JD Barnes, a Brooklyn-based photographer, always has a camera (or two) in hand these days.
“I’m always looking for the right moment to shoot,” Barnes says. “Something that’s going to be impactful and that’s going to tell the story. You just have to be prepared for when life happens.”
For the past several months, the story has been protests that have taken over New York City’s — and the country’s — streets, bridges, and public plazas. And Barnes has been out there nearly every single day documenting it: early on when it was raw emotion, and then the organized marches, the counter protests. Tear gas in the air, tasers aimed and fired, and surfers paddling into the ocean in solidarity. Weeks of incalculable pain, and of tremendous celebration. To Barnes, what’s important is creating an honest record of it all.
“These are the images that will potentially be in history books when people tell the story of 2020,” he says. “You can feel the emotion, you can feel the tension, you can feel the energy of it. That's my overarching theme of photography: You want the viewer to feel something. And if they're not feeling anything from the images, then I don't think you're doing a great job as a photographer.”
Over the years, Barnes has made a name for himself by capturing searingly evocative and visceral images that tell deeper stories about humanity, character, and culture. Entirely self-taught, Barnes, who is 34, began selling nightclub photos in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, for $5 to $10 each. His documentary photography has appeared in The Economist, The Cut, WWD, and Vogue UK. It's the most recent expression in a body of work that began in fashion and beauty — he’s the chief photographer and a photo editor at Essence, where he’s worked since late 2019, and has shot for Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel — but is growing toward something bigger.
“Ultimately, when people think of photography and of Black photographers, I want my name to be in that sentence,” Barnes says.
Growing up, Barnes's eye for fashion was like second nature. His parents owned a beauty and barber shop, where GQ and Essence were mainstays, and he always experimented with how he dressed. His friends kept suggesting he try his hand at modeling, and when he attended Alabama State University — where he studied marketing, then art — he joined Elite, a student organization of models, and walked shows for emerging local designers.
Eventually he began to think about his hobby in career terms. He didn’t have the money for professional headshots, so he bought an inexpensive digital camera from Wal-Mart and, through trial and error, learned how to set up the camera, figure out the right angles, and take his own portraits with the help of his friends.
“YouTube was my university—YouTube and a lot of effort.”
He decided college wasn’t a fit and chose to pursue full-time modeling instead. He moved to New York, where he signed with a small agency that sent him to Europe. To pay for housing, Barnes began taking photographs of the other models he lived and worked with; in the process, he refined his approach.
“Through this whole period I’m literally just trying to teach myself [Adobe] Photoshop and I was using [Adobe ] Lightroom super heavy back then,” Barnes says. “So you know, you go through Lightroom presets and then start making small adjustments here and there until you really understand what you want to do, what you want your message to be, and what you want your images to convey. You start honing in on a style.”
During this time, Barnes was a model first and a photographer second. Before he left for Europe, he contracted uveitis in his right eye and lost vision in it. When he returned to New York, he had surgery to save the eye, and decided to pursue fashion photography full time.
“New York doesn't give you a chance to really wallow in your pain of loss; you have to keep moving,” Barnes says. “When it happened — and when I really came to the realization that, okay, I'm never going to see in my eye again — I had to reconcile with that really quickly because rent was still going to be due in a few days. I needed to figure it out. I think that’s a large sense of my personality. I don’t sit in moments long; I tend to move on, I tend to move forward.”
Being a person who has worked professionally on both sides of a camera gives Barnes a creative edge. Before he takes a portrait, he thinks about the person he’s photographing and makes a mental image of what he wants to capture, but he doesn’t want to force anything.
“I'm not interested in posing a model,” he says. “I want to see you because that's just as important as seeing beautiful clothes or beautiful lighting. The person has to shine it through. All the elements [of a shoot] can be amazing, but if the photographer and the model don't have a connection, there'll be something off about the picture and the discerning eye can always tell when it's not real. We as photographers have to do much more to make sure we’re giving realism.”
