The Jeff Jensen people know is the Jeff Jensen in a suit and tie, the financial adviser overseeing portfolios of major foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals. He’s the Jeff Jensen in his downtown Colorado Springs office, the mover and shaker counting the mayor as one friend in one high place.
John Suthers doesn’t know the other Jeff Jensen.
“I have probably five clients who know,” says Jensen, 53.
So everyone else might be surprised to know what he does away from the Springs — very far away.
To remote jungles and deserts, to villages of Africa, to slums of Asia, and to other far-flung pockets of the third world, Jensen has embarked with camera in hand, searching for people much different from him.
“I like to go out to these harder-to-get-to areas,” he says. “I’m fascinated in seeing cultures as traditional as possible.”
A handful were seen in Papua New Guinea: the “mud men” of the Asaro tribe, wearing clay masks to continue a deep ritual; the “crocodile men” of the Chambi, who scar themselves to represent scales of the beast they hold sacred; and the “skeleton men” of the Narku, who resemble the dead to honor their ancestors.
Indigenous people largely represent Jensen’s photography.
They are, for example, the Pygmies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the slight-of-stature families he reached alongside several bodyguards, bribing men at security checkpoints along the way. There in the forest, Jensen took photos of the tribe while hunting, which was done with a net on which he later slept.
Another week in the Brazilian Amazon, Jensen hunted dinner (monkeys) with blow darts dipped in frog poison. Also there, Jensen smoked ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic favored by the Mayoruna chief. The smoke fills the night air of a video Jensen shot, a man at the center telling a story, surrounded by screeches and howls of the wild.
Jensen also filmed a scene that suddenly descended upon him in southwest Ethiopia: stick fighting between men of multiple tribes. The video sways while Jensen’s security guard maneuvers him in a chaotic ring of spectators.
But more than anything, Jensen prefers capturing people’s faces. He abides by a code, he says, asking permission and exchanging something with subjects.
One was a woman in India who counted herself among the last of her people.
“She’s just beautiful to me,” Jensen says, showing another wrinkled woman elsewhere, on the streets of Bangladesh. “I think she told me she was 95 years old. Just look at her ... You think, What did she go through? Where has she been?”
That’s the kind of thinking he wants among viewers of his first exhibit, which he has had to postpone due to COVID-19. Jensen is also planning two coffee table books. In the meantime, he displays some of his work on Instagram and jeffjensenphotostudios.com.
“It’s not about making bank,” he says (he’s looking into nonprofits to support with the proceeds). “It’s about getting these photos out and sharing them.”
It’s about sharing the stories, he says. But he also realizes complications with that. He realizes how this looks: a privileged, white man sharing stories of people and cultures that are not his own.
“We all have our own ethnocentric views,” he grants.
But he hopes onlookers can trust his larger mission: to stir emotions with images of fellow human beings, all appearing and living differently.
“It’s kind of timely right now I think,” Jensen says. “I believe that diversity builds unity. The more diverse we are, it strengthens us.”
And maybe one can be inspired to travel more, Jensen says. It started for him as a college student, scraping together cash for a getaway to England.
“Every single trip, I come back different,” he says.
So he did from Ethiopia, where in 2016 he met a woman he came to call Freedom. She gave him the metal bracelet he wears on his right wrist, often hidden by his shirt and jacket cuffs.
“She died about a week later,” Jensen says. “She got hit by a car and died.”
She didn’t have much, he says. But she talked about her spirituality a lot, her belief in nature’s power. This was helpful to Jensen, who considered himself “struggling at the time, just questioning life and faith.”
Then along came Freedom, this stranger. “She kind of brought me home,” Jensen says.