FOUR years ago photographer Jabari Jacobs was pushing pencils at the Pentagon. Now he’s shooting album covers for
“The idea was to shoot in the desert, because a lot of the Nike campaigns have an urban feel. We went to the salt flats and this model was running all day. I felt so sorry for her,” he says, laughing, “because it was so hot out there. She was running back and forth all day.”
Just a few weeks before he was shooting legendary soul-R&B outfit Earth Wind & Fire, who he grew up listening to. “It didn’t quite hit me until afterwards,” he reflects. “Sometimes you’re so into work that you don’t take a step back and actually see what you’re doing. So that’s one of the rare times that, in the moment, I was able to take a step back and appreciate being able to shoot a legendary band like that.”
"My first year of photography, I didn’t even own a camera - I’d shoot on my iPhone and borrow one when I could."
Back home in Maryland for the holidays, Jabari splits time between New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC, where his wife and son are based. He works full-time now as a photographer, which is remarkable for someone who has only taken the medium seriously for three years.
Jabari is a versatile photographer, shifting seamlessly from moody black-and-white nudes to hyper-reel portraits featuring inflatable animals and dogs stained blue with vegan dye. He has a natural eye for colours, and his distinctive backdrops have become a calling card of sorts (see the way he unexpectedly pairs The Internet with a vibrant orange on the cover of 2015’s Ego Death).
Starting out in music production, Jabari developed an interest in photography while assisting his brother – a film director – on set. “I put photos on Tumblr and it started to take off and I fell in love with it a bit more, so I took more and more pictures,” he explains. “My first year of photography, I didn’t even own a camera – I’d shoot on my iPhone and borrow one when I could.”
Jabari’s passion for images soon eclipsed his music aspirations. He quit his menial job at the Department of Defence’s mailroom, sold all of his musical equipment, and shifted across country to Los Angeles. Does having a background in music make you a better photographer of musicians?
“I think it does,” he explains, “and I think it gave me an advantage because I understand artists well. Certain artists can be moody, or emotional, or not even want to take pictures. I know how to be laidback with artists and not make it feel like work. We relax in the studio and see what happens.”
How did you first connect with The Internet?
It was around 2014 when I first moved to LA. One of
I was already familiar with The Internet and just Odd Future in general … so I was like, “Of course I would love to do it.” So we shot just me and Syd the first time in a studio in Downtown LA and it was no real theme or anything. It was just like, “Bring some clothes.” I had some backdrops, and let’s just see what we can get.
[It was the] evening so she was already kind of tired from the day, so the shoot was just really laid back, just really chill. We just had some different backdrops. She just brought some different clothes, I had some balloons and some confetti, just random props laying around and we just worked out and just meshed real well .. [But] we didn’t even talk after that. She posted the pictures – she used them for a couple things – so I knew she liked them but we didn’t really become friends yet.
And she sent me an email a couple months later, asked if I wanted to shoot the band’s album cover for Ego Death. So that’s when I was able to meet the rest of the band. And from there that’s when I started to hang with them more and start to connect with them. And that’s when we started to kind of build a relationship that continued to go on even after the Ego Death album.
What’s the story behind that album cover? Did you shoot at any particular place, or did you have an idea in your head before you did that shoot?
Yeah, for that shoot Matt [Martians] from The Internet actually came up with the idea … I went to Syd’s house and I met with the rest of the band. We were just sitting outside talking, just kind of talking about music, it wasn’t really a conversation about anything; it was just a creative conversation, just opinions on music, opinions on art.
We was just talking, and as we were talking, Matt was sketching on a napkin the whole time. He just randomly said, “Yo, this is what I want the cover to look like.” And he actually drew it out. So he drew it on a napkin and it was just a quick sketch that had all of them, the poses on two rows. It had one row then the next row, that was all Matt’s idea … They wanted to use an actual photo for the album and then have everyone in it – they never did that before.
"They wanted to use an actual photo for the album and then have everyone in it – they never did that before."
Where did you shoot that one?
We actually shot that in the same studio I shot Syd in. It’s a studio I shoot at downtown. At the studio I have a bunch of backdrops so they kind of just came in. We already had an idea of different colour palettes that they wanted to use. We shot on a red that day, shot on orange, a yellow, a green.
We shot on a bunch of different colours and then throughout the day we were just seeing what looked best. So it was a loose idea. Like I said, Matt came up with it and explained the idea to me. But he didn’t really have anything as far as the aesthetic of it, as far as the colours and everything. It was really just the actual pose and then from there that’s when I just added my aesthetic to it.
He did have an idea about the dogs on the back cover. He wanted to shoot his dog and Syd’s dog on the back. So the day of the shoot they brought their dogs in and we were really in the studio for maybe four or five hours. We were just shooting, trying different things. Because even outside of that pose we did some other group shots. But the main picture was the two rows of them that made the cover. That was the idea that Matt came up with.
What are they standing on?
Apple boxes. It was two apple boxes and I had them just stand on them for the variation of height.
Was it Matt’s idea as well to include the instruments in the shot?
