Lee Abel began visiting Jamaica 1979 working on a black and white documentary of rural Jamaica. Her passion for the island, its people, culture and spirit led her into the world of reggae. She shot her first “Sunsplash” of many in 1988. Since then her, photographs have graced the covers of over 50 albums for several labels, including RAS, VP, Heartbeat and Shanachit. Her work was highly visible in Reggae Report Magazine and included many covers and annual calendars. Caribbean Travel and Life, The Beat, Dub Missive and World Book Encyclopedia, among others, have also used her images. A large section of her photos may be seen on Lonely Planets Travel Guide to Jamaica. See her Photo gallery on Jamaicans.com Now
Q: I am curious, what brought you to Jamaica?
A:I majored in Visual Anthropology at UC Davis and went to Jamaica in 1979 to document rural Jamaica for my senior project. I chose Jamaica because I wanted to go to a tropical English-speaking island and I was interested in the Rastafarians.
Q:Whatever became of the black and white documentary you originally came to Jamaica to shoot.
A:They are still photographs that I have shown in the past. Now many of the images are on my web site, www.reggaeportraits.com
Q: What do you love the most about Jamaica?
A:That’s a hard one. It’s a feeling, a vibe, and spiritual uplifting I have when I’m there. Initially I fell in love with Jamaica on my very first car ride from MoBay airport to Anchovy. The lush greens, moist air, and dangerous roads made a big impression on me. I would over the years spend many exhilarating hours riding motorcycles, camera bag strapped to my back, throughout Western Jamaica both on and off road. I got to know the country people and fell in love with their culture and spirit.
Q: What part of the country is your favorite place to stay and/or visit?
A: I enjoy traveling around the countryside and particularly love the beauty of the Blue Mountains and Portland. My home base is always in the countryside of St. James where I have good friends and relatives.
Q:How often do you visit?
I try to visit yearly.
Q:Your work has an extraordinary balance in it and just seems have a certain kind of energy to it. What is your state of mind right before taking a shot?
A:For my concert images I am trying to concentrate on the music and the act so that I can be prepared to capture a peak moment. I’m also thinking technically, double-checking my camera and flash settings. My mind set is very different out in the countryside where I am more relaxed and where I’ve established a rapport with my subjects. Many of the people I photograph are so used to seeing me with my camera that they act very naturally. It’s not so technical then, it’s more of a flow.
Q:How much of your shooting is actually planned? How much is spontaneous?
A:It’s all spontaneous once I make the decision to be someplace. I come from a documentary point of view so I try not to pose people or set up lights and such. The best images happen when I have gained someone’s confidence.
Q: Do you get permission from your subjects to take their photos?
A:Yes, always, unless it is in a concert setting where that is not always possible.
Q: Do you normally have a vision of what you want the end result to be or do you just respond to the light and the subject?
A: I respond to the situation. I get excited when I see a great composition or a beautiful face that is open to me.
Q: Many of the photos you currently display on your site are of Reggae Artists but there are a few dedicated to Jamaica life. Which one is your favorite subject?
A:That continues to change over the years. It started with Jamaican life, then for several years I was focused on the musical world. I carved a niche there and was able to enjoy having my work published a lot. Now when I am in JA I’d rather be in the countryside.
Q: You have been taking pictures of Jamaican Reggae Artists for years now and you have seen the music going through the different transitions. What is your take on reggae music today as compared to when you began listening to the music?
A:When I first began listening to the music Bob Marley was alive, dancehall music, as we know it today didn’t exist. I was attracted to the music for its melodic messages of love, justice and spirituality. That still does exist today but the passion of the music as a whole has been watered down with slackness and loss of originality. I’ve been encouraged by the movement of conscious dancehall music. I still believe reggae is a powerful force for personal uplifting and societal change.
Q:Who are some of your favorite reggae artists?
A: Living – Morgan Heritage, Lucky Dube and Beres Hammond. Passed On – Bob Marley and Dennis Brown
Q:Many of your dramatic black and white portraits seem to capture and document a place in time. Do you think most viewers see your pictures this way?
A: I don’t know, but I am glad you do. That was certainly the intention.
Q: When you’re traveling around Jamaica shooting, what kind of equipment do you bring with you? What is the technology you use to capture your images?
A: I use Nikon equipment, 35mm. My main camera body is the F4 and I use different lenses as needed. I love to shoot with a wide angle – 28mm.
Q: What advice would you give an amateur or professional photographer trying to capture the real Jamaica on their visit to the island?
A: Get away from the tourist areas. Communicate with people. Relax; don’t be in a hurry. Take precautions but remain open. If you are a woman, be circumspect. Offer to send people their photos and DO IT. The next time you visit more doors will open to you. Get away from the tourist areas.
Visit Lee’s website at www.reggaeportraits.com for more information on her Photography.