James Barnor: Ghana Through the Lens

Explore the work of Ghana's first photojournalist.

By Nubuke Foundation

A Luminary Talk with James Barnor by Tarimobowei EguleOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

A tribute to one of Ghana's most pioneering photographers

James Barnor (b.1929) is now widely recognised as one of Ghana's pioneering photographers. By the time the country had attained political independence in 1957, Barnor had emerged as a formidable photographer. And throughout the years, he has been there with his camera to witness the development of the nation. Barnor's career covers a remarkable period in history, bridging continents and photographic genres to create a transatlantic narrative marked by his passionate interest in people and cultures. Through the medium of portraiture, Barnor’s photographs represent societies in transition: Ghana moving towards its independence and London becoming a cosmopolitan, multicultural metropolis.

In 2019, Nubuke Foundation hosted a retrospective exhibition devoted to James Barnor's work.

James Barnor: A Retrospective trailer Nubuke Foundation

Confirmation group, Wesley Methodist Church, Accra by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

"The thing about the camera is [that] it brings families together: weddings, baptisms, [and] special occasions. Over fifty percent of my work as a photographer is [about] families - after all, the images I take are to remember or record these moments: that's all we have."

James Barnor 

Along with his contemporaries in other parts of Africa – Seydou Keïta in Mali, Van Leo in Egypt or Rashid Mahdi in Sudan – Barnor started his career by opening a photographic portrait studio and called it 'Ever Young studio'. It was frequented by a diverse clientele representing all aspects of society.

Ivy Barnor, eldest sister by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

In the early 1950s, 'Ever Young studio' in Jamestown, Accra, was visited by civil servants and dignitaries, yoga students and college professors, performance artists and newlyweds.

Wedding, Unknown, Holy Trinity Cathedral by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

Barnor was well-versed in making his clients feel at ease, through vibrant conversation and a background of popular music, creating a unique bond between photographer and sitter.

Nii Ayi, wedding guest, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Accra by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

Margret Dartey, passing out as assistant police superintendent with training officer, Police Training College, Accra by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

"Ghana has such a fascinating history with traditional governance and political leadership: I photographed police officers in the 1950s and 1970s, to rallies of [Kwame Nkrumah's] Convention People's Party and the opposition National Liberation Movement."

James Barnor 

Barnor captured intimate moments of luminaries and key political figures, including Ghana’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah as he pushed for pan-African unity, photographing the leader on several special occasions.

Margaret Dartey II by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

Dr J. B. Danquah, Ghana Supreme Court by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

"I also documented political figures such as [Opposition Leader] Dr. J.B. Danquah and Mr. Jerry John Rawlings [the longest serving president of Ghana]."

James Barnor 

Not only was James Barnor engaged as the first photojournalist to work with the Daily Graphic – a newspaper brought to Ghana by the British media group, the Daily Mirror.

Policeman directing traffic, High Street Accra by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

He was also regularly commissioned by Drum magazine – South Africa’s influential anti-apartheid journal for lifestyle and politics – for whom he photographed several news features, including a staged nuclear family breakfast featuring Gold Coast’s champion boxer Roy Ankrah, aka The Black Flash.

Farewell Durbar in honour of Governor General, Sir Charles Noble Arden-Clarke, Cape Coast by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

In 1959, two years after Ghana became independent from colonial rule, Barnor moved to London, then a bourgeoning multicultural European capital to deepen his photographic knowledge. There, he discovered colour photography and enrolled on a two-year course at Medway College of Art while still shooting for Drum magazine; several of his photographs were published as covers and distributed internationally.

National Liberation Movement, Political Rally, Kumasi by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

During London’s “swinging sixties”, Barnor eloquently captured the mood of the time, and the African diaspora’s experiences in the city, including BBC radio journalist Mike