Actually, not really. It’s funny, the first shots there weren’t any instruments … As a band they’re very energetic at times. Steve was moving around a lot. He and Patrick [Paige II, bassist] were always messing around with guitars. You can tell the interest wasn’t really in the photo, they wanted to kind of get out the way. So they were tuning their guitars and things like that.
I remember Patrick came kind of late so he already had his guitar on his back, and when he came in we were already taking individual [shots] of people waiting on Pat to get there. And when he got there he had his guitar in his hand and Steve was tuning it, so they really just stepped in and I was like, “Alright, let’s get a photo.” They just so happened to have it in their hands. And that’s why Matt also has the headphones…
When you look back on the shots was it clear that was the one?
Shooting six people can get kind of- it’s hard to get everyone on the same page … So once we figured out the direction from shooting that day, that’s when we started to hone in on that actual pose. We have a bunch of different edits of that one pose, but that’s the one we went with because it fit the vibe and the aesthetic of the sound. It just kind of came together right.
It must have been pretty challenging shooting the dogs as well.
Yeah, it’s weird because they were calm but the Rottweiler is just so big. I guess I didn’t really appreciate how big he was. The little one was pretty easy, but with the bigger one he would listen but he would just move. He kept trying to lay down and was knocking over stuff, but for the most part it was cool.
Had you heard the record at this stage?
No. I heard a couple songs from just hanging with them, but it wasn’t anything direct. It was just background music that I knew they were working on so they didn’t run through the album, no. But I did hear a couple cuts, just from being around them while they were working on it.
And what did you think of the album?
I’ve always been a fan of them so I thought the album was really good. I thought from past albums I could definitely tell Syd’s voice has gotten a lot stronger. That was one of the first things I noticed: just the clarity in her voice was a lot better. I always liked the melodic vibe, but I could tell it just levelled up a bit. So that was one of the first things I noticed. But overall, I liked it sonically and everything I just thought it was dope.
Live @ Broccoli City Festival (2016)
What’s the story behind that photo?
That was the second live performance I’ve shot of bands, but that was my first time being on stage with them … I’ve never seen someone play drums that good that close to me it was just so weird. He just really killed the show. And I told him right after the show that he did an amazing job.
I was spending some time close to him just capturing him, then he turned around and was making faces at me and I just thought it was cool because he wasn’t even looking at the drums. He was literally looking at me and still performing. And I told him that was one of the greatest performances I’ve seen from a drummer live. Just being able to control it like that and just show the confidence in it. So that’s why I got that shot.
Plus another thing I’ve noticed, when people shoot The Internet they always focus on Syd. And I understand Syd is the face, but … everyone puts their effort into it. I think a lot of times people in the background don’t get as much attention as they should from photographers. Not from the actual band, but from photographers it’s always people talking pictures of Syd.
So whenever I shoot with them I always try to make sure it’s equal across the board, and I get shots of everyone. I think that’s also another reason why we have such a good relationship because I know how to get everyone involved even though Syd is typically the face of the band.
Los Angeles, 2016
That Anderson .Paak shot in the window is really great. Is that in your studio?
Yeah, it’s a studio I rent out downtown. It was funny, that was one of the last shots we got and basically we ran out of clothes but I wanted to use the window because the way the sun was I thought it just looked really dope.
We ran out of clothes, I didn’t want to shoot the same look in two different areas because I didn’t want to have to choose which one I like more. So I said let’s just shoot it from this window I’m just going to make it kind of dark, kind of moody and you probably won’t be able to tell the clothes are being used in an earlier look. So that’s why it’s moody and like that. But that was really just a last minute shot. That actual set up was probably like a two, three minute set up. It was very quick. But they so happen to be some of my favourite shots from that particular session.
And the shot with him standing on his toes- is that a Michael Jackson reference?
We didn’t even talk about Michael Jackson that day so I don’t want to say it was a Michael Jackson reference, but he’s definitely a good dancer … So the day of the shoot we were just playing music and he just started dancing.
With shooting artists, one thing I never do is tell them to stop. I kind of just let them do whatever they want to do. And of course I guide them if something is not connecting, but for the most part I just let artists do what they do. He just was dancing and I just was taking different shots and trying to capture the moment … [He] went on his toes and I just so happened to catch it at the right moment.
Do you think artists or photographers get enough credit for the covers that they shoot? Or is it really just about the music?
We’re in a weird time in terms of social media. And a lot of times artists put up things and don’t even tag who did it. So a lot of times it’s not even that easy to find out who shot certain covers, you have to kind of do some research if you really care. So I would say not enough … [but] it really just depends on the artist.
You can kind of see when some effort was put into the cover. I think when you just have a simple portrait that can sometimes be redundant or boring, or whatever. But I think when there’s a bit of creativity into you can definitely tell. Because even on Fridays when I check Apple Music for new releases, there’s a lot of times where I may not have even heard of an artist, but if I like the cover I’ll just give it a listen. I feel like if you put some effort into that [the cover], you probably put effort into the music.
(Outtakes of The Internet’s Ego Death provided exclusively by Jabari Jacobs. Not for reproduction)