By Diana Penner
Mpozi Mshale Tolbert, 6 feet 6 inches tall with dreadlocks down to his waist, never blended in. You had to notice him. He stuck out — almost always grinning, forever seeing the possibilities in life, chuckling at its foibles.
Monday, The Indianapolis Star photographer collapsed at work, at the photo desk where he was selecting the images to appear in today's newspaper. He was taken to Wishard Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later.
An award-winning photographer who came to The Star in November 1998, Tolbert, 34, was equally at ease at news and sporting events as he was in classrooms of schoolchildren who looked up in awe and curiosity as he towered over them, an assortment of cameras and lenses around his neck.
Star photographer Bob Scheer said Tolbert's photographs always were imprinted with a certain 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.”
Reporter Tammy Webber was covering the statewide floods in January 2005 with Tolbert when they happened upon a terrified and timid dog. Tolbert, who recently adopted a stray he named Ornery, opened his trunk, pulled out a can of Chef Boyardee with a pop-off top and gave it to the dog, who gulped it down.
When Webber commented how lucky it was that he happened to have the can of food in his trunk, she learned that Tolbert always kept food in his trunk — to give to homeless people.
Indianapolis Star Publisher Barbara Henry said Tolbert was one of the first people to welcome her when she arrived in Indianapolis almost six years ago.
“He told me about his Philadelphia roots and his love of Philadelphia food,” Henry remembered. “He always had a big smile. He was so courteous and kind, he immediately put people at ease. He was a wonderful man and a wonderful representative of The Star.”
Tolbert operated an art studio in Fountain Square, where he participated in open houses to display his artistic photographs, and was particularly proud of images from New York and Philadelphia. He was an avid downhill bicyclist.
And he was a DJ, a fixture on Sunday nights at the Casba, a Broad Ripple nightclub, and other venues. He would spin everything from reggae to Brazilian music.
He shot some of the photos for the premier album of the acclaimed Philadelphia-based hip-hop group The Roots. He was also one of the background voices on their album “Do You Want More?!!!??!”
Tolbert began taking pictures while he was in high school — “as a personal escape from the grim drama of daily urban life,” he once said. He became a freelancer, publishing photos in The City Paper, the Philadelphia Gay News and The Tribune.
His mother, Maisha Jackson, said he saw the world with humanity, and he was able to capture that perspective through the camera lens.
“He liked looking at things, and he was able to see things in a unique way,” Jackson said. “He was able to see beauty and political value in very common things around him.”
Among his numerous awards were two prestigious Keystone Awards from the Pennsylvania Press Association, one for a photo essay on the AIDS quilt and the second for a photo illustrating housing discrimination against gays and lesbians.
In announcing Tolbert's death to the newsroom staff, Editor Dennis Ryerson also recalled Tolbert's humanity.
Ryerson said he 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.”
In addition to his mother, survivors include his father, Rudy Tolbert; stepmother, Sunni Green Tolbert; three brothers, Sadiki Tolbert, Dedan Tolbert and Paul Robeson Green; and a sister, Ayanna Tolbert.
Services are pending.