Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, November 6, 2003. Interview O-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Emphasizing pride, strength, and humanity in photography of the impoverished

Barnes discusses the emotional impact of the work he did as a photographer for the North Carolina Fund during the 1960s. While acknowledging that the subject matter of his photography had the capacity to evoke depressing thoughts, he focused on his work's ability to humanize poverty by documenting his subjects' strength, pride, and humanity. As elsewhere in the interview, Barnes's comments here reveal the centrality of photography to the tasks of the North Carolina Fund.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, November 6, 2003. Interview O-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ELIZABETH GRITTER:
This is more of a delicate question. I was wondering what the emotional impact is of being a photographer of people in poverty. I mean I've done some reading and it can be very difficult to, you know, be a journalist and cover war and dismal conditions. How did you deal with that?
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
Well, there are several things that may be behind that question—how did I deal with the notion of imposing myself on these people and how did I deal with the disturbing sight of the things I saw.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
Right. Yeah, I had when I went to the Pulitzer Prize-winning photography exhibit, it was very difficult to see those different images. One of the people I went with, too, really couldn't talk about it afterward. But, yeah, those were the two things I was getting at. You don't have to answer it.
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
No, I don't mind answering if I can think of an answer—a true answer. It's been a long time, and, you know, I don't do that anymore. I don't deal with the same kind of photography. I guess I dealt with it by concentrating on the people and not the conditions as much as I could. I tried to sublimate the conditions to the background, the setting, the environment, and concentrate on the people and their beauty and their humanity, their strength. I don't recall ever having been in a situation where I was trying to make them look pitiful and without hope. I could always see pride there. Even when I was working at the shelter, I never saw anyone who didn't have some pride left and some hope left in the goodness of life and the possibilities of life. I think it was the same way when I was shooting these pictures. Many, many of them were dealing with dreadful circumstances and had very little reason for hope, but I always saw it there. To me, most of the time, it didn't seem to me like a dismal situation the way war would. Because it seemed to me that what I was doing was trying to participate in offering them hope. When you go and cover war and you see little kids with their legs blown off, you're not bringing much hope to the situation. You're just working as an observer. I wasn't working as an observer in the '60s. I was there for a purpose other than to be a voyeur. So, I had a different motivation. There's nothing wrong with being a journalist. I wished many times that I had concentrated more on straight journalism than on some of the more commercial aspects of photography like shooting pictures mostly for textbooks and magazines. But I don't think I—. I think I very seldom felt devastated. I think I felt more encouraged and uplifted by my contact with these people. So, I wouldn't agree with the people you've read or the people you've been associated with who felt depressed by it. I usually felt invigorated by the spirit and the beauty I saw in these people. Like that little old lady in the rocking chair, Miss Mary. I don't know how you could visit somebody like that without coming away feeling like you've met somebody really special that you'll never forget even if you hadn't been there and photographed her to remind you of her. When these people over in Durham did that exhibit and I unearthed all these photographs and saw some of them for the first time in fifteen or twenty years, it was like visiting old friends. It was like a high school reunion. There they were. Half of them are probably dead by now. Maybe a third of them. The older people are dead by now. There they were. They really seemed to me like old friends. I feel like I know these people. I don't know their names, but I remember what they were like—how their voices sounded and so forth. I think that's why there was such a long silence when you asked me to describe whether I was depressed or disturbed by what I saw, because I concentrated more on the people and the spirit and less on their surroundings. It was just window dressing to me— the environment.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
Yeah, I noticed when looking through some of negatives of your photographs in the North Carolina Collection and that was one of the words that I thought described them—of how every photograph the person looked dignified and beautiful.
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
Yeah. Yeah. The kid with the washboard, you know. That family didn't have anything. That beautiful Indian girl with the washboard behind her and her feet crossed. You just couldn't want a more beautiful child than that. Her spirit. There was kind of a fearlessness, you know. She wasn't afraid of me. She was being herself, and she had as much pride as a kid that age could have at being herself. So, I couldn't come away from situations like that depressed. I felt it was great privilege to be in a position to make her acquaintance, because it's not something I could have when I was living in Atlanta walked off the street and made her acquaintance. I had the wherewithal in terms of an intermediary go to that home, go into that home, and talk with those people and shoot pictures of them and their children. It was just a great privilege to me. It was one of the most uplifting times of my whole life.