Writer Marcus Jackson Picks Up a Camera to Find a Visual Poetry

A poet and photographer reflects on the act of street portraiture.

Marcus Jackson
Poet and street photographer Marcus Jackson

At the age of 32, I worried deeply for months about the survival of my wife and our in-utero child. Knowledge of my wife’s previous spinal and abdominal surgeries filled me with a biting anxiety and a powerlessness I hadn’t felt since youth, when I watched my parents and family members struggle as new laws and economic policies put communities of color in fresh peril. Now an adult working as an adjunct English instructor, my worry for the health of our growing family manifested in constant motion, missed sleep and overdone chores. I cleaned and recleaned, triple-checked the bolts holding together the yet-to-be-used crib, and read everything I could find about pregnancy.

Thankfully, mother and child both endured the birth and soon found full health.

Though money was tight, we decided to buy our first camera. The documentation of our only child’s development and future interactions seemed essential. We cross-shopped all the camera and electronics stores in town. Neither of us had ever photographed with anything more than a small point-and-shoot, and the bulk of my photographic experience lay in the hazy days of the 1990s with disposable FunSaver cameras. We settled on a semi-professional digital camera on significant discount and with a track record of reliability and intuitiveness, along with a compatible, cheap 50mm lens. The whole setup cost less than a new iPhone costs today.

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That camera we bought as new parents couldn’t make calls or send text messages or superimpose the animated features of colorful animals onto selfies, but it could make stunning photos once we understood its capacities and limitations. My path toward comprehending the strengths and quirks of that camera and of other gear (I would eventually expand into film photography), as well as of the intricacies of the photographic craft, began a nearly decadelong journey that remains ongoing, a journey that has earned me invaluable reckonings, mistakes and enchantments.

"Shoeless Acrobatics on High Street, 2020"

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When I began the path, I was generally dissatisfied with where social media and smartphones had been dragging human interactions and our interplay with photographs. The virtualization of exchanges with loved ones and acquaintances troubled me partly because I grew up in a working-class city where communities operated face-to-face, where people bought each other beers so they could laugh and lament in the same place, under the same faint, tavern light. Additionally, the proliferation of camera phones meant more photos being made by more people, and all these new, shakily made images could be instantly shared with whomever had technological access.

Street Portrait, High Street, 2022

At the time, I had been seriously writing poetry for almost 15 years, had studied the literary genre at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and had published two collections of poems, so I passionately believed that crafting meaningful things usually took time and great care. So while countless homogenized images spread electronically at greater and greater rates, I decided to make my family’s first camera the portal for a departure toward slowing down and putting thought and ample effort into making photographs whose frames I hoped would bear, as French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson put it, “fleeting reality.” You might swap the word “honesty” for “reality,” for a meaningful photograph presents a rare, vanishing instance when pretense disintegrates and the souls of people, places and objects seem to arise and suspend.

Poet and street photographer changes film on his 40-year-old camera, which is uncle gave him.

I talked to the photographers I knew, and they implored me to ignore my new camera’s user-assistive settings and use it only in manual mode as much as possible. They advised me to take the camera everywhere, even on a midnight trip to Walgreens for diapers. They said the learning curve would be difficult and that I’d make tons of bad photos, but that eventually the camera would become an extension of my vision and mind.

I followed their generous, predictive advice. For each photograph, my protocol was to take a light meter reading, dial in the proper aperture and shutter speed, and then find focus by hand. Slowly, the procedure grew into reflex. By the time our child was a playground-scrambling toddler, the camera’s dials, buttons and capabilities were embedded in my consciousness, and I had immense creative input in how the photo emerged.

Poet and street photographer Marcus Jackson checks behind him for possible subjects as he walks down High Street.

Over those first years of photographing a growing child, family and friends, I became taken with how emotions and narratives can surface through the faces, mannerisms and movements of people. When the shutter button is pressed after a person has quit posturing, the person again becomes an embodiment of feelings and stories that usually strike the photo’s viewer more than rehearsed poses or expressions can. I learned that at an event where “photo opportunities” are expected (a birthday, a reunion, a retirement, etc.), the best photographs usually got made after the subject had assumed the posing process had ended. After holding up a cupcake and smiling for the camera, an aunt will eventually grab her glass of wine and return to considering the strangeness of time and all the work and money it took to put the birthday party together. The better photo is not the one of the aunt with the party treat, it’s the one of the aunt honestly thinking about something larger or more complex than the event’s scripted moments, preferably while her gaze is turned away from the rest of the party, toward a window’s helping of the late afternoon sun.

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Poet and street photographer Marcus Jackson takes a portrait of construction workers

This outcome is more common when subjects are involved in actions that engage their sincere concentration, and when they’re in locations that thrill, frighten or bore them. For these reasons, after our child started preschool, I turned plenty of my photographic attention to the streets, where, to the patient observer, reality and honesty can be abundant.

City streets are frequented by a diverse populace; they are lined with buildings and backdrops whose architecture and textures vary greatly; the overlapping action on streets is unpredictable and serendipitous. What’s more, in the daytime, the streets’ light source is a star, our sun, sending its luminosity roughly 92 million miles, filtered through a constantly changing thermosphere, mesosphere, stratosphere and troposphere. All these factors combine to make innumerable photographic possibilities.

On practically any day, I can cross routes with someone I’ll never see again, someone lit by a sun whose rays will never land on that person’s face in quite the same fashion. I can happen across a scene: a crew at work, an argument, a celebration, a protest. Any of these scenes and any of the people who create them share the same destiny—conclusion and anonymity. The camera and its lens can delay this destiny, and, if we’re lucky, portray toil and brilliance beyond death.

Poet and street photographer Marcus Jackson

I’m glad to walk miles with my 40-year-old film camera, which my lovely, late uncle gave me after I’d learned my photographic way. I’m glad to span distances for the chance to meet a stranger whose honest, singular beauty might stir someone elsewhere. I’m glad to meet anyone real. Anyone on their way to a shift in a busy kitchen, their locks pushed back by a headband, the large, black buttons of their culinary shirt like singing mouths. Anyone waiting in winter for a bus with their grandmother, whose dignified eyes evoke dark rocks touched by a river. Anyone who pauses thoughtfully, who tilts their face slightly, to better feel the air, the city’s vibrations and moods, everything that is stunningly temporary. 

This story is from the April 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.