the years, people have always said that my images of Tupac let them see
a side of him beyond the Thug Life image, more about the human being.
Before he was loved by the world, he was a young man trying to make his
way in a society that is extremely cruel to the less fortunate. He made
it his mission to speak for those in his community who needed to hear
“keep your head up!” As I travel the globe, I’m amazed at how many
people have told me that Tupac saved their lives. His words and passion
inspired a generation, and these pictures that we created together help
to keep that inspiration alive.
always sad when people die young, but if you leave behind the kind of
legacy that Tupac did, you never actually die. You remain forever in the
hearts and minds of people for generations to come. I knew that about
him when we first spent time together in Atlanta, Georgia back in 1994.
We both knew the importance of images and we set out to do a thorough
job, not knowing what the future would hold. He died two years after
that meeting in Atlanta, but his words and these images are all part of
his lasting legacy.
When I met him on location in Atlanta in ’94 he was quite cooperative and a really nice guy. It was a shoot for The Source
magazine, and he arrived early. Tupac was the ultimate professional,
and he respected my time and my skills. The public might not know that
about him. They think he was just this crazy guy who had no real limits,
but he completely understood who he was, and if he understood what you
brought to the table, he was easy to deal with. In fact, we got along
great. I think a lot of people want to buy into the ‘thug life’ image
and the younger side of him, because he was still a young man. Let’s be
clear, you kind of forget the ages of these folks. To be so prolific and
so young, and have so much power — it’s hard to imagine
with all the childishness — which I believe was age appropriate in a
lot of ways—when you throw power and money in there, even with all that,
he had a lot of care and love for his community and for the less
fortunate. He always spoke on behalf of black people who were
though he wrote songs that many would consider typical hip-hop party
music, he also included a lot of black empowerment in his
lyrics — “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” “Dear Mama” — which I believe is why
women liked him. They loved him because he was real and he cared. We
knew the silly side of him too, but who isn’t silly at the age of twenty
five? So that never surprised me when he did the zany stuff. He was
young and full of power in a world that’s biased against blacks, so what
do you expect?
when I would see Tupac, I would always think of him being on
blast — excited and moving at a hundred miles an hour. But when I first
met him he wasn’t really like that. It’s funny how everyone always
thinks about Tupac and the ladies, but I never really saw him chasing
women that much. He was much more focused on his mission. I think that’s
what made him stand out so much from his peers. Because while everybody
was partying, this man was trying to make sure he created his legacy.
And so here we are decades later talking about the man as if he’s still
around. I don’t think you can take lightly the fact that this is two
decades later and we’re still talking about this man.
After we finished his first Source
cover shoot in Atlanta, we went back to his home in Stone Mountain, GA
to hang out. He called me aside and showed me his entire gun collection
in his bedroom—all his AKs, banana clips, Glocks, everything. Then he
moved a picture on the wall in his bedroom, revealing a bullet hole.
This was from when he fired a shot in his bedroom because he was on
probation and prohibited from going to the firing range. We all laughed
would’ve all been in our 40s together, but he never got to his 40s, he
didn’t even see his 30s with us. So that’s quite a body of work and
experience that he put in during his short time on this Earth.
was one of the few stars who could cross over without compromising his
roots. Tupac wasn’t going to compromise, that wasn’t him, but Versace
still wanted to use him for their campaign. It’s funny when I see
rappers trying to do that sort of thing. I think when you start to move
in those commercial circles they make you change yourself to fit. You
lose your authenticity, but Tupac wouldn’t allow that of himself. He
took the streets with him wherever he went.
portrait shots of Tupac, like the one that’s on the cover of the book,
were actually done with a 4x5 camera, which is a view camera. It’s the
camera where you put the curtain over your head to focus. It’s large
format. It sits on a tripod, and you put the film in, come out from
behind the camera, you click it, then you switch the film. Kind of like
the old style cameras. At that session in Atlanta, I photographed Tupac
with my 4x5 with no assistant. It was just me and his people. When you
shoot using a 4x5 you’re really very close to the subject. I was no more
than three or four feet from him. I’m there but the gap between us is
the camera, even though I’m right there with them. When you’re that
close to someone frame after frame, that’s really how they get to know
you. You’re almost breathing on each other, and I’m telling him, ‘Lift
your head, bring your eyes down.’ I’m giving him instructions so he can
you spend hours with someone like that, you know them forever. I’m
looking at every pore on your face. I’m on your team. In doing that
first photo shoot in 4x5, I think that’s what made Tupac so comfortable
with me because I was looking in his eyes, he was looking in mine at the
same time, and real recognizes real. Once we got to that place we were
cool. He gave me pictures he didn’t give anybody else and he said,
‘These are for you, Chi.’
Everybody knows the Thug Life
Tupac, and we know that well. But they don’t know the Tupac in the
quiet moments. Like that picture of him tying his bandana over his head,
the profile shot. That’s an outtake. He was fixing his bandana with a
cigarette in his mouth but he was relaxed enough around me where I could
just photograph him.
a result you see a picture of a much more gentle Tupac. For me gentle
and soft are not the same thing. Tupac was gentle but you wouldn’t dare
step to him. He was prepared to take it where it needed to go. He wasn’t
afraid. That’s who he was to me, and we got along from the first time
we met. We were cool, so I got access to him that no one else could get.
Tupac wanted me to shoot his album Me Against the World, he
told me to get in touch with the art director in New York. By the time I
went there to meet, they had already given the assignment to someone
else. What’s funny is I had already taken what would later become the
most iconic imagery of Tupac. So when you look at the more famous
portraits of Tupac like him tying his bandanna and the Rolling Stone
cover, I had already created those pictures before I went to meet the
art director to discuss the album. No one knew at the time that the
photos I took of him would be the images people remember and not the
ones they used on the album. In a way you end up getting your justice if
you wait long enough
When I set out to take
these photographs I knew they were important. I wanted to make sure the
images stayed within the community. I wanted to make sure the person
who created them was from the community. Historically that never really
happens. Most of the visuals of the greats are owned and controlled by
other people. That’s tricky because then they can put their
interpretation on it. But when you look at my photographs, I’m there
with them. I’m one of them even though I’m an observer. I was close
enough to live it and I had the skills to document and record it.
had four sessions with him, and since we were close he let me in close.
It’s friends hanging out with friends and there just happened to be a
camera present. You can see the closeness and the warmth because I
didn’t really look at my subjects as just celebrities. I saw them as
young black guys like me. It allowed me to get closer and it allowed
them to be comfortable and just be who they were. I offered no judgment.
I was just there to document and make people look good.
Even though I was the creator of these images, I’ve always felt more like the caretaker of them, because he was the world’s
Tupac, not just my photo subject. He burned bright when he was here and
his flame continues to glow. Thank you for being the voice of the
voiceless, Tupac. Rest in peace, brother.
Excerpted from Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized by Chi Modu, a 200-page hardcover book featuring over 100 powerful images of Tupac Shakur.