Words: Schui Schumacher
Photos: Lee Jaffe
Lee Jaffe is an American photographer who had the rare opportunity to spend three years photographing Bob Marley and the Wailers with unlimited access. Bob Marley and the Wailers were just on the rise when Jaffe met Bob in New York City. The first time Jaffe heard a cassette recording of the just-then released Catch a Fire, Jaffe knew he was in the presence of a legend in the making. A life-long friendship between Lee Jaffe and Bob Marley was born of that fateful meeting. Frank151 caught up with Jaffe at his home in Los Angeles.
What was it like to chronicle the years 1973-1976 with Bob Marley and the Wailers at a time when they were on the verge of international stardom?
Lee Jaffe: There were good times and hard times. When I got there, the first Island album had just been completed, it wasn’t released yet and the first Island albums didn’t sell well. In fact, they hardly sold at all even though they did receive incredible press and media attention. But in America it was very hard to get on the radio because the music didn’t fit any format. It’s still pretty segregated radio today. Finally we started to get some airplay on the rock stations when Natty Dread came out. But before that it was really hard. The band just wasn’t making any money. Chris Blackwell was supporting the tours with tourist support but that was a bad salary. But on the other hand, for me, it was an incredible experience just being exposed to Rasta culture, being around such incredible musicians, poets—certainly Bob, Bunny and Peter have to be considered great poets. So it was an amazing time for me. It was very much a timing thing—it saved my life.
I was living on a very fast track; drugs were a part of my life and I didn’t expect to live past 30. I didn’t even want to live past 30. I just wanted to pack in as much living as I could, accomplish as much as I could. It seemed like an age that was a dividing point between being young and being old. The amazing thing about the Rasta experience for me was how they considered the body to be the temple of the Lord from the Old Testament. Bob really got me into being physically fit. We used to run every morning on the beach and run up the mountain to this place called Cane River. And to eat differently. Mostly vegetarian, all organic, a lifestyle that’s becoming more popular now. Also, the Rastas believe in living eternally. That was a total transformation for me as well.
What kind of attitude or disposition did you take when you were shooting really personal moments of Bob or the Wailers or friends and family?
I was really careful to only take pictures when I thought I would be unobtrusive. I remember I took this photo of Bob reading the Bible near his house in Nine Mile way up in the mountains in the house where he was born. He was just sitting on this rock. Visually it was just this amazing thing. I was so hesitant to shoot that but somehow I did it and that’s my favorite picture of all.
Did you integrate into Rasta culture pretty easily? Or did it take a while to make the adjustment?
I had a little bit of a head start because right when I got out of school I went and lived in Brazil for a little over a year. I spent a lot of time in favelas working with musicians and filmmakers there. There are a lot of similarities between Brazilian and Jamaican culture. The favelas in Rio are really tough places so I wasn’t shocked to spend time in Trenchtown in Kingston. Also, I like to smoke herb a lot! So I could kind of keep up with the Rastas. They showed me a lot of respect for that.
What was it like being around Bob on a regular basis?
It was just always amazing being around him. Sitting and watching him create these incredible songs—even though not that many people knew about them, I was convinced they were really important and significant, that no one was writing anything in the world more important culturally.
Why did you think that?
I felt like I knew a lot about popular music and it seemed really obvious to me that his music was both spiritual and revolutionary. The political content spoke to issues that were of great significance way beyond Jamaica, really significant globally. I thought this since hearing the first Island album, Catch a Fire—that song “Concrete Jungle” was so poetic and so politically charged at the same time. It just blew me away. But there was also a lighter side of Bob. He wrote great love songs. So it wasn’t just all seriousness 100% of the time.
Do you miss him?
Yeah, I think about him every day. Kind of crazy. I have these dreams, you know, and we’re doing stuff together and I wake up and then I think, oh, Bob has died. It’s so weird. I think it’s really sad because I expect to see him and be able to continue our dialogue. But I have two teenage kids that are so into the music, and all their friends are so into it. That’s a pretty fantastic thing. I really admire what Rita and the kids have done to help keep the music alive. I thought Damien made a really great album, and I love Stephen’s new album. I think Bob would be really, really proud of them. I see my kids love their music and it’s definitely a continuation of what Bob was doing and also creating an awareness of Bob’s music as well.