At the heart of this all is building trust with the people he collaborates with, everyone from the person he’s photographing to the creative directors, editors, and the publicity team working behind the scenes. He does this through conversation, often about their past work, and getting on common ground.
“We’re working on trust and social equity from the beginning,” Barnes says. “Once you can kind of soften a person up to being their genuine self — or as much of their genuine self as they're willing to be — then I feel like you can get a little bit closer to telling the truth in your images. I need my people to look like themselves; obviously, an elevated sense of themselves, but themselves nonetheless.”
During the shoot, Barnes works to maintain that one-on-one relationship between him and the person he’s photographing. He doesn’t like to crop his images, and he’s deliberate with every single frame he takes. “When you’re just like spraying [shots], I don’t think you’re taking time to connect,” he says. “I need to know that you’re here with me. I started to tell people, ‘Don’t model for the click. Just move and trust that I’ll catch you.’”
He thinks back to the days when medium-format film came in rolls of 10 or 12 shots and photographers had to be specific and intentional. He tries to operate in that manner.
“As an artist, I want to get exactly what I am looking for,” Barnes says. “When I feel like I’ve got the shot, it feels like I’ve done my job. It feels like a good moment of satisfaction.”
“As artists, we should always be striving to do better, to transcend our own boundaries, our own limitations. Because that's how you grow and that's how you really leave your mark on the world.”
While Barnes has photographed some of the most famous artists of today — Lizzo, Billy Porter, Regina King, Alicia Keys — he’s as ambitious as ever and still pushing forward on his artistic journey.
“Friends always ask me: ‘Have you taken the time to celebrate your success?” Barnes says. “For me, it’s not success, necessarily; it’s another rung on the ladder we’re all trying to climb to get where we ultimately want to be. And I have a dream of being one of the preeminent photographers in the world. Period.”
He considers his artistic influences — like Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Steven Meisel — to be in this set, as well as contemporaries like Dana Scruggs, Mark Clennon, Anthony Gaethers, Kennedi Carter, Kwaku Alston, Gregory Prescott, Timothy Smith, Xavier Scott Marshall, and Keith Major.
Part of his drive is rooted in the realities of being a Black artist today and what Barnes describes as the criminal underrepresentation of Black photographers in fashion.
“We as Black artists, as black photographers, we all carry a little bit more on our plate because you just never know how many more opportunities you're going to have,” Barnes says. “And you also never know what your actions today are going to mean for the Black photographer coming behind you. I don't want to use the word 'burden,' because that's not a fair word, but it’s a responsibility.”
Ultimately, Barnes wants to inspire and show that no dream is too far out of reach and that with ambition, dedication, and hard work, it can be reached. A kid from Montgomery, Alabama, creating covers for one of the most important magazines for the Black community is proof positive.
“This is what it really comes down to,” he says. “There are kids living in housing projects or poor areas of the country that probably have more talent in their little finger than I'll ever have, but they'll never have the opportunity to show it. Hopefully through my work, and through the work of so many other amazing Black and brown photographers, we can move into a place where [kids] can look at this as a viable career and not just like, 'I have to go to SCAD' or 'I have to go to some of these other prestigious colleges and rack up a hundred thousand dollars in student debt to do it'. I didn’t do that. YouTube was my university — YouTube and a lot of effort.”
While photography has opened doors for Barnes, bringing him around the world and across America, and is how he makes a living, it will always be much more than that to him.
“I know that there are a lot of photographers where this is completely a job, it's a way to pay their bills, it's a way to put their kids through college,” he says. “For me, it's art, it’s a passion. And if those other things can happen because of that, then awesome. But if none of it happened, I wouldn't be sitting here saying I'm going to give up photography because I can't make any money off it. I love photography. Just having the personal satisfaction of doing the best I can, knowing that I am able to affect someone’s life, that when they see these images they feel good about themselves… They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Hopefully mine are writing dissertations for me.”