parents, so anything to do with sex, nudity or being in touch with your sexual self was a huge taboo. So I grew up being very secretive about myself and my body and I never felt comfortable in that way.”
Al-Shabazz’s favourite photo series is called "Toxic Masculinity". The shoot happened after a night out with friends. “There was this meme which says something like, ‘If you get in a fight and he’s bigger than you, strip naked because no guy wants to fight a naked guy.’ We were laughing about it, but I was like, ‘If someone strips naked I’d still fight them. I don’t give a fuck,’” Al-Shabazz explains, laughing. “Next thing you know, we just got completely naked and started photographing it. Then, hungover the next morning, I was looking at the pictures and thought that there's something to be said about us being comfortable to do this.”
He continues: “All of us are just really comfortable with our sexuality. We’re all straight, but I think a lot of people would look at that and be like, “This is gay’.”
Al-Shabazz's willingness to be candid has allowed his followers to open up to him, too. "Toxic Masculinity" was one of his most popular Instagram posts, inspiring much discussion in the comments section. One follower got in touch to say that the photo reassured her after having her first sexual experience with another girl. "I saw your post with the two naked boys and it made me feel so much better about myself," she said. "I saw that and thought, ‘It’s OK to express yourself'."
Despite Al-Shabazz's strong Instagram following, the platform’s nudity guidelines mean that some of his posts have been deleted – even when he preemptively censors out any genitals. As a way to counteract this, he has started moving his art onto offline platforms, including a limited edition t-shirt featuring a photograph of a black woman with angel wings. The words "Angels of Colour" are emblazoned across the front.
“There’s little diversity in the way angels are depicted in art, like, you never see black angels,” he explains. “Obviously, representation is important. So, it’s been really crazy to see people of all races and like different countries wearing a t-shirt with a black angel on it. I hope I can do a lot more of that.”
The success Al-Shabazz saw with his t-shirt release, which sold out in under 48 hours, has inspired him to create more physical artworks. He shows me some photos from a shoot he has just finished with friends, but doesn't want to give too much away about the project. However, he does provide one clue.
“Just no basic shit,” he says. “Everything made will serve to communicate and inspire, in the same way the photography does.”