INDIANAPOLIS, IN – Photojournalist Mpozi Mshale Tolbert, 34, a staff member at The Indianapolis Star, collapsed at work Monday while working at the picture desk and died about an hour later at Wishard Memorial Hospital, the newspaper reported today.
Tolbert had been on staff at the Star for about eight years after a freelance career that included shooting for Vibe magazine and the Associated Press. He had been an NPPA member since 1999.
“We are not sure” what happened, Star director of photography Mike Fender said today. “One minute he was laughing and being the normal Pozi on the desk, eating Cherry Garcia ice cream, and a few minutes later he was having trouble breathing and collapsed. EMTs were not able to revive him. The staff is in shock right now.”
Fender said they put together a photo gallery of Tolbert's work and published it online today, “but it’s starting to sink in now.”
Tolbert specialized in spot news and crisis related photography, according to the Star, and had gone along with a FEMA Task Force Search and Rescue Team to Ground Zero of 9/11 to document the lives of the rescue workers away from the digging.
“Mpozi loved spot news. He loved being where the action was,” Fender said. “When we chose a photographer to follow Task Force One to Ground Zero, we knew Mpozi was the perfect person to go. He could live on the street with a backpack and a few Snickers bars for a week, no problem.”
“At 6’6” with dreadlocks, he wasn’t the type of photographer to blend into the wallpaper. He always stood out on assignment. He was the one photographer that people around Indianapolis always recognized, and they always had something good to say about him. Since he couldn’t blend in, he made up for it with personality. People felt comfortable around him minutes after talking with him.”
Fender said Tolbert was both a photojournalist and an artist. “His photographs always reflected the way he saw the event or situation. Besides spot news, he really enjoyed being around people on assignment. Since no one was ever like him, I think he was entertained by the rest of us.”
Star reporter Diana Penner wrote in today’s paper that Tolbert was working on the picture desk, editing photographs for today’s edition, when he collapsed. She quotes Star photographer Bob Scheer, who said Tolbert’s pictures bore his trademark. "Everything he shot had heart. It really had a soul to it. He didn't compromise when he took pictures,'' Scheer said. "He never shot to please someone else. He did it his way.''
And Star reporter Tammy Webber told Penner that Tolbert always kept food in his trunk to give to homeless people.
The photojournalist, who started photography in high school, was originally from the Philadelphia, PA, area and had freelanced for The City Paper, the Philadelphia Gay News, and The Tribune before moving to Indianapolis. Penner reported that he had an art studio in the Fountain Square area of Indianapolis where he displayed his photographs of Philadelphia and New York, and that he was a Sunday night deejay at a Broad Ripple, IN, nightclub where he played reggae and Brazilian music.
Star editor Dennis Ryerson told Penner that Tolbert had "a big heart, and a kind heart. I have seen him several times with subjects he was photographing, and he was, with them, as he always was with us - totally courteous, with a kind sense of humor.''
Tolbert is survived by his mother, Maisha Jackson, and his father, Rudy Tolbert, along with his stepmother, Sunni Green Tolbert; three brothers, Sadiki Tolbert, Dedan Tolbert, and Paul Robeson Green, and one sister, Ayanna Tolbert.
A memorial observance will be held at 3 p.m. on Friday July 7 at the Murphy Art Center, 1043 Virginia Ave., with remarks to begin at 5:30 p.m. His photographs are on display at the Murphy Art Center. Visitation is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon Friday at Stuart's Funeral Home, 2201 N. Illinois Street, Indianapolis.