Sylvester Jacobs, local photographer and professor, sits across from me, dark-skinned and hair gleaming with grey. He has the posturing and worldly gait of someone who could be pretentious in an aloof, professorial way. But moments later, he bursts out laughing about something. Not a typical, guarded laugh, but a real belly laugh, which he comes out of gasping for air, shattering my preceding impressions.
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1944, the challenges of growing up as a black man in a city infested with prejudice wore on the fragility of his youth. “I grew up with folk teaching me that I was nothing. Nobody. Not even worth talking to, listening to, looking at.” With many portraits to his credit, his profession requires him to give others what he was refused. He must look at people. Really look at them.
He looks at me and abruptly narrows his gaze, self-consciously aware of my next question. “I know you’ll be wanting to talk about the racial thing. You’ve got a big black guy here who’s old. You may have heard a rumor that it wasn’t too cool, when I was young, to be black in America. Well, it wasn’t.”
As a response, Jacobs served in the US Army, stationed in Panama from 1962 to 1965 where he first began to learn the trade of photography. “You just begin photographing the people around you,” he says. But the prejudice wore on him. In 1966 he went to Europe with Operation Mobilisation, an organization that transports Christians abroad on mission trips. He didn’t come back until 2007: forty years later. That initial bitterness has gradually turned to a residual sadness, a sadness that was enveloping at one time. “I didn’t know if I’d ever see America again, or see my family again. One-way ticket,” he says. “The advantage of being in another country was that I was a stranger and I knew it, and they knew it. But in my home country, I was at home, but I was a stranger and I didn’t know it. I thought I was at home.” Once in Europe he traveled to Italy, Switzerland, and finally settled in England, where he continued to hone his craft.
There is pain in his story. How could there not be? Growing up he always felt like an outsider, even when he risked his life for his country. But there’s also joy. “At the same time, I met so many wonderful people,” says Jacobs. The joy depends on the despair, and the hope exists alongside the anger. This all lives inside the same person, who speaks from multiple viewpoints during the same interview, on the same couch, answering questions from the same person.
Paging through one of his books of photography, Portrait of England, he momentarily stops to discuss some of the people in the photos. They appear in black and white, grainy and honest. Nothing is moderated or filtered. Their piercing stares are like shards of glass, and he has made no attempt to soften the edges. Jacobs has a way of emotionally undressing his subjects, rendering them vulnerable and naked before the camera while they are still entirely clothed. How is he able to access all of that humanity with such ease?
One way is through stories. His photographs are stories, but he also tells all kinds of stories: about learning to photograph, living in Europe, meeting people on the streets, and learning how to look at them. Over the years, he has learned how to look at them. “It took me 40 years,” he says. “I’m a slow learner.” He has brought in several pieces of his work, portraits mounted and framed. They appear beneath thick layers of glass, somehow fully alive, human, full of imperfection, beauty, and vulnerability, full of that aching desire to belong.
“I want it so that if your mom’s looking at it, or your grandmother was looking at it, she’s not thinking ‘Wow, that’s a guy who’s a brilliant photographer, or he’s absolutely fantastic.’ They’re thinking, ‘Wow, that looks just like Jorie. She could walk right off there.’ That’s when I’m a happy man.” His portraits embody the simple thing he always wanted: someone to look. I ask what he looks for in a portrait subject, and he answers with another story. I’m not always sure where he’s going with these, and they’re rarely linear, but when he’s finished I understand the specificity of what he’s getting at.
“I keep looking for that one who may surprise me. Who will be different,” he says of his portrait subjects. He tells one story about a beggar he met on the streets of London, someone he wishes he could have captured in a photo. Instead, the beggar now appears in his Rolodex of stories. “The man had a façade, a mask, and it was awful. And I’m thinking, you could never even break through there. How could you do that? And I had a pound coin, a little British one. And he didn’t even look at me. He wouldn’t look at me. So I showed him the coin, and I said, ‘Would you like this?’ And without looking at me, he just nodded. And so I took it with a little magic trick, and I dropped it in his hand, and all of a sudden he realized that it wasn’t there. He forgot, for a moment, that he was the beggar, and a stranger on the street. And he just lit up, and he said, ‘How did you do that?’ And I thought, if only I had the camera at that moment. I said, I gotcha. I sneaked up on you, and I caught you. You dropped your mask. I got you. And I love that moment. I knew he was back there, I knew he was in there.”
Although he speaks about facades with disdain, he has great empathy and compassion for the people who wear them, and even greater empathy for human inclination to become hardened by the world. Strangely though, perhaps that hard-earned empathy has been his greatest asset in capturing vulnerability, and learning how to look at people. “It’s how to find it. Even with people who would hate you. They’re there.” Jacobs has spent years studying people, wondering about them, and cultivating an almost obsessive curiosity about them, which is evident in everything from his photos to how he addresses his surroundings. “You just catch them. You watch them. Like somebody fishing.”
