Photographer Tolbert Left a Lasting Impression

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Indianapolis Star photographer Mpozi Tolbert covered disasters — natural and manmade — with a humanity and grace that earned him the respect of veteran photographers twice his age. He died last month at 34.

TONY COX, host:

Arthur Lee will be remembered for his voice, but Mpozi Tolbert will be remembered for his eye. The celebrated staff photographer for the Indianapolis Star died last month of unknown causes. He was just 34 years old.

Mpozi- known as Posey or Pose to colleagues and friends - stood 6'6” tall, his shoulders draped with dreadlocks and an ever-changing collection of cameras. He sold his first photograph to the Philadelphia Daily News when he was just 16.

As a young man, he freelanced in his native Philadelphia, covering everything from breaking news to Philly's vibrant music scene. He even documented the rise of hip-hop super group The Roots, and lent both his keen eye and voice to their record Do You Want More?

After shooting for the Associated Press and Vibe Magazine among others, Mpozi landed a prestigious staff jobs with the Indianapolis Star. He was just 26 at the time. Fellow Star photographer Frank Espich was in the photography lab when Mpozi got the handshake from then director of photography Chip Maury.

Espich remembers wanting to meet the young upstart who'd beaten out some very stiff competition.

Mr. FRANK ESPICH (Photographer, Indianapolis Star): And I said man, I don't know who you are, but congratulations. I don't know how you got the job, man, because everyone wanted it. And he grabbed hold of my hand and pulled me close to him and he said, power of Jedi, man. Power of Jedi. And that was a beautiful moment for me, and I'll never forget it. And I thought, man, I love this guy already. I don't even know him.

COX: During Mpozi's eight years at the Star, he spent much of his time bent over a police scanner. Colleagues said he loved the excitement of the newsroom. He would often run out to shoot stories that other photographers had overlooked.

Despite his 6'6” frame, subjects said that Mpozi simply disappeared behind the camera. Whether he was covering the wreckage of 9/11, or a quiet moment between a son and his father just back from Iraq, his photos deftly capture life's pleasure and pain without exploiting it.

In one of Mpozi's favorite shots, a billboard of Muhammad Ali towers above a New York City street corner. Passers by hurry to the bus or the subway, but no one notices Ali watching them, and that in a way was Mpozi Tolbert. Always larger than life, and always, always watching.

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COX: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit And if you'd like to comment, give us a call at 202-408-3330. That's 202-408-3330. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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COX: I'm Tony Cox. Ed Gordon will be back tomorrow. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

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