James Barnor’s portraits depict the self-assurance and individualistic fashion trends that dominated both London and Accra. In anticipation of 1-54 London 2021, we sat down with the photographer to reflect on his work and practice.
Your career as a photographer spans several decades, yet public knowledge of your work is quite recent. What do you feel are the advantages of receiving international recognition later in life?
First, I want to assert that I am overjoyed that my work has been gaining recognition. Last year, I was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by The Royal Photographic Society; I could not have imagined this happening to me in my wildest dreams! I am grateful to God and happy to be alive to enjoy this moment. I have met some nice people along the way and keep learning and sharing. That’s me: I share, or I payback! The thing is that when you have been through hard times, you appreciate change. I hope younger artists will persevere in honing their craft and believe that if it has happened to me, then one day, they will get the recognition they deserve too.
You have witnessed and captured moments of Ghanaian history that would have been lost had you not done so. Which one(s) touched you the most?
I really cherish the moments spent with Kwame Nkrumah after he was released from prison and masterminding the Ghanaian struggle for independence. During that period, I took many intimate portraits of him away from his political life. As I was a photojournalist at the time, I could come and go, and we could spend time getting to know each other. It was such a privilege. Meeting and photographing Mohammed Ali was also a highlight for me.
You recorded the transitional period when Ghanaians led a social revolution towards their freedom from colonial rule. What are your thoughts on the power of photography and the current social protest movements led by Black civilians?
I am so glad to have been around and to have lived through Ghana’s independence and to have had the honour of recording its unfolding history. Looking at how Black Lives Matter, and how civilians have been pivotal to rendering the roadblocks infringing on Black people’s existence, a reality that cannot be refuted, I only have one message to young people: get involved and do not miss a chance to record and make history!
Your practice combines portraiture, photojournalism, fashion, and music photography. What are the key components that need to be present to retain your attention and make you want to immortalise the subject or the moment?
I do not restrict my mind. A certain behaviour, an emotional state can suffice. For example, as a young photojournalist in Accra, I spent a great amount of time covering political affairs at Parliament: I would take pictures of the members of Parliament and when they had visitors, I would seize the moment and ask them to pose. And then I would sell the photo to them [laughs]. But what stays with me is that I became friends with many of them and was invited to travel to their constituencies and learn more about my country and its people.
I also closely followed and photographed the music bands at the time, going to nightspots (like the Weekend-in-Havana, very close to my Ever Young studio in Jamestown). I got to know musicians and got more involved in the music field, which I was particularly interested in. Music was a very important part of my youth; I played the flute and was part of the school band and would have loved to have been a musician in another life. I was also a teacher in a blind school where the kids taught me how to play a bamboo flute.
When considering the new generation of contemporary photographers from Africa and its diaspora, what are your thoughts on how they document untold histories of the Black culture, identity, and experience?
I am in awe of what the new generation are able to produce and share thanks to the advancement of technology. They learn so much, so fast! Although I had the privilege to introduce colour photography in Ghana back in the ‘60s, I am jealous that digital photography was not available in my time. They are very lucky!
I do think that inquisitiveness is the key and constant education is vital to get ahead, mature ideas, and open new possibilities. Documenting the Black experience of living is important, it creates togetherness. Meet each other and share ideas and projects. One of my greatest regrets is not to have met my contemporaries such as Malick Sibidé, Seydou Keïta, and many others. It would have been such a joy to have conversations with them about the photography scene in Africa and exhibit together.
I would also add that photographers are not just observers but must involve themselves with their subject matter and bring people together. I have very fond memories of capturing people from all walks of life, having fun during spontaneous gatherings at my Ever Young photo studio which I ran in Accra in the ‘50s. The mission is always the love of giving and serving. Ultimately, this is what nurtures progress.
To view James Barnor’s work in person, book your ticket to 1-54 London 2021 this 14-17 October at Somerset House here.