Jacob Silberberg has photographed the Liberian civil war and the Darfur genocide, and he spent a year and a half in Iraq during the bleakest phase of the insurgency. But he honed his craft by taking pictures for community fliers in Boston after he finished college at Tufts. He made $20 a shot (not including expenses) and covered up to eight events a day. “I learned how to shoot when there was no picture,” he says.
Silberberg saved enough money to set out for Lagos, Nigeria, and landed in 2003 with $10,000 strapped to his chest—all the money he’d need for several months—and spent two years there, eventually winning the assignments that followed. Last year, he spent all of eight weeks at home, stateside.
Growing up, Silberberg had a vague goal of being a photojournalist, but he never aspired to art school. At Tufts, he studied international relations, figuring that, as a budding photographer, he’d learn the subject matter and pick up the craft along the way. As a student, he went to Latin America on exchange programs. He learned the minutia of international aid work, how to sell pictures to wire services, and most important, the value of going places the media forgets about, always pushing a new story or finding an angle to advance an old one.
His photographs depict people who seem to stand slightly apart from their surroundings, whether on a battlefield or in a mosque, but he hesitates to attach an aesthetic to what he does. He considers himself a journalist, not an artist. “I don’t have the language,” he explains. “I’m finally at a place where I’m not trying to get my pictures to look like someone else’s, and I now understand that I’m having a dialogue with the photography community.”
He’s also wary of telling people what he does, because it affects people’s perceptions of him. But he insists that his mindset changes at work. “I’m really afraid of blood,” he says. “I’d faint if you talked to me about some injury!” And yet he spent a month shooting pictures in a Baghdad emergency room. “I have a job to do. You have to understand how to put it in a picture, instead of internalizing it.”