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James Barnor @ 95: the photographer who captures the spirit of Ghana

Barnor has used an endless variety of subjects and settings, ranging from studio portraits to street photography, capturing the everyday lives of Ghanaians in a way that is both intimate and powerful

James Barnor, who was born in 1929 in Accra, has spent more than 70 years recording the spirit and character of his native land (the Gold Coast/Ghana) and the black diaspora.

Barnor’s career began in the 1940s when he opened his own studio in Accra. He quickly gained a reputation for skill and creativity.

He is celebrating his 95th birthday today (6 June 2024). To honour Barnor and to mark this milestone, the James Barnor at 95 Festival is taking place across Ghana, featuring a full programme of exhibitions, workshops, film screenings and concerts.

Evelyn Abbew washing prints at the Ever Young Studio (c. 1954–56) by James Barnor. Photo courtesy: Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière
Evelyn Abbew washing prints at the Ever Young Studio (circa 1954–56) by James Barnor. Courtesy: Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

This festival not only celebrates Barnor’s contributions to the history and growth of photography but also aims to make a lasting impact on Ghana’s arts and culture.

Speaking at a press conference at the Ghana Club in Accra last Friday (31 May), Barnor said: “I decided to celebrate my 95th anniversary in Ghana. That’s why we are all here.”

He said, “This is not just a birthday but to provide an occasion where Ghanaians will be involved in my work – so if at 95 I leave, there’s something that people can start working on.”

“So, we are putting everything in this to make it a festival, not just an exhibition or just a birthday. I don’t feel it as a birthday: I feel it as an occasion where Ghanaians will get to know what they can do, and start from there,” he added.

“I’m not the only photographer from Ghana: there were photographers before me.

Kwame Nkrumah is welcomed home by Wulomei on his return from London after the conference of prime ministers of the Commonwealth (Accra, July 1957) by James Barnor. Photo courtesy: Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière
Kwame Nkrumah is welcomed to Accra by Wulomei after returning from the conference of prime ministers of the Commonwealth in London (July 1957). Photo by James Barnor. Courtesy: Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

“Today we are getting this opportunity, for people to know what photography means, and [for] the photographers themselves to get involved, unite, criticise their work, pick the best and learn.

“Today there are better cameras and opportunities, so there’s more to come,” Barnor said.

However, he added that he feels as if he still has not accomplished what he set out to achieve.

“When I was 80, my minister friend and his wife asked me how I felt at 80. I told him I felt 21, because I haven’t done what I thought of doing. There [is] more. And even today, at 95, I still feel that we can do more, and we are using this opportunity to do it.”

An art for all to copy

Barnor declared that young photographers are free to mimic his art.

“I want to make an impact, and I want this festival to have an impact on people, so that as many people take interest in the art, the creative art, and be involved in my pictures.”

“[See] what the pictures do, and those who are coming to watch, too, can study from them. If you can’t do it, you can copy,” he said.

Barnor’s photographs have a timeless quality to them, capturing the essence of a moment in a way that feels both contemporary and nostalgic. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including Fotomuseum/FOMU Antwerpen in Belgium, Tate Modern and the Serpentine Gallery in London, Mupho in Saint Louis, Sénégal, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, Nubuke in Accra and LUMA for the Rencontres d’Arles festival in France.

James Town's lighthouse, in front of the street where the Ever Young Studio once stood (1953). Photo by James Barnor. Courtesy: Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière
James Town lighthouse, opposite Barnor’s Ever Young Studio (1953). Photo by James Barnor. Courtesy: Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

Despite the success and recognition he has won internationally, Barnor remains humble and dedicated to his craft.

He continues to work as a photographer, capturing the beauty and complexity of the world around him with a keen eye and a deep sense of empathy.

The James Barnor at 95 Festival is a celebration of cultural heritage and artistic innovation. It pays homage to the iconic photographer and also aims to increase younger Ghanaian artists’ sense of how deep the photography scene is in Ghana.

Sick-Hagemeyer shop assistant with bottles (circa 1970). Taken as a colour guide by James Barnor. Photo courtesy: Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière
Sick-Hagemeyer shop assistant with bottles, taken as a colour guide by James Barnor (circa 1970). Photo courtesy: Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

In a world where images are shared and consumed 24 hours a day, James Barnor’s work serves as a reminder of photography’s power to capture human experience in all its splendour.

His photographs are not just images, but windows into the soul of a country and its peoples, telling stories which are both universal, and deeply personal.

As we celebrate the legacy of Barnor on his birthday, Ghanaians are remembering the importance of preserving and honouring the work of photographers who, like him, have dedicated their lives to capturing the fascinating variety of life in the world around them.

Watch the ABS tribute to James Barnor@95 on 6 June on the “Asaase Breakfast Show” (from 2:44 onwards)

For details about the James Barnor at 95 Festival, please email: festival@jamesbarnor.org

Reporting by Winifred Lartey in Accra

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