Strong Photo, Strong Message
When Portland, Oregon–based portrait and wedding photographer Margaret Jacobsen participated in PhotoJam Portland this past July, she immediately exited her comfort zone. Jacobsen was used to working alone to create intimate moments, not to shooting in a competitive environment. But she achieved her goal: to create an image that shows African-American women boldly taking up physical space to communicate that they are entitled to do so, rather than being figuratively forced into a corner or expected to make others comfortable with them. Jacobsen’s image won best photo.
A PhotoJam works like this: In the morning, the organizers give 15 to 20 selected photographers a theme (Portland’s was “It’s Only Natural”). They shoot all day, developing an idea based on the theme as they shoot. At day’s end, they return to the Jam to post-process their shots in the shared space, and after all entries have been filed, the jury announces the winner.
Jacobsen’s winning image was the last she took that day. The idea came to her while crossing a street that’s one of her favorites because of the light and its industrial look and feel.
“I wanted to portray black women occupying their own space, and I wanted to portray women in general,” explains Jacobsen. “It’s my everyday reality, and my existence is not to make everyone feel comfortable or good about themselves. I have a six-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, and I would love it if the world they are going to live in was a lot more accepting and open to them being in certain spaces. I am here, I do exist, and I’d like to live my life well and loudly and as big as possible. I don’t want to always be shrinking myself, and I don’t want anyone else to do that either. I want my kids to grow up knowing that wherever they are, they belong there.”
Jacobsen had her friends stand in the middle of the street, firm in their conviction that they belonged exactly where they were, even while blocking cars from driving.
The image also evolved out of the events of the past year-plus, beginning with the killing of Michael Brown and continuing with the many others killed or harassed by police, including Sandra Bland, whose arrest and subsequent death demonstrated how extreme the power dynamic of who has the right to take up space can be.
Jacobsen uses Adobe Photoshop CC to process her images: “I love messing with exposure and working with gradient maps. That’s something I’m obsessed with. I adjust my black and white in gradient maps. I have a base action that I’ve created that encompasses levels, gradient maps, exposure, and curves, but it leaves it so I can adjust if need be, change the order they’re in, or add a level in between.” However, because she went into the shoot with a clear vision of her photo’s message, Jacobsen’s winning image didn’t need much editing.