James Barnor, Ghana’s First Photojounalist, addressing the press
James Barnor, Ghana’s First Photojounalist, addressing the press
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Graphic’s 95-year-old first photographer shares amazing story

Sitting right opposite us in his white kaftan apparel, a grey cap and a pair of navy blue sneakers, with charm, charisma and a smile, a pioneering figure in the history of the country’s photography industry, James Barnor, had a never-ending reserve of fascinating stories to tell about his over seven decades of practice.

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This was the first photographer employee of Graphic Communications Group Limited in the early 1950s. Moving between Accra and London throughout his life, the works of the 95-year-old photography icon mapped societies in transition, documenting Ghana as it freed itself from colonial rule.

It ranges from street to studio, fashion to documentary, and politics to social gatherings, among others. Mr Barnor, in an exclusive interview, tells the Daily Graphic how photography changed his life and gave him a sense of responsibility, even though as he confessed, "it also made me meet the girls" as he beamed with laughter.

"First of all, it all began when I had a small camera, you know; I started meeting people, taking photographs. People started asking me for photographs. I started feeling that responsibility; you take somebody's picture, you've got to make sure that it's good, you send it and collect your money,” he narrated.

"I used to develop and print for people who have only cameras but didn’t have darkrooms. That was also a responsibility of some sort. Even sometimes when I'm going away, I'll leave my work with my mother, and people will come and collect and pay the money, and so on," he explained.

The James Barnor Festival

This is the man, who today — June 6, 2024 — is 95 years old, and will be celebrated with a two-month long festival organised by the James Barnor Foundation.

James Barnor (middle), Ghana’s First Photojounalist, explaining the concept behind one of his works. Pictures: ELVIS NII NOI DOWUONA

James Barnor (middle), Ghana’s First Photojounalist, explaining the concept behind one of his works. Pictures: ELVIS NII NOI DOWUONA

The James Barnor 95 Festival, which will span up to August this year, is a celebration of cultural heritage and artistic innovation, while paying homage to the iconic photographer. It also aims at a long-term impact on the Ghanaian arts and cultural scene.

Some of the activities to commemorate the festival include exhibitions, screenings and concerts.

Favourite work

Lucky Jim, as he is affectionately called, Mr Barnor, who has photographed high-profile figures such as the nation's first President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, following Independence in 1957; the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina; former US Vice-President, Richard Nixon, who became the 37th President of the US; boxer Mohammed Ali, among many others, said his favourite works were those he took of large groups, and babies.

"I’m very good at arranging large groups, like a school, you know, 100 people, 120 people. I know how to arrange them and take, and babies also. So, these two things, I liked to photograph the most," he said.

Born in Accra, Ghana, in 1929, Mr Barnor was inspired to explore photography by a camera gift he received. “I come from a family of photographers, so I started as an apprentice at my cousin's photography studio, and that is where my love for it began,” he said.

The studio portraitist, photo journalist and black lifestyle photographer, however, said he had always wanted more, and in order to achieve that, he made use of every opportunity education could offer so far as photography was concerned.

“It is very important, of course, education is very important in everything. If you are doing photography, gosh, you need it. I love education. I was a teacher before I went into photography, but not a trained teacher,” he said.

London

Subsequently, after travelling by sea for about 12 days, in 1959, Mr Barnor landed in the UK where he studied photography at Medway College of Art in Kent, an opportunity he attributed to his teacher and his affiliation to the British clients he encountered during his photography journey.

“I arrived in the United Kingdom for the first time on December 1, 1959. I sailed by ship, you know, for about 12 days or 14 days. You know, the ship would pick various travellers such as students from Ghana, Nigeria, then go to Sierra Leone, Gambia before finally arriving in the UK. So, it took some time,” he said.

While there, he contributed numerous documentaries and fashion photographs to the weekly magazine, DRUM, Africa's first black lifestyle magazine. After about a decade in the UK, Mr Barnor returned to Ghana in 1970 to help set up the country's first colour-processing laboratory for the company Sick-Hagemeyer, a subsidiary of Agfa-Gevaert.

Using the skills he developed during his schooling in the UK, Mr Barnor brought colour photography to a broader market than ever before, a defining moment in Ghana’s photography history.

Prior to that, in 1949, Mr Barnor opened Ever Young Studios in the Jamestown district of Accra and later, Studio X23.

Graphic experience

Mr Barnor, who worked as the first photojournalist for the Daily Graphic newspaper, recounted how he almost lost his job on his first assignment as a staff of the Daily Graphic. “I remember something. I went to cover games at the Race Course and I was so into the game that I forgot I was there to work.

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However, I was there with another staff who was a reporter or so and after a while, he came to me. Have you taken any pictures? You know, before I realised I was at work, I'd forgotten that I had to take pictures.” “If he hadn't prompted me, perhaps I would have gone home without a picture. His name was Mr Saki, he later became the chief editor of GBC News, he is late,” he noted.

Kwame Nkrumah Encounter

Mr Barnor said the first time he went to Nkrumah’s house was with a fisherman who was the leader of a music group called Kolomashi. “He was wrapped in CPP uniform, red, white, and green, I accompanied him to Nkrumah's house to show his allegiance. You know, I'm behind you and by that, all the Kolomashi people who follow me are with you.

“At the time, if you heard Kolomashi in Jamestown, then you better run fast, you know. Even lorries stop for the crowd to pass. “Kolomashi was big, and it rallied a lot of Ga people. That’s how I met Nkrumah,” he recounted.

Advice

He advised journalists to go about their duties devoid of politics, stressing that they should not let their political inclination or the groups they belong to affect them in their work.“I was with all the politicians.

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I was able to go to Dr JB Danquah’s house because he spoke Ga and he was keen about photography, so we always had something to talk about. But I never discussed politics with any of them. You know, I've been to Nkrumah's house a few times as well but I was never a card bearing member of his party.

Now, it seems as if all manner of people are getting involved with politics,” he said. He also urged young photographers to cooperate more and critique their own works, only then can they become better at their craft.

“I'm concerned about cooperation between the photographers, where they will meet and share their works for criticisms among themselves. If possible, invite an expert to come and tell you what he thinks about your photograph.” he said.

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