Q&A with Documentary Photographer and Storyteller VANCE JACOBS


I was referred to photographer-filmmaker Vance Jacobs by POP interviewee Erin Kunkel. I should not have been surprised when my first phone interview with him lasted well over an hour. During that time, he answered every question with a story; whether it was how he ended up shooting parts of a recent magazine story with the Hipstamatic app on his writing partner’s iPhone or how be broke his journalistic oath to help one of his subjects, Alan Crotzer, the subject of the Exonerated.

Alan Crotzer Photo by Vance Jacobs

With this interview, I got to know an incredibly talented photographer and visual storyteller who has a deep integrity to the truth combined with a prized talent for capturing authenticity and beauty. This comes through not only in his images and the projects he chooses but also in the clients who choose him to bring a genuineness and humanity to their corporate imagery. And who, because of these qualities, is at the forefront of the cultural shifts that are ushering in an era in which transcendence and a cool detachment at the personal, community and corporate levels is giving way to one that prizes social engagement and recognizes the true value of the individual contribution to the whole.

Vance is now 10 years into a career that has taken him to over 30 countries for clients ranging from National Geographic Books and Esquire Magazine to Google and The Ford Foundation. I am very honored to have had the opportunity to interview him and to feature his work on POP. I am continually amazed at the power of images to impact the story of the world.

Child Beauty Pageant Queens Photo by Vance Jacobs

POP: What is your background and why did you decide to focus on photojournalism?

I decided to focus on photojournalism because it seemed like the best back stage pass in the world. My dad traveled all the time for work, but he was in the defense industry and he couldn’t talk about anything, so as a kid, it just seemed like there was this big mysterious world out there and I wanted to know all about it. I also knew I wasn’t wired to be able to work in an office full-time.

On a deeper level, I really wanted to be able to go into communities that I would never have the opportunity to investigate if I wasn’t a photographer and I wanted to experience them for myself. Some of the communities were just fascinating to me (i.e. child beauty pageant queens) but other communities—the under-served communities—I was interested in helping give them a voice that might lead to an improvement in their lives.

Finally, when I was growing up, I watched my mother and grandfather die of cancer. There was a hostage situation at my dad’s company and people were killed. A neighborhood friend was also murdered in a separate incident. By the time I was 18, I’d seen a lot of things that are tough to look at or handle emotionally. I think the people drawn to photojournalism are the same type of people who want to be ER doctors and nurses—it comes from that sort of sensitivity combined with a desire to be completely focused on what is going on around you. If I’d been better at math, I would have gone into medicine.

Kieni Village, Kenya

POP: Could you talk about your transition from a journalist to a photojournalist?

While I was still an under-grad, I began writing for a magazine (sort of sex, drugs and music for 18-24 year-olds), and then I started writing and photographing stories for that same publication. It wasn’t until I met with a long-time staff-writer at National Geographic a couple of years later, that I dedicated myself completely to photojournalism. When I asked the writer if I should focus on journalism or photo-journalism (because I wasn’t getting any better at either) he said that unless I worked for National Geographic as a writer, the chances of me being stuck behind a desk at some newspaper or magazine was pretty good, but if I focused on photography—I would never have to work in an office. I shook the man’s hand and went and immediately applied to the M.F.A. program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

I got a tremendous amount out of my time at SCAD. First was an internship at Contact Press Images (who represents Annie Leibovitz, Sabastiao Salgado and David Burnett among others). My summer at Contact gave me a glimpse at what life was like at the top. Then I was invited to the Eddie Adams Barnstormer Workshop. The workshop puts 100 young up-and-coming photojournalists with photography editors from around the world for a week-long intensive photography boot camp. The workshop taught me a great deal about working under the pressure of a deadline and about what it is like to work with very experienced editors. The workshop is also where I was encouraged to pursue what would become one of my better-known projects, Pageants Are my Life, on child beauty pageant queens in the Deep South.

