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When art and reggae collide

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Brian Jahn - Contributed
Brian Jahn's photo of Joseph 'Culture' Hill. - Contributed

Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

On August 19, the reggae community remembered venerable roots-reggae singer Joseph 'Culture' Hill on the fifth anniversary of his death. Among the admirers paying homage was American photographer Brian Jahn.

Jahn posted photos of Hill on his photo blog (, complemented by a tribute from Canadian writer Jim Dooley. Hill is just one of thousands of subjects Jahn has shot in more than 20 years of covering the reggae beat.

Almost 150 of those photos have been exhibited on the blog since it was launched in January 2010. Because his catalogue is vast (more than 30,000 mainly black-and-white images), Jahn said regular updates are inevitable.

"I try to update it every day, three to four days or post two photos a week," Jahn told Arts and Education.

"Sometimes I choose photos because of events that have happened, if someone is in the news for example."

Hill, who died at age 57 while touring Germany, was in the news nine days ago. Jahn posted a photo of the dapperly dressed vocalist, shortly before he took the stage at the SOB's club In New York City, circa 1997.

Many of Jahn's photos are of other reggae greats including the evergreen Toots Hibbert, dub master Augustus Pablo and producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry.

He has also posted images of contemporary roots acts like Ziggy Marley, Luciano, Buju Banton and dancehall producer Lloyd 'King Jammys' James.

The photos are usually accompanied by tidbits written by Jahn.

"I've kept a journal when I'm in Jamaica and sometimes I will include notes or a journal entry from that day the photo was taken," he said.

"I like to tell a story behind the photos, where it was taken, what was going on, who was there and so on."

Jahn's interest in Jamaican popular music began during the late 1970s when the roots explosion led by performers like Hill was dying down. He was taken with the creativity of artistes such as Hill and Pablo and by the mid-1980s he was covering the vibrant North American reggae scene.

Go-to photographer

Throughout the 1990s when many Jamaican artistes were signed to small labels in the United States, such as RAS and Shanachie, Jahn was the go-to photographer for album covers. His work also appeared regularly in High Times magazine, a publication that advocates the legalisation of marijuana.

With the advent of dancehall, Jahn says reggae's image has transformed considerably. There are few Joseph Hills around.

"As far as roots-reggae or pure roots artistes today, the roster is pretty thin. Chezidek is one of my current favourites in the roots tradition," he reasoned. "I try to only feature artistes with a positive message since I prefer not to promote 'badness' in the music."

Jahn's blog is not limited to music. His archives include photos of everyday Jamaican life, as well as some of the country's well-documented nature spots.

"I've travelled all over the island and know there are a lot of people who don't get to see what I have experienced and I am trying to bring some of these things to those people," he explained.

"What it is like in a fishing village, or in Trench Town, or on top of Blue Mountain," he added. "People don't always get to see these things but do wonder about them."