Sherma Chambers & Spencer Ostrander [LLKK]
Long Live King Kobe
Death is never an easy thing to either experience or discuss, but occasionally, both are done with an incredible amount of grace and beauty. So it is with miss Sherma Chambers, whose son, Tyler Kobe Nichols, was senselessly murdered December 23rd, 2020 on the way home from getting a haircut.
Despite the excruciating grief — and perhaps even because of it — Sherma and her family launched the Long Live King Kobe foundation, an organization dedicated to helping heal individuals who have experienced loss, but also to spread love out into the community at large. And photographer Spencer Ostrander was there to document their journey every step of the way, culminating in the photo book, Long Live King Kobe.
Both Sherma and Spencer were gracious enough to chat with Exclusive Magazine via Zoom about not only the book, but also the special connection they have with each other, and the connection everyone maintains with Tyler.
Spencer, my first question is for you. You’d already been working on another long-form photography project about violence. What was it about Tyler’s story that made you want to go all-in on him and his family, as opposed to folding into your larger project? Spencer Ostrander: “I started the project that will be coming out in January 2023 on Grove Press called Bloodbath Nation, and that was initially a book about mass shootings and gun violence. After traveling around the United States numerous times, I realized the book was about gun violence as a whole, and when I came back from one of the trips, I wanted to get closer to the families of the victims.”
“During COVID, I couldn’t gain access to hospitals or morgues, so I started attending funeral homes. I initially went to photograph an empty funeral home on January 8, 2021. And they said, “come back on Sunday, there will be a funeral of a 21-year-old boy who was shot.” So I went to the funeral to cover the death of Tyler. When I met Sherma and asked her, there was a miscommunication, but she allowed me to stay, and I was captivated by the emotion she was giving out.”
“I looked up the case, and I realized that he wasn’t shot, he’d been stabbed, so it wouldn’t fit into my gun book… A week later, she contacted me and asked, “would you like to hear more about my son?” And when I was going to see her, I knew it wasn’t about guns, but that didn’t matter. This was the loss of a life. And the other book was more of a macro project, and this was a very intimate portrayal about what happens to the victims and the victim’s families — how they have to cope and move on.”
Sherma, what was your initial impression of Spencer when you saw him for the first time in the back of that funeral home? Sherma Chambers: “The funeral director told me about Spencer, and when I went out to meet him, I guess it was just his sincerity. He said, “I’m here, I was hoping you would allow me to take some pictures of the funeral…” And just like that, I said yes and kept going. But just before he left, he said, “You don’t know me from anywhere, is it okay for me to give you a hug?” And it was the most sincere hug that I received from a perfect stranger. And that’s how it is between us still today, very genuine.”
Just talking about this whole thing — Sherma, I’m so incredibly sorry for your loss. I can’t fathom what that is like personally, but I do know women who have lost their children, and I am in awe of the strength they exude overall. From where does your strength come? Sherma: “Tyler. I feel as though, right now, everything that I do is for him or through him. I don’t know how to explain it. The day of the funeral, I was in a devastating place, but yet I felt the need to get up and speak in that funeral service. I felt like everyone who did not know Tyler intimately needs to know who Tyler Kobe Nichols is, and till today, that’s how I feel. Everyone didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him, so I need to let them know who he was.”
In what way, day to day, do you feel his essence around you as you go to carry out his legacy? Sherma: “Every day I feel it. I tell people all the time, he speaks to me. Just in my thought process. I’ll be laughing, like, “Really?” For instance, his girlfriend who still lives with me — her name is Ashley, too — sometimes when she’s giving me a hard time or we’re bugging out because we’ve gotten closer since Tyler passed, sometimes I can hear him say in my head, “Oh, so it took me drying for the two of you to get closer?” And I’ll be laughing, like, “Really, Ty? This is what you left me and Ashley?””
She says the words with a mother’s fond laughter.
“I just feel him every day around me, every day. And his friends still come over, and they tell stories — things I wasn’t necessarily privy to, what they did in high school… All those things keep him alive for me.”
Spencer, when you were doing this project, were you ever met with any people who were more reluctant to speak than others — grief is a heavy subject, after all — and that it was maybe overcome as the project went on? Spencer: “The Nichols-Chambers family is an extraordinary family. Sherma had a very healthy perspective on this death, and would encourage people to talk about Tyler. And part of what LLKK does is, they have these healing sessions. It’s remarkable. In her particular family — and I think it shows the closeness of that fabric — they’re all open to talk about it.”
“Yes, some of those interviews were difficult for people, but everybody wanted to talk about it. And that’s what makes it so exceptional. In the book, there are seventeen different people, and all of those perspectives are highlighted. And they’re all going something together, but they all have very individual perspectives on who Tyler was and the legacy he leaves. And that comes through in all of the dialogues, every one.”
Tell me about when the book was finally finished. Spencer: “When I finished this book dummy, I went over to present it to Sherma. And she said, “Spencer, I forgot that you were doing this book. If you didn’t do a book, I would still love you.” It was one of the most out of body experiences I’ve ever had, to present a book of grief to a grieving family about them… And Shayne, Tyler’s brother, held it above his head and said, “This is the last five months of my life, and I’m grateful to you for capturing that.” Which, to me, was the biggest honor that I could have been awarded.”
I’ll ask both of you: Is there a photo that you love, looking back at the book? Maybe one that was particularly emblematic of who Tyler is, or one of the family that you appreciate its inclusion? Sherma: “I think one of my favorite pictures is outside in front of the house where the candles are. I was so happy that night when Spencer was there with us doing that, because that’s one of our traditions since Ty passed. Every 23rd of the month, we light him up. We light candles and spell his name out — Kobe. That’s my favorite, because that’s a tradition we’re going to carry on, lighting him up.”
Spencer: “I think the most captivating for me was the one of the cardboard cutout. His presence is always in that house. He’s still there, amongst everybody. That’s it for me. But some of the other ones… You look into some of the eyes, and nobody’s posed. There was no photo equipment other than a camera used. It was just me and them.”
Sherma, I’ve heard and read that you would like the opportunity to speak with Tyler’s murderer if given the chance. Is that still the case, and if so, what would you say to them? Sherma: “The first thing I would want to ask them is “Why?” Because even though this young man took Ty from me, I feel like he’s a lost soul. And even if he’s incarcerated and could come out a different man and pay it forward to some of the other young men who are on the street today, that will be Tyler’s legacy. That’s who my son was. He never held a grudge.”
“Because that’s how I am…they were raised in love. And I feel like that young man wasn’t raised in love. And he needs that. And us punishing him won’t bring Ty back, but it may help him realize what he did and help him reach out.”
“Raised in love…” I feel like that’s something so important, to not only be raised in love but to be surrounded by love all your life. So to that end, is the LLKK foundation one to bring out that love into the community? Sherma: “My family was always a close family, but when this happened, we became even closer. And for some reason, as we start meeting other families and other people who lost loved ones, we realized that they don’t have what we have. They don’t have that support. There are mothers by themselves going through what I’m going through, and part of the foundation is to show them that love and embrace them.”
“So the foundation is basically about helping families who went through tragic loss like we did, but also, I want to help these boys. I have three boys, so three generations of friends. And my house was always the house to go to. I always said I had the United Nations in my house — it doesn’t matter — Black, White, Spanish…everyone was always welcome. That’s how my boys were. So that’s why I want to extend my community center in my house out to others. That’s LLKK’s mission.”
Interview by: Ashley J. Cicotte
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