Tuesday, 8 March 2016

James Barnor: "My advice to young photographers : fall in love with books."

pictures from Ever Young by James Barnor

We are delighted that James Barnor, whose book Ever Young details his extraordinary career in Ghana and beyond, will be speaking at Photobook Bristol 2016.  James never shot his own projects. Instead his work demonstrates the power that photojournalism and commercial work can have in the right hands, with pictures that read like a history of post-colonial Ghana as seen through the cultural, political and fashion figures of the day.

James Barnor

Thank you James for appearing on the Photobook Bristol; interview and pictures from Sarah Preston of Neutral Grey.

James Barnor

What was the first book (photography book ideally) that strongly had an impact on you? 

The first thing you need to know is that I don't have the discipline to read, I have lots of books... But I don't have the discipline to sit and read them. So really when it comes to talking about publishing books I am the worse person to ask.

Sarah Preston

The first photo book that captured me? I cannot remember now,

It's a very long time ago! I think of “The road makers” by Willis Bells (American photographer who arrived in Ghana in 1957. he was commissioned to take most of his photographs which covered various aspects of Ghanian life : every day, culture, the industry, etc...) which is a picture book about Ghana. That impressed me, I saw the layout of the book before I left Ghana. Bells was commissioned by the Public Relation Officer. It is a book on life in Ghana... development, culture, people making the road to the next generation.

Sarah Preston

There is also the book "Donovan on Child Portraiture" by Donald J. Donovan (Fountain press, 1950) which I saw in the 50's, in Ghana. I Ordered it in Ghana before I came to England. I have always loved taking photographs of children and babies.

Julius Aikins, a cousin of mine in Ghana, got me into books. He would order books for me (Donovan on Child Portraiture was one of them). He also put me on the road of journalism and introduced me to modern photography.

Sarah Preston

When did you have for the first time the idea of making a book of your work ? 

I never thought of the possibility of doing my own book till very late: a Curator (Nana Oforiatta Ayim) suggested it after going through my photographs.

She discovered my work in 2007, during the Ghana at 50 celebration. During the black cultural archive. She was commissioned to organize an exhibition and she chose my work. She was the first curator/ writer to organized a show of my work, and she is the first one who suggested I should do a book.

James Barnor

But saying that, I had always known that my images would one day be used as illustrations to books, but not as my own books.

Sarah Preston

What does it represent for you to have a book on your work ? 

With a book on my work now, I feel "the sky is the limit"!
We must make books including an autobiography.
And now, I carry a copy everywhere I go!
Believe me this is only a start !

Sarah Preston

What advice would you give young photographers when it comes to books ? 

My advice to young photographers : fall in love with books.
And always think of books when taking photographs.
And most important : think of the book you are about to make so take good care of your images: keeping careful notes to help with easy identification. Keeping proper dates and names of your images, and preserving negatives very safely to me are essential.

Sarah Preston

What is the latest photo book you have seen and which you really like ? 

It's a Munem Wasif book, published by Clémentine de la Féronnière.

Everything that I have done I was asked to do, I was commissioned to do. I never did a project for myself, and looking at that book gave me lots of ideas for books.

But also I'd like to say: who can buy a book that cost £30 in Africa ? It's too expensive for Ghanaian people. Only people from upper class can afford books, so this is a real problem for Ghanaians. The cost of acquiring book is a problem.

Unless it is for school and then you have to buy them.

Sarah Preston

 Can books be made cheaper to extend the global audience to Ghana? If so how? is there a market in Ghana (for example) for cheaper books and should publishers address that market?

Definitely a revision of the cost would greatly help in the purchase of books , and encourage more reading in Ghana, and this will promote book sales.

I cannot tell how much the prices should be reduced but I know that the average income of the Ghanaian household or family does not give room for spending money on books outside normal academic needs. It is only when the cost is low will that money will be spent on books on photography and other hobbies.

There is great appetite for books, in this era of "Education, Education, Education".
The market for books has never been greater, and the habit of reading is now becoming natural to Ghanaians, which opens a wide market for all publishers.

James Barnor

What would you have chosen to photograph if you could go back in time? And what would you photograph now?

This is interesting, because I have this idea of one day going back to photograph games and play things for children: the similarities and differences of what those in the cities and urban dwellers have, and on the other side what those living in the villages have.

Also traditional farming tools or impliments, since all these may change in the next few years; and also I'd like to photograph local handicrafts

Sarah Preston

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