Watch an in-depth view of Jacob’s experience:

POP: How long did it take to get your career going?

Because the child beauty pageant queen project did well in competitions (Communication Arts Photography Annual and POY) it gave me sort of a boost as I was finishing up grad school. My first break came a few weeks after I had moved up to Washington, DC and was offered an internship and then a position at The Washington Times. I learned a great deal there from both the editors and the photographers. The photography staff was about half the size of the staff at The Washington Post, but they were a really talented group and always held their own in competitions, so they are well known in their own right. One of the lessons I learned while there is that I did not like being on staff, so after about a year, I left to become a freelance photographer.

To really get my footing as a freelance photographer took about a year. First, I started shooting for the major newspapers around the country, then I started picking up some magazine work, but neither of these things was really helping me make a dent in the debt I had to take on just to get up and running as a freelancer.

Then just by chance, I started shooting for some of the democratic lobby groups. They would hire me to photograph different Prime Ministers, Presidents, and other world leaders during their trips to Washington. I would be the official photographer for the delegations, so the access was amazing and because governments were hiring me (to photograph and then transmit the images to their news organizations on deadline) it was much more lucrative than shooting daily assignments for the newspapers or magazines. It was actually a string of these types of week-long assignments that enabled me to kill a lot of my debt and also to hire my first studio manager and to really start marketing on a consistent basis.

POP: What moves you about The Forgotten Ones?

Initially, I just wanted to find out if this community of displaced farmers really existed or not. When I was in Nairobi looking for stories to do, a couple of locals told me about this population of farmers that had been kicked off their land years before by the Moi government (which has long been considered one of the most corrupt governments in Africa) and were now living in some sort of camp deep in the forest. But the way the locals spoke of it, it seemed almost like an urban legend.

When we finally located the farmers, it turned out the story was true. In 2000, government officials gave farmers in the Kieni forest one week to vacate their land. To appease the public who spoke out against this action, the government of Kenya “gave” each farmer a 13ft x 13ft plot of land with no homes to speak of in the middle of a forest and far from where anyone would be able to see the wretched conditions these people were now living in.

What moved me about this story are not only being able to put a human face on massive government corruption and exploitation, but also how effective out of sight out of mind can really be. As soon as the newspapers and TV stations moved on to the next story, these people were literally forgotten and then in a few years they became almost a myth and people could no longer confirm whether these events even happened or not. We see something similar with disasters like Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and the Tsunami in Indonesia to name just a few, but this story is different because it is about a group of people that a government intentionally tried to hide from the outside world and they succeeded.

POP: With Exonerated: Alan Crotzer—how did it change you to realize the power you have as a photojournalist? Are you interested in doing more social justice work?

I have never been so proud of being a part of the media as I was during my time with Alan. Often times you do a project and hope it leads to some form of positive change—either for the people you are photographing or people that find themselves in similar circumstances, but the Alan experience was different for me in a number of ways. Alan Crotzer, 45, was exonerated based on DNA evidence after spending almost 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. I spent several weeks with him immediately after his release as he re-built his life.

From a purely journalistic standpoint, it was hugely fulfilling to be able to draw a line between a story about Alan that appeared on the front page of the Miami Herald and the car a local doctor decided to donate to him after reading about his plight or to see how one three-minute appearance on Wolf Blitzer’s show on CNN led a total stranger to give Alan a nice apartment in a safe neighborhood to live in at a very discounted rate.

But at the end of the day, I felt my responsibility was to help Alan in any way I could—not just to take pictures and I think that can be at odds with what some people think of as the journalistic oath not to intervene—just to witness and document. I ended up spending over 30 days with Alan and I spent a vast majority of that time just trying to help him set up his life. Whether it was his first cell phone, first bank account, first driver’s license, first apartment, first job and so on, we worked together as team to do in weeks what usually happens over a period of years. So it was really nice to see how journalism led to some good things for Alan, but in all honesty, it felt as good if not better to help him with tangible things as a friend.

