Charles Hashim's Photos Tell Miami's Story

Illegal motorcycle drag race, Opa-Locka, circa 1979.
Illegal motorcycle drag race, Opa-Locka, circa 1979.
Photography by Charles Hashim

Opa-locka, circa 1979. There's a rowdy crowd of mostly black young men standing in anticipation of an illegal drag race. They're like live wires — lines of dudes on motorcycles raring to take off down an unused airstrip. Photographer Charles Hashim isn't concerned about being mauled by the wound-up spectators; his focus is on getting the best shot possible. He dashes out onto the runway, camera in hand, to document their faces — which look as if they're ready to kill him while wondering, "Who the hell is this crazy white guy?"

"He's just fearless," journalist and former Miami New Times columnist Brett Sokol says of Hashim. "He would just go whenever and wherever the shot takes him."

Along with photographer and designer Francesco Casale, Sokol has shifted from critic to creator of a nonprofit project called Letter16 Press. The two are releasing three books by photographers who worked in Miami from the '60s to the '90s — including work by Hashim.

Letter16's first publication included work by the late Al Kaplan, who attended his final years of high school in Miami. There Was Always a Place to Crash: Al Kaplan's Provincetown 1961-1966 captured the bohemian pasts of those, like director John Waters, who lived at gay rights activist Prescott Townsend's treehouse in Provincetown during the years prior to the Summer of Love.

The second book, We Are Everywhere and We Shall Be Free: Charles Hashim's Miami 1977-1982, was recently released at Miami Book Fair International and preserves the work of Hashim, who was program director for the Photography Department at Miami Dade College for nearly four decades. The third book will be released in spring 2016.

Letter16 is dedicated to the pricey and time-consuming job of preserving 35mm images, digitizing them, and presenting them in oversize, hardcover art books. The work is backed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

"It came out of a realization that there was this incredible pool of artistic talent in Miami that wasn't getting the attention it demands," Sokol says. He calls the new dominance of digital photography over printed film a "cruel irony... It has put up a veritable wall with the past." The goal of Letter16, he observes, is to "shine a light on this incredible body of photographic work that is just not being seen."

Hashim was born here in 1938. He loved the weather and weirdness of the city and started shooting film at age 12. "I think my parents regretted it, but they gave me a brown Kodak hawk-eye camera. Then to keep me out of trouble, they gave me a little darkroom."

He attended Archbishop Curley High School and the University of Miami, where he worked with Wilson Hicks, a former editor of Life magazine. At the Miami-Dade County Public Library downtown, he remembers looking at photos in Life and thinking, "I can do this." He went on to study at the University of California, Los Angeles; Barry University; and Florida International University.

Heart, Blue Oyster Cult, and Motorhead concert, Miami Stadum (Bobby Maduro Stadium), Miami, April 19, 1981.
Heart, Blue Oyster Cult, and Motorhead concert, Miami Stadum (Bobby Maduro Stadium), Miami, April 19, 1981.
Photography by Charles Hashim

He was hired as an instructor at Miami Dade College in 1964 and remained there until 2003. "I developed every single photography course that Miami Dade offers," he says. His work showed at many galleries whose doors have now shuttered around Miami Beach and Coral Gables.

He reminisces: "When I was born, Miami was a narrow, and if I may say, bigoted, Southern town. I clearly remember drinking water out of a whites-only drinking fountain. And also it was very anti-Semitic — Jews weren't allowed at golf courses or in many hotels. Then, when the Cuban refugees started to come in the early '60s, this all started to change. Prejudices seemed to break down," he explains. "We became an international community, a gateway to the whole world." This was the time of not only the Mariel Boatlift, but also of Cocaine Cowboys.

"I believe that Miami was born in 1980," Sokol agrees. "That was when the city effectively flips over from a sleepy Southern town into this new multicultural city... If you take a look at these photos that Charles Hashim took, you really get an idea of what was going on in Miami behind the headlines."

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Letter16 Press' photos ride the line between art and photojournalism. They document times, places, and people that might otherwise be forgotten. Hashim was always looking for interesting events to shoot. "The world has all the pictures it needs of Madonna, but very few of people who go to the concerts. So I focused on [those] people... They become uninhibited, spontaneous, they do things out in the open that they'd only do behind closed doors. I guess I'm a bit of a voyeur!" he laughs. He also documented the attendees of gay pride parades, KKK rallies, and religious revivals.

"A lot of [the photos] are emotionally charged, but he's not a high-strung guy," Sokol accurately notes of Hashim's photos. Maybe because of his laid-back nature, Hashim was able to capture people at their least guarded and most raw. The viewer becomes as present as the subjects when the camera clicks. You can sense the hysteria in the room when a group of punk fans wave their middle fingers at the sweaty band, aptly named the Reactions, playing Fat Cats in Miami Gardens in 1979. The photo of two male biker types making out while one gives the lens the finger was taken at a Heart, Blue Oyster Cult, and Motorhead concert at the old Bobby Maduro Stadium in 1981 — it's subversive, intense, and unforgettable.

Knowing the context is important to Hashim's work. It grounds photos that otherwise might appear to be just beautiful, jarring shots taken anywhere in the world during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sokol says of the result: "You [can] see the old Miami literally coming apart at the seams and something new is being born."

The book's cover photo displays a black man in a white chapeau holding a crowned drag queen on his right arm. In the background, a sign reads, "We are everywhere and we shall be free." Sokol points out that this is what the whole project is about: "a well-composed shot, emotionally poignant, and has a wonderfully wry sense of humor."

Hashim remembers the day and place that photo was shot. It was early in the morning at Bicentennial Park. "I'd never heard of or been to [a] gay pride [event]."

When he retired in 2003, he was in a bad physical and mental state. Profoundly depressed and overweight, he threw away most of his negatives. Eventually, he got his life back under control and started to shoot again. The photos in the book are the ones he didn't toss. "I liked them," he says. "Those are some of the best pictures I ever took." Nowadays, he shoots digitally and considers the aesthetic the same, noting that it's better for the environment — processing film uses toxic chemicals. "Film has been dead since the 1990s," he confirms.

Sokol first saw Hashim's work at the art studio and exhibition space in North Miami, Bridge Red Studios. Artist Robert Thiele, his daughter, and son-in-law — designer and photographer Francesco Casale of Letter16 — run the space. They offered Hashim a solo show that began November 22 and runs until January 2, concurrent with the massive Miami group survey exhibit of contemporary tropical art, "100 Degrees in the Shade."

"Nothing's real unless you photograph it," Hashim muses. "So to a certain extent, photography allows you to choose your own reality. And if I had to sum up my own work, I'd say I found the sleep of reason and took its picture."

Charles Hashim
4 to 7 p.m. November 22 through January 2 at Red Bridge Gallery, 12425 NE 13th Ave., North Miami; 305-978-4856;

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