He clears his throat and looks at me again, straight in the eye, as though attempting to peer in, rummage around, and take something back with him, something to remember what he finds in there. It’s important for him to collect as much as possible about people. He collects nuanced differences between subjects, but most importantly he collects the similarities. When he digs deep enough, he finds things of almost uncanny similarity in everyone he looks at. He finds hope, despair, joy, pain, fear, loneliness and laughter, all rattling around in there together. “You’re as human as anyone I’ve ever met,” he says to me, after a moment. “But I mean it deeper than that, stronger than that. I know that we are of the same essence. And if we are of the same essence, irrespective of the differences, I know something about you already, and quite a lot. So I photograph with that confidence.”
As a photographer faced with the task of capturing a subject, this is what he must do. Through the years it has become automatic, like the deep Morgan Freeman-esque voice he speaks with, tinged with a slight British accent acquired from years of living abroad. This allows him to approach the subjects of his photographs with great sensitivity. “I don’t do cynicism, and I don’t like laughing at folks. I wouldn’t like to do that at all.” He feels the weight of the responsibility he has to his subjects, which translates into an urgent respect for humanity. His words frequently feel melodious and poetic, as though he’s tapping into a stream of consciousness where everything outside of his train of thought gets quiet. I ask him what the people are like all over the world.
“The girls cry about the same things. The things they’re excited about, or not excited about. Our similarities are almost overwhelming,” he says. “The most striking thing is how much they’re like the people who are in Panama or the people who are in France or the people who come from China or the people from Thailand. How much, or how close we are to each other.” This sentiment feels particularly meaningful coming from a person who was persecuted for being different. Colored by this sensibility, Jacobs has a refreshing hope for the ethos of St. Louis. “If I had a funder I’d do St. Louis like a shot. And I desperately want to do that, because I’m dying to see what America looks like. It might sound strange to you, but I’m dying to see what America looks like through my eyes.”
He would certainly do more portraits. Portraits that strip down the layers and reach to cut the viewer to the core, highlighting the subject’s humanity so vividly that the viewer is almost looking in a mirror. Perhaps they’d be able to gaze at a part of it, however large or small, and think, “That’s me. I’ve felt that way. I’ve been that lonely. I’ve held my hand that way. I’ve looked at someone like that. I’ve wanted someone to look at me like that.” And they would know, because they are human.
“I’d call it something like Sunday Morning in St. Louis: Probably the most segregated hour in America.” He cocks his brow. “See now I’m being slightly cynical, and everybody else would come. You know it’s like coming to see Mohammad Ali, they come to see the fight. You know, how are all these people being awful…”
“Do you see the segregation here?” I ask.
“…folk are coming to see the fight, and really what they would find are all these beautiful people,” he says, warmth streaming through his voice like sunlight.
“What I mean is, their humanity is just so overpowering. Whether they were poor, whether they were wealthy…whomever they were. That’s what I would be after.”
Jacobs pulls another story from his Rolodex. This one is about another beggar whom he encountered on the streets of St. Louis.
“I was giving him a [dollar], and another one, and I could hear him going, ‘Oh, thank you. Thank you, thank you. Thank you.’ And I look up and I see this man with his arms outstretched, and he’s coming toward me, and I get real paranoid, you know, about dirt sometimes, but anyway he was coming to me. And I’m thinking, ‘No, don’t hug me, don’t touch me.’ I didn’t say that to him. How can I say that to another human being? He’s got me embraced. And he said, ‘Thank you, thank you.’”
Jacobs was clearly affected by this man. The appearance of distance between them was deceiving, as it proved itself to be not very far at all. Two men, living in the same city, sharing the same earth, and the same basic needs. Right there in that sameness is where Jacobs found all of his answers, and still stands as one of the many reasons he sincerely believes in the closeness of humanity. There are still pieces of resounding bitterness, but there are also cracks in it, cracks where hope gets in. His own complexity aids in capturing the beauty and complexity of others, which perhaps the most vital collaboration for his work to succeed. His art depends on it.
In the essay Author and Director: A Delicate Situation, playwright Tennessee Williams discusses the essential collaboration between actor, director, and writer required for a play to become more than just a manuscript. The success of that collaboration can determine whether it is “acceptable to a theater public which is so squeamish about a naked study of life.” Like Williams, that is exactly Jacobs’ aim: to collaborate with the subjects of his photos to capture the naked, natural, human response to being alive, the authenticity hidden under the protective layers.