In the future, I would love to do more social justice work. I realize that the most valuable thing I have to offer people in need is my ability to tell complex stories in a visually compelling way, but I also really enjoyed helping Alan in ways that had nothing to do with the camera, so hopefully in the future I can do both.

Watch an in-depth view of Jacob’s experience:

POP: For your project Columbian Prison: A View From the Inside, why this prison? What surprised you most about this assignment? You had a week with them. Did you emphasize storytelling or technical or both? How much time each day did they get to take photos?

A representative from an organization that brings photographers and artists from around the world to produce work in Medellin, Colombia had seen my work on the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and initially invited me down to spend a week photographing in the Bellavista prison. Then right before I was to leave for Colombia, somehow the idea was changed from me photographing to me teaching a number of inmates how to photograph and then their images would be exhibited at the prison and at the organization’s headquarters.

I was most surprised at how much the inmates in my class cared. We pushed them very hard, first just getting them to master how to use the cameras, but even more so when it came to what makes for a complex image that really engages the viewer. It was obvious that it had been along time since anyone had showed much interest in them as individuals and I think they could tell that we really wanted them to succeed. Also, the whole prison environment is very different from the prisons you find in the U.S. For one thing, except for one meal a day, you are not given anything as a prisoner in Colombia (at least at these old-style prisons).

You have to buy your own food, clothes, even your cell. So there is a whole economy that goes way beyond what you find in prisons here. For example, in the U.S., you find inmates buying or trading for things like drugs, liquor and food. At Bellavista, one prisoner might own multiple cells, which he then divides in to even smaller cells that he rents out to inmates that can’t afford their own. Some one like Alan Crotzer for example had not held a key in his hand for 25 years. These inmates in Colombia not only walked around with keys, they had locks on their cells not to keep people in, but to keep people out.

So when we arrived, we took the inmates and broke them into teams of two. Each day we would photograph in the morning, edit with them during lunch and photograph again in the afternoon. At the end of each day, the inmates would decide which team had done the best that day and that team would get to use one of my professional cameras the following day. The competition got pretty fierce, but they were always very respectful of each other.

Watch an in-depth view of Jacob’s experience:

POP: How do you digest what you see?

For many years, I just didn’t really talk about anything. But as I have gotten older I have started to talk about some of my experiences more freely. One thing about being a photo-journalist, is that many times you are out there alone and I think that’s one of the reasons I really appreciate being able to do stories from time to time with people like Luke Dittrich.

The most recent story we did, Walking the Border, was for Esquire Magazine (the May issue) that is part of a longer series that follows Luke as he walks the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Being able to share that experience and others with him is really the best because at least there is someone who can relate to exactly what you experience. Also, I think the fact that I not only do photo-journalistic stories, but also shoot corporate and advertising stuff helps. I could not imagine the toll it must take on the people that go from one horrific or dangerous situation to the next. I really admire those people: the James Nachtweys’ of the world, but I want to do other things as well.

POP: How do you choose projects?

I think my background as a writer really helped. First of all, it has given me the ability to evaluate if there is even a story to be told. If I am looking into a subject matter that interests me, I am always thinking about what’s the narrative arc going to be? Is there a complex group of characters? Are there good, bad and hopefully a whole lot of gray elements to the story? I also had the good fortune to work with really talented story-tellers (writers, photographers and filmmakers), so between bouncing ideas off of them and doing research, I am able to almost pre-visualize the story as a whole before I have even taken a picture.

POP: The media has gone through a huge transition in recent years. What changes are currently impacting photojournalism?

At this moment, I think there are two things that are really impacting photojournalism: The idea of the iReporter and the iPhone. 9/11 was the first time we started seeing media outlets really running a lot of photography and video footage that was not captured by professionals. Now, that has gone one big step further because these same media outlets from CNN on down are counting on non-professionals to create a good chunk of their content. Not only does that mean the quality of what we are watching is compromised but it also means of course that they are not hiring anyone to produce the content in the first place.

