- Associated Press - Saturday, November 8, 2014

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Looking back on his photographs covering decades of North Carolina history, there’s one phrase Bruce Roberts comes back to again and again: “I remember.”

During his career as a photojournalist, Roberts worked as the director of photography and the senior photographer at Southern Living, as a photographer for The Charlotte Observer during the civil rights movement and freelanced for publications like Sports Illustrated, Time and Life magazines. Photos from his work in the state have been compiled into his most recent work, “Just Yesterday in North Carolina: People and Places.” Though the photos in his book are decades old, the stories they tell are still fresh in his mind.

There’s the big moments, like the Charlotte lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement. There’s the small ones, like children holding a pretend wedding at a North Carolina orphanage. And then there’s the absurd, like when Madison County commissioners hired a rainmaker to solve their drought problem during the 1960s.

While his photographs of people and events that made national headlines are most remembered, Roberts believes that his stories on kind-hearted subjects and the often-overlooked segments of society are some of the most important.

He believes a photograph from 1964, titled “Suzy” is an example of that. In the photo, a young black child sits on a white woman’s lap. She was comforting him, Roberts said, after the child was hurt outside. The trusting look between the child and his temporary caretaker stood in stark contrast to the angry images that were common during that time in America’s history, and the photo became one of Roberts’s most famous.

“To present the south in a positive way in the 60s - that was a good thing,” Roberts said.

It wasn’t that racial tensions didn’t exist in North Carolina, but that the people here were very prepared for successful outcomes, Roberts said. His photographs always strove to present things as they really were in North Carolina: Some areas of life were better than one might expect, and some were much worse. As Roberts became aware of the poverty some people in the state lived in, he began to seek out ways to capture it.

“I always thought that if people saw how some people lived, things could get better,” said Roberts. “I thought if I could just get some politicians here to really see there’s real poverty, that it would get corrected.”

During his time as a freelance photographer, Roberts photographed many famous figures as well: Billy Graham, Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy and Joe DiMaggio, to name a few. But photographing the less fortunate was a rewarding experience for him.

“(Famous people) pretend to be something, many times, that they really aren’t, whereas, the wonderful thing about photographing poor people is they present and are exactly what you see,” said Roberts.

While his work with the people of North Carolina may have affected his subjects indirectly, Roberts at times became actively involved with the places he would photograph.

One time, while driving near Charlotte, he saw a sign advertising America’s first gold mine. He stopped to snap a few shots that he sent to his boss, which led to a phone call from the governor a few days later. Roberts ended up working with the state on a plan to buy the area and convert it into a historic site. It was lucky timing - the previous owner of the gold mine was weeks away from selling it to a company that would convert the area into a subdivision.

Today, Roberts works to preserve the lighthouses along the N.C. coast that he came to know as home. He and his wife, Cheryl Shelton-Roberts, who reside in Morehead City, founded the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society together. The group has been responsible for efforts such as the moving of Cape Hatteras to its current location.

Between his work with his organization and the numerous books about lighthouses he’s published, Roberts desire to know more about the world around him led to the documentation of coastal history that might have otherwise been unknown.

“It’s amazing what you can pick up and discover being curious about things,” said Roberts.

For more information on the work of Bruce Roberts, visit brucerobertsphotography.com.

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Information from: The Daily News, https://www.jdnews.com


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