After visiting with and taking portraits of refugees camped in Idomeni earlier this month, globe-trotting photographer Jacob Brooks (featured in this space Feb. 11) had $28,000 worth of gear stolen from his rental car while stopped over in Athens, Greece. His perspective on the value of material things and what’s important about making art have since changed.
What was it like when you realized you’d been robbed?
It took me 10 seconds before I could register what was happening. I couldn’t believe it was possible. There was no way for me in that moment to deal with the extent of the loss. Emotionally more than monetarily. My first thought was about my hard drives, and all of the footage I’d just shot of the refugee camp. The shitty thing is that I had just moved my film from the bag I carry on me, into the big camera bag that I left in the car. If I’d had that on me, it wouldn’t have been as big a loss. I’ve never been physically brought to my knees by despair, but I dropped for a minute before I realized that we needed to move fast if we had any chance of figuring this out. I was running around, looking in dumpsters – sometimes people dump the stuff because they’re only after cash – I was looking for evidence, frantically asking people if they’d seen anything.
And the days following?
A family took us in, fed us, kept us as we scoured Athens. At that point, I couldn’t afford a place to stay and I literally felt like I had nothing. So to have that family reach out helped me to remember that people are good and want to help. That night, I reached out on social media to tell people what was going on and I got this tidal wave of love and support from connections I’ve made all over the world. I was getting emails and private messages, text messages and phone calls nonstop for a week.
Are you angry?
Anger isn’t what’s stuck around. Traveling the world extensively over the past three years, everyone in every nation has welcomed me, been hospitable and has kept me from danger. If this had been my first travel experience, it might be a different story, but having that vast array of experiences to paint my picture of humanity allowed me to keep my faith in it. To not feel the burden of anger, to not ask the question, “How could he do this to me?” The loss is still tragic – the loss of the film and the photographs – it’s still hard for me to take, but it’s not anger that I feel.
What do you feel for the man who stole your things?
I think he’s a coward, but mostly, I feel empathy for him. After experiencing the outpouring of love from my community, I realized that this guy doesn’t have that. That put things in perspective. I realized that he’s not benefiting from this. He has no community. He doesn’t have friends. How can he? He doesn’t trust people because he wouldn’t trust himself. How could he make that connection with humanity? But I do. I’ve gotten to see how meaningful and necessary it is to have that connection and that faith. All of those connections are alive and real and intimate. I keep in touch with people who I love and who love me. This guy doesn’t have that meaning, that fundamental sense of purpose.
This is a pivotal point in my life. I don’t think that I fully understand to what extent, either. It’s been really hard to let go of the artwork and the hard work behind them. But even those don’t have meaning apart from the stories that those images represent. To realize that the time spent and the relationships I formed with those refugees hold value, apart from any physical evidence. That’s hard for a photographer to admit. Realizing that the stuff has no value to me. It’s just gear, just tools. All of the money and the things that were taken can be replaced. I feel more responsible to carry out good, to be proactive about it. Being a good person isn’t enough anymore. I want to be intentional about how I express the goodness of humanity. People are robbed all the time. People are having their lives fundamentally altered every day – and none of us know about it. Everyone’s going through hell. So to reach out, give love and support, feed people, trust them, that’s what’s become central to me. It’s become something of a burden almost. A pressing need. I haven’t felt that before.
Cyle Talley is damned impressed by people. If there’s something you’d like to Get Smart about, email him at: [email protected]