Shawn Mortensen is my favourite photographer, without a doubt. Unfortunately he passed away last year, but in just 43 years he left a strong mark on the world. His portraits of iconic nineties rappers such as Snoop Dogg, Dre, Ice Cube and Tupac are some of the most recognisable images in Hip Hop.
Most notably, the photographs Mortensen took of Tupac at the start of the rapper’s career when he was best known for his appearance on the Digital Underground track, Same Song. The photograph of Tupac wearing a straightjacket was featured on the cover of Vibe Magazine in 1993 alongside the words, ‘Is Tupac Crazy?’. The soon-to-be controversial cover image helped to elevate Tupac’s career to the next level.
Due to the controversy surrounding the Vibe cover, the rapper’s mother, Afeni Shakur, contacted Mortensen for a meeting to express concern that her son was being portrayed badly. She brought a friend to the meeting, a former member of the Black Panthers. After talking for a few minutes, the friend recognised the necklace worn by Mortensen, a souvenir from a recent trip to Cuba. The friend had been to Cuba as a supporter of Fidel Castro during the 1970s. The necklace went from being an insignificant charm, to proof of a shared political stance. As relations warmed between them, Mortensen went on to take many portraits of Tupac.
Mortensen had an interest in rebels and revolutionaries, often travelling to destinations to record the actions of guerilla groups. Most significant are his photographs of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. He spent months here documenting the lifestyle of the Zapatistas. Before his death, there were plans to release a book of these photographs.
Mortensen did not narrow down his subjects to include only rappers and revolutionaries; he has photographed many insignificant characters like Paris Hilton, Kate Moss and Ru Paul. But the obvious fascination Mortensen feels towards his subject is vital to his work. Many of his subjects have an element of craziness about them, either in personality or in terms of radical ideas and actions. Some may say that Mortensen’s choice of subjects is as important to his work as his skill with a camera.
To see more of his work, go to www.shawnmortensen.org and buy his book Out Of Mind.