The second thing is the iPhone. Earlier this year, when I was preparing to walk the first leg of the U.S.-Mexico border, we were trying to figure out what gear to bring. Obviously you want to bring as little as possible. My writing partner had seen an article about Damon Winters using the iPhone for some of his pictures in Afghanistan, so I decided to give it a go using the hipstamatic app and sure enough the pictures were pretty interesting. I mean it wasn’t really anything you couldn’t do to an image in Photoshop after the fact, but this was just too easy. So as I started taking some more pictures with it, I thought I should enter these in some competitions because they are different enough that I thought they would do well. Sure enough, Damon had the same thought, entered a very prestigious competition, did well in it and then got slammed by some other photographers for putting the last knife into photojournalism. But to me, shooting with the iPhone is just another tool for expressing your vision—like the Brownie, the Leica, the Holga, the point-and-shoot and then the digital point-and-shoot before it.

POP: How did you start shooting corporate and advertising work?

A few years ago, a design firm that was doing the Global Annual Review for PricewaterhouseCoopers, saw my work in the Communication Arts Photography Annual and hired me to shoot the annual in Spain, India, Malaysia and the United States. They hired me because their whole campaign was about being authentic and they wanted their real employees to be photographed instead of using stock images. They also wanted me to capture what the designer called “world images” which are basically images from a given country that really got to the essence of what PwC values as a company. So images that illustrate: connectivity, integrity, strength, etc. We would do three days of shooting the real employees and then another three days shooting “world images” and then we would move on—the assignment lasted four weeks not including pre-production or post.

Then specific PwC offices (in Spain for example) started to hire me to create advertising campaigns based again on this idea of authenticity. For example, we did a recruitment campaign that featured real employees illustrating that if you worked at PwC, you could have a very interesting life outside of the office as well.

Now days, I get a lot of work not only shooting corporate branding pieces and advertising campaigns, but also shooting entire image libraries for companies and organizations. No matter what I am shooting, I think what my corporate and advertising clients appreciate is my ability to shoot in a very authentic style that resonates with the public and doesn’t need much of a crew, so we can get a lot done in a short amount of time.

POP: You also make films. Could you please talk about what the transition from journalist to photojournalist to filmmaker has been like?

I have really enjoyed the transition because at the end of the day, whether it’s photography or films (I hate the term video) it is all about telling great stories. Especially in film, it really comes down to whether or not you have a clear vision in your mind of what the end product is going to feel like. In my opinion, that clarity of vision and your ability to communicate that vision to your clients and crew determines whether or not a project is going to be a success or not. Also, I have really enjoyed the collaborative nature of film. I just get such a thrill from surrounding myself with people I admire and then solving difficult problems together. And if one thing is for sure—creating a film makes photography seem easy.

This film is part of a campaign to eradicate malaria in Africa, which was funded by foundations and companies from around the world and features Spanish soccer stars.

POP: If money weren’t an issue, what work would you do?

If money wasn’t an issue, I don’t know that the type of work or the type of clients I have would change all that much—it is more a matter of how much time I can commit to certain projects that I think are really worthwhile.

Thank you to Vance for all his time and for sharing so much of his work with us. To view more of Vance’s projects and films, please visit his website.

3 Responses to “Q&A with Documentary Photographer and Storyteller VANCE JACOBS”

  1. 1 don Jacobs

    Great article….it makes proud to be his father…I learned things about Vance I did not know…don jacobs

  2. 2 Debby Brown

    Pictures definitely speak 1,000 words, but Vance’s words speak volumes, too. The stories behind the stories that he tells on the videos are wonderful and quite moving.

  1. 1 Photojournalist Documents Exoneree’s Release, Helps Him Through First Month of Freedom « Prison Photography

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