Will Jacks has a standing date whenever he’s home on Thursday nights: he heads to Po’Monkey’s Lounge in northwest Mississippi. He’s been visiting the historic blues club regularly for about three years. During this time, he’s learned a lot about how to shoot and publish longterm photography projects.
The project on Po’Monkey’s started with a photo shoot for a magazine, which Jacks struggled with emotionally. “It didn’t feel real for me because I didn’t know enough about the story,” he recalls. And when it was over, he didn’t like the feeling of moving on to the next piece, and the next. “I felt like I was taking a lot.” The Mississippi native wanted a deeper relationship with the people and their place, he says. A deeper one.
Longterm photography projects often start with a simple question, “What can I learn?,’” says Jacks. That instinct led Jacks to find an opportunity that was in his own backyard, but for a long time was somehow invisible.
“Po’Monkey’s is very well known locally,” he says, and is a tourist stop on the Delta blues circuit. It’s been photographed extensively, perhaps most notably in Annie Leibovitz’s American Music photo book, published in 2003.
One night at Po’Monkey’s, Jacks ran into famed photojournalist David Alan Harvey and had a short conversation – so brief he expects Harvey won’t even remember it – in which Harvey told him he loved Po’Monkey’s and went there every chance he got, which was only a couple times a year.
That’s when the penny dropped for Jacks. “I have access to this place that even the greatest photographers in the world won’t have, unless they choose to move to Mississippi!” It became a challenge to himself to “take something that people were very aware of and show them something new.” He emphasizes that his images need “to be more intimate and show sides of the place. There needs to be a trust in the imagery that comes through.”
The Journey to Book Publishing
Jacks always knew his Po’Monkeys photographs could be a book, but went about his preparation carefully. “I’ve really been shooting to learn,” he says, soaking in more of the place and the people.
Most significant work comes from a richness and depth of knowledge,” he says, and that’s what he sees as the value of his project, which is in the early stages of becoming a book.
It’s a way he pushes himself out of the Land of Happy Clients, who often heap praise on a photographer’s work. “We need to get outside of that bubble,” Jacks says. So he assembled some of his images and went to several portfolio reviews. They weren’t easy.
But in the last review, he targeted a specific photographer who had also published a book about juke joints. That photographer, Birney Imes, took a look and told Jacks he had something special. He even offered to call his own book’s publisher and suggest taking on Jacks’s work. (Jacks is still talking to that publisher and one other, to determine “who will help me produce the best book;” he says money’s not the issue, but rather quality of the final volume.)
Now that the project is ready to publish, there’s a lot to do. Jacks estimates he has between 15,000 and 20,000 images. He’s been honing his process:
- Go through each Thursday-night shoot the following morning in Lightroom to do a first cut
- Identify the most interesting images and ensuring they’re sharp
- Do a quick conversion to black-and-white
- Choose a few images to print at a local store to hand out at Po’Monkeys
- Tagging images and leveraging Lightroom’s abilities – ratings and folders – for the book
During this process, he envisions the finished book. “I’ll start to see some holes,” he says. “I may find myself going back” to pay closer attention to some specific moments or people – without staging or contriving anything. With a final edit this spring, including hours spent prepping images for print, Jacks is eager to take the project to whatever its next phase becomes.
Yet as anyone who loves longterm photography projects knows, the work never truly ends. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop shooting” at Po’Monkey’s,” Jacks says.
Suggestions for those seeking to publish their own projects:
- You can make money with photo books – the photo book market is strong, with lots of publishers and buyers. “You can do this type of work and be able to earn income from it.” (though maybe not a full living, he admits).
- Delve deeper – digging into a project is a great way to ensure it’s worth doing – not just for yourself but for potential viewers and buyers of your work.
- Research Multiple markets – Mississippians and blues lovers are obvious, of course, but the European blues market is strong. Distribution overseas is why Jacks wants to work with a publisher as opposed to going it alone. Then, there are people who are interested in Southern culture, and African-American culture, and race relations, and then lovers of good photography, no matter its subject.
Check Jacks’ website for the latest on the book, including where to order it when it’s ready, though his latest planned timeline is to finish editing by August and prep for a spring 2015 release. “It’s time to wrap this up and let it out into the world,” Jacks laughs, with the certainty that no project like this will ever truly be finished.
After a short-lived tenure as a junior high school teacher and coach and a flirtation with filmmaking, Will Jacks finally settled in on a career as a photographer. Eager to begin a career as a photographer, he left Journalism graduate school in 1996, even though he was only a few hours shy of receiving his degree. His business has grown to serve a diverse clientele of commercial and editorial clients throughout the southeast, and his personal work is represented in several galleries in the region. In addition, his documentary work of the Mississippi Delta region is a prominent part of the Viking Range permanent archives.
Will is also active in the photographic and arts communities, serving as a past executive board member for the Delta Arts Alliance, a past governor-appointed board member of the Mississippi Blues Commission, and as a judge for the ShootQ Grant, among others. He also owns and operates a small photography gallery focusing on imagery from the Mississippi Delta, and just this spring has re-enrolled at the University of Mississippi in order to finally complete his Master’s Degree.
He and his wife Jamie, as well as their two pound puppies, Sam and Homer, live part-time in the Mississippi Delta and part-time in the French Quarter of New Orleans.