Jacksonville’s historic LaVilla neighborhood was our city’s first suburb. In its prime, the area was often called “the Harlem of the South” and was home to renowned residents such as James Weldon Johnson, Stephen Crane, and Eartha M.M. White. Very little of LaVilla remains today after its major demolition in the late 1990s. Still, LaVilla carries a rich history of its own.
In Jacksonville: A Tale of My City, our current exhibit in the Jax Makerspace Gallery at the Main Library, photographer Bob Self shares the images he captured just before LaVilla’s demolition. The veteran photojournalist has been shooting for The Florida Times-Union for a whopping 34 years.
Hurley and Jenna, hosts of our Completely Booked podcast, sat down with Bob Self to chat about his photographs featured in Jacksonville: A Tale of My City. Here’s part of our conversation with Self on his photojournalism career.
JACKSONVILLE PUBLIC LIBRARY: What changes have you experienced as a photojournalist through the years?
BOB SELF: Technology has been the biggest thing. I started out in the business with film and chemicals and dark room printing. We’d sit down at a typewriter afterwards and peck out our captions on a sheet of paper, cut it off, Scotch tape it to the back of the print, and hand it off to the layout people. Now, it’s shooting digital, then pop the disc into the computer, download the photos, put on a caption, and use a wireless to transmit the photos back to the server. And that can happen in minutes.
So the technology has constantly changed, but good photojournalism really hasn’t.
JPL: And what makes good photojournalism?
BS: That’s a tough question, but I think in the simplest terms, it’s good, relatively quick-read visuals that tell a story—that draw a reader in to tell the story. I think it has to have a nice combination of things that generate or capture an emotion that other people can relate to. It’s more than just taking a picture to show what somebody looks like.
JPL: Definitely. And you capture a realm of emotions in your photos in Jacksonville: A Tale of My City. Tell us a little bit about the photo series you shot in LaVilla several years ago.
BS: It came after a project I had done a few years prior at American Beach. I spent several summers doing a documentary project. And I’ve always loved long-term projects, where you just keep revisiting the same people or the same area again and again and again. That’s the only way you ever get to know it. That’s the only way anybody gets to know you and trust you enough to let you into their lives.
So myself, and I believe it was Bob Mack, who was one of the photographers at the time, we were coming home from a football game. We were just talking, and he said, “You know, you really ought to do something on LaVilla because they’re about to start cleaning that area out.” And it had never crossed my mind—it was like, Duh, yeah, I should do that.
For the next 17 months, I’d park close by—it was only a few blocks from the newspaper building. On a slow day, I’d go walk the streets for a few hours. If I had a really slow day, I’d spend all day just walking around with the cameras, talking to people, shooting, and making observations.
And slowly, steadily, the people—the regulars that were still in the neighborhood—got a feel for who I was and had a certain level of trust with me being there. They gave me access to things that, otherwise, I… would never have been invited to be a part of.
JPL: Right. The trust aspect of that series seems crucial. In a lot of these photos, you are inside of peoples’ homes, and your subjects look pretty vulnerable. What was that like?
BS: That’s kind of what I’ve done my whole career. Whether I’ve got a very limited amount of time with somebody, or I’ve got an extended period of time… you have to let people know that you respect them as a person. And they’ve got to figure that out really quick. If you come off as being exploitive in any way, they know it. They know it right away. I learned that lesson early on.
I’ve also always taken the approach that none of my subjects owe me anything. They are sharing a part of their life that they don’t have any obligation to share with me. I’ve always taken that approach with people. I’m grateful for the time that they’ve given me, the things in their life they’re willing to share with me. And I’ve been doing it for 34 years at the paper and a number of years before that.
Listen to our full interview with Bob Self on our podcast, Completely Booked.
Learn more about Self’s photographs at his program on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018 at 5 p.m. in the Jax Makerspace at the Main Library. If you can’t make it to the program, catch Self’s photos in Jacksonville: A Tale of My City through October 21. All library programs and exhibits are free and open to the public.
Photos courtesy of Bob Self.