The Sad Story Behind One of the Most Striking Images of Tupac

On Tupac Shakur's birthday, photographer Eli Reed shares the story behind the photo of the fallen rapper he took in 1992.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Tupac Shakur would have turned 45 today. The prolific and provocative hip-hop icon was murdered at the age of 25 in 1996, a crime that remains unsolved. In the 20 years since his death, photographs continue to tell the story. A child of Black Panther activists who still figures prominently in the conversation around of racial politics, the most revered images of Tupac—“thug life” tattooed across his taut stomach, middle fingers raised to the camera lens—captured the rebellious side of the rapper.

Eli Reed, the first African American to join the famed photo collective Magnum, wanted to take a different kind of portrait of Shakur.

In 1992, Reed was commissioned to photograph the set of Poetic Justice, the campus film directed by John Singleton and starring a baby-faced Janet Jackson and Shakur. Reed took just three shots of Shakur, using the same Hasselblad 4-by-5 camera he used to capture civil rights protests in America and the deadly results of conflict in Lebanon and El Salvador.

“First and foremost, I wanted to shoot him as a human being,” he recalls. “Any other kind of shot, I realize that any photographer can bring that. I simply wanted to document that moment and that person in the moment. If I started thinking about this image being a bigger part of his legacy or whatever, I would have stopped myself like, ‘Stop it, asshole. Just be in the moment and take the photo.’ I go by gut feeling. See with your eyes and your mind.”

He was an original, a force of nature.

“When I asked Tupac to take this photograph, he just nodded and started to take his shirt off,” Reed says. “And I said, ‘Stop.’ I just felt a sadness in that moment. I can’t quite explain it.”

Reed says he approached this photo of Shakur in the same way he would all of his assignments—with the understanding that sensitivity, empathy, and humanism stand at the core of all good portraiture.

“Tupac’s music almost brought me to tears,” he says. “I grew up in a housing project in Perth Amboy, N.J. playing stickball. He was telling stories I knew. Different generations, but still.”

Reed shot just three photos of Shakur that day. A few years ago, Reed was reminded by his former assistant of what he said after the session ended: “I muttered, ‘He’s either gonna be dead or in jail in a year…. I’m so saddened that both things turned out to be true.”

“I liked his spirit,” Reed says. “I didn’t really know the hip-hop world very well but I was impressed with him. We talked about different ways of photographing him for several weeks before we even took one photo. We went back and forth and he had all these ideas. It’s somewhat of a blur. But I was looking at taking his portrait as a photojournalist.”

The photojournalist and the hip-hop star bonded, talking life, politics, and photography. But Reed knew he wouldn't get much time with Shakur on the set. “I could tell he was going through some stuff,” he explains. “I had two assistants and I told them it was OK to say hi to him but not to engage too much. I didn’t want them to go much deeper and then touch upon something that shouldn’t be touched upon. One day, word got around the set like, ‘Tupac just punched a hole in his trailer’ and I said, ‘See, don’t go too deep.’”

Shakur left a lasting impression on Reed. “I heard about his death on the radio,” he recalls. “I’ve covered combat and I’ve worked in hospitals so I never take death for granted. I felt a deep sense of loss when I heard the news.”

“He was an original, a force of nature. It’s such a loss. I wonder what he would have given us if he was still here.”

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