<i>James Barnor has shot sporting celebrities and prominent leaders in the Ghanaian independence movement, as well as discovering striking models such as half-Ugandan, half-German Erlin Ibreck. He moved from Accra to London in 1959 to document Africans living in Britain and pursue fashion photography, later returning to his home country to establish the first color-processing lab there. Now settled back in London, the 81-year-old tells us how he built his career from the gift of his first camera––a mass-produced, plastic point-and-shoot––to life as an international fashion photographer.
“My two uncles and two of my cousins were photographers, so maybe it was in the blood. When I was 17 I was teaching basket weaving at a missionary school and the headmaster gave me a camera to play around with––it was a Kodak
Brownie 127, made of plastic. One and a half years later, I started an apprenticeship at a studio, mostly taking pictures of people because when you take pictures of flowers and places there’s nobody to pay for them. I did that for two years but I had always wanted to be a policeman. I applied to be a police photographer and was accepted, but before I could start my training my uncle gave me the camera he used for photography. So in 1950, aged 21, I rented a small shop in Jamestown in Accra and opened a studio and dark room. I painted the signboard myself––I named it Ever Young, after a story I’d heard when I was younger about a goddess who lived in a pretty grove of the same name. The goddess knew she was really old, but a hero came to give her an apple that, as soon as she had eaten it, made her feel fresh and young again. That brings back the magic of retouching in photography––filling all the lines and ridges to make the person look young. There was no electricity there when I started so I used the daylight for shoots. There was no running water either, so I had to walk to a communal tap at the end of the road to collect water for developing. I went on to work as a photojournalist at the two main publications in Ghana––the newspaper The Daily Graphic
, and Drum
, the leading magazine in Africa, which covered news, politics and entertainment. Covering politics was where Drum
had trouble, because when African countries were becoming independent, and you bring out stories some people don’t like, they would do anything. Drum
was banned in Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana at one time. What I did in London, fashion photography, was totally different. I met a girl––Erlin Ibreck––in a bus queue in Victoria. You wouldn’t think you’d find a girl [in this way] and manage to convince her to become a friend and change her profession from being a secretary to a model, but I did.”