Meet Jacob: An Ethnocultural Photographer

Story by Sarah Carpenter, Images by Jacob Brooks
“Wanting to connect on a human level, sharing life in a way that promotes understanding and conversation around the world, around faith, culture, different color skin…”

Travel photography. The world is inundated with travel photography. Whether photographers are selling prints or stock images, sending travel images to magazines, posting shots on their social media, with the rise of travel blogs and influencers, travel photography is everywhere. You’d think that, by now, the constant stream of epic landscapes, enchanting castles and ruins, and aqua colored waters should cause my eyes to glaze over as I flick through Instagram. And yet there are still a few photographers whose work makes me stop scrolling through Instagram and take the time to like, comment, and save those photos. Their photos have changed my opinion of the world. Jacob Brooks is one of those photographers.

There were two things Jacob knew when he started his independent life at the age of 19. He wanted to travel. He didn’t know how he could afford it or make it happen, but he knew it was a priority. After completing his first year of college, Jacob, his now wife Annie, and some friends took a trip down to Juarez. He loved it so much that he decided to go back. This time he and a friend bought a van for $100 dollars and drove from Colorado down to Mexico. The van broke down while in Mexico, and he ended up leaving it there, but in the 10 days it took before a group of his friends drove from Colorado to pick them up, he truly fell in love with traveling. His passion for travel is inspiring, to say the least. For Jacob, it’s not about lying on a beach enjoying crystal clear waters and room service in a bubble of bathing suits and striped umbrellas. It’s about “wanting to connect on a human level, sharing life in a way that promotes understanding and conversation around the world, around faith, culture, different color skin…” We live in a time where western culture promotes the creation of all-inclusive resorts, and this phenomenon is hindering the ability of travelers to actually experience a place for what it is. “A resort will come in and employ a lot of people, and it will totally crush the culture and everything around it will be fake and contrived.

As a traveler, it’s the opposite experience I want to have”. When Jacob was in Juarez, he realized that one of the greatest treasures a person could ever come away from travel with is an understanding of the values each different culture has and that they should be celebrated. In Mexico, those values are centered around family and loyalty, and there is so much we, as Americans, can learn from that, he told me. The same is true of any place. After that, he was addicted and he hasn’t stopped traveling since. That was almost 20 years ago now.

Photography was nowhere near his radar when Jacob was 19. The second thing Jacob knew about his life just after high school was that he wanted to be an artist. He was a painter and illustrator at the time and felt that photography was beneath him. Photography came to Jacob accidentally, something that we all wish would happen but rarely happens to the best of us.

“made me realize the power of the camera… there was power in the camera to actually make me equal with them, to make me engage with them in a way that was honest.”
“it’s okay to wonder, to make eye contact with a stranger, to stare at them, to engage in an activity with them without speaking the language, being able to sit down with them…”

In 2005, he photographed an album cover for Annie, who was a musician at the time. The photo was taken on a Sony point and shoot camera, and the photo was “hilarious, so bad, just the worst photo” he claims. After that, he and Annie started to get inquiries to shoot weddings. They turned them down at first thinking they weren’t interested and didn’t want to learn how to shoot weddings, but after a while and with the nudge of an inquiry coming from a good friend of theirs, they finally said yes and shot their first wedding. “My wife actually got into learning about photography first, and I fell in love with it” Jacob explains. Together they became the husband and wife photography team “Brumley and Wells”. Since then Annie has gone on to co-own The Wells Makery, a custom branding and illustration company, with her friend Whitney.

Travel portraits came out of the same curiosity he felt for travel. He was shy and uncomfortable the first several times he traveled, but he felt compelled to connect with the people he was seeing and meeting. This yearning made him wish he could capture the moment and show the world how beautiful these people were. After a trip to Guatemala bringing dental work to the people there, he didn’t feel like he could connect with the people. The work his group was doing there almost created a hierarchy even though the intentions were good. The intention created a distance. He was hired to shoot a documentary in September 2011 and went back to Guatemala as a photographer. This is where travel portraits took hold for Jacob. They “made me realize the power of the camera… there was power in the camera to actually make me equal with them, to make me engage with them in a way that was honest.” He was invited into their homes and did portraits and videos of the families. He found that the camera was a useful tool to help people tell their stories.

Since then, he has traveled all over the world to places like India, Georgia, Japan, Egypt, New Zealand and Cuba, to name a few, but he says his favorite place is India. “It’s a culture that doesn’t look down upon curiosity,” a place where “it’s okay to wonder, to make eye contact with a stranger, to stare at them, to engage in an activity with them without speaking the language, being able to sit down with them…". He says that India is a place where one is constantly stimulated, always learning, and forced into a mode of constant observation.

It didn’t take long for Jacob to realize that all of the work he was drawn to was shot on film, and by 2011, Jacob bought a Contax 645 (a medium format film camera) and began to shoot with it. And the end of 2012, he and Annie went to New Zealand for a shoot they’d booked, and Jacob decided he would take only Kodak film, leaving his digital camera behind. Since then, Jacob has been photographing weddings, some commercial work for a dress designer, and documentary film and photography. He says that the weddings and documentary work have always grown together in parallel. The focus of his company J Lambert Film is ethnocultural portraiture, and this is some of the work I most love of his. To see one of these portraits is to be transfixed by the stories of the people he captures. I often find myself transported into the portrait; completely drawn to the way he captures so much soul behind the eyes of his subject. His process is simple: being respectful, trying to discern what the other person is thinking, using body language to communicate with the subject.

“If I see a subject I really want to photograph, I’ll just hang out for a moment. If it’s a portrait I’m after, I’ll hang out for a while and I’ll try to work into a groove until I’m just there, almost invisible”. Sounds simple enough and completely daunting, but the way that he uses connection to share someone’s story is so powerfully portrayed in the final product, that it almost makes me want to try my hand at it. One of the things I loved hearing him say is how much satisfaction he gets out of sharing portraits with his subjects. He said he’ll send them an image on Whatsapp or over the internet if they have access, but his favorite way to share is to print a bunch of photos if he knows he’s going back to a place he’s been before and, if he runs into the subjects in person, being able to hand them that print.

Jacob didn’t intend to go to Punjab for the particular trip when he took the photographs that are in this feature. He was heading to India for work when he had a conversation with his assistant about his heritage. His assistant mentioned that he was from Punjab but had never visited. Instantly Jacob decided that he should come to India with Annie and him. They booked a ticket to Delhi and made their plans. When they arrived, the air quality was at its worst. The pollution was miserable. They had landed in Delhi during an inversion, a weather pattern in which the warm air rises as the cold air comes down from the Himalayas. The smog gets trapped underneath it. During this time, all the pollution that comes with traffic and the high number of people living in the area is at its worst. He tells me that, when it comes to air quality, the index puts 900 at beyond the worst you ever want it to be. At this point, it’s practically no longer air. On this day, the air quality index for the area was in the 800s. Many people in Dehli blamed the farmers for the pollution saying that their act of burning crops on their farms made them completely at fault for this poor air quality. However, during their 12-hour train ride from Dehli to Punjab, Jacob and his friend listened to the local people talk about what was causing it. According to them, farmers burning crops only accounted for about 10% of the pollution. Jacob’s friend’s family were all farmers, so it gave Jacob the opportunity to see the crops being burned. On drives, they’d come across these farmers and pull over to the side anytime they saw anybody burning their crops. Jacob took their portraits, they had conversations with each other. He could see how hard they worked from their bodies, their demeanor. They were humble people, and he thought the site and the conversations they had were so beautiful. He also said that a few of them were nervous about the photos he was taking, thinking they might be turning the portraits over to inform the government about who was burning their crops. This experience showed him that there’s “something to be said for finding out for yourself. A lot of photography is that curiosity, let’s go explore this, let’s go observe this”, says Jacob.

I hope that, as the magazine develops, you will be seeing a lot more of Jacob’s work and hear the stories of the people and places he photographs, but for now, I’ll leave you with these words from our conversation. I asked Jacob what advice he would give to other photographers, and he immediately said, “I always like encouraging photographers, wedding photographers in particular. I just feel like so many of us have lost that passion for what we’re doing, and I think that a lot of wedding photographers are looking for an outlet… there’s such an important part of the creative journey that is about creating out of a place of joy and inspiration, and that’s what I feel like is the danger, that’s what’s at risk of people losing if people aren’t willing to open up the door, give the time or the space to do those passion projects. I would encourage any wedding photographer, whatever it is that truly excites them, just to do it. Pursue that desire”.

Jacob Brooks is a wedding and ethnocultural portrait photographer. He is the owner of Brumley and Wells and J Lambert Film. You can see more of his work at Brumley & Wells and jlambertfilm.com