‘I’m holding up an incredibly large and uncomfortable mirror’ says protest photographer

Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.: “You’re putting your life on the line for what you believe in.”
Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.: “You’re putting your life on the line for what you believe in.” jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, and the vigils, protests and violence of September 2016 rocked Charlotte. In the grief and unrest that followed, some people took up new work. Others found fresh urgency in work they were already doing. We asked seven Charlotteans to talk about the past year, and Charlotte. These are their words, with some editing for clarity and brevity.

Charlotte professional photographer Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. was at a Washington, D.C., protest when he got a call last Sept. 22 that Scott had been shot. He came straight to Charlotte and immediately started making images, and continued through the unrest. He has traveled to document protests in cities including Ferguson, Baltimore and, most recently, Charlottesville, and defines himself as an “image activist.

Jacobs’ work is on display at the Levine Museum of the New South’s “K(NO)W Justice K(NO)W Peaceexhibition, and will be featured in an upcoming exhibit later this fall at Davidson College called “Three steps back, a call to action.”

The night he drove back into Charlotte last September, he caught his first glimpse of the protest from a highway bridge.

“I still had all my equipment with me. I looked over the bridge for two or three minutes and saw everything that was happening:

 ‘This reminds me of Ferguson. This reminds me of Baltimore. This reminds me of Chicago’ (he recalls thinking). But it’s different because this is home. I’m seeing familiar faces. I know these people that are down here.

“My mannerisms allow law enforcement to see me differently. I wasn’t asked to leave or anything. I was able to navigate differently. I call it situational awareness. I’ve used it in various theaters. I call them theaters now. It kind of gives me a distance both mentally and physically ...

“The tear gas hadn’t happened yet. It was standoffs. Everyone was just pretty riled up. I saw things were changing. It went from a mass to a line – law enforcement went across the entire highway. It turned to a line. I got some people to safety. There were some people who were just there to protest. They were angry. They were upset. I’m like, ‘Don’t stand there. You need to move now. I’m telling you.’

“When you fast-forward to Charlottesville, you didn’t see any tear gas. There was approximately four to five arrests, even though there was one direct result which was a murder, and there were two police officers who were killed indirectly. But in Ferguson, 140 people were arrested in one day for failing to disperse. What are we doing? It’s so different.

“You’re putting your life on the line for what you believe in. You don’t know if someone is going to drive a car into the crowd, which we now know is a thing. You don’t know if someone is going to fire into a crowd, which we now know is a thing. You’re like, ‘I’m so tired of this. I don’t know what else to do. I’m angry, I’m afraid. I can’t live like this anymore.’ And it’s day after day after day.

“You go to sleep and you wake up. You really haven’t had any sleep. You shower the tear gas off you’ve got to either throw away your clothes or wash your clothes because they’re permeating the air. You can’t hold your child because you’ve got it all in your skin. Let’s say you have to go to work? Your kids have to go to school. You still have to interact with people like nothing is happening. And then the next night. And you know what’s going to happen.

“And you’re dealing with this not from a mentality of being a victim, but like this is disproportionately affecting people who look like me. This is what happens to us and no one cares.

“Every single day since I’ve been an image activist, a documentarian, I realize I place my livelihood – my career – at risk. There are people who do not agree with what I’m doing. I’m not causing anything, I’m just documenting. I’m just holding up an incredibly large and uncomfortable mirror.

“I can do this art thing indefinitely and I love it because I can craft an image and it can be a piece that makes us look at racism. A piece that makes us look at homophobia. A piece that makes us look at classism. And I don’t have to hold up a sign that says, ‘Hey, you’re a bigot.’ But we can look at this and say, ‘Wow.’ That’s my job.

“To me, as long as we get to the end result, it doesn’t matter how we got there. It doesn’t matter how we felt. We have to get to the end result. The responsible thing is not to hide this, because it’s going to keep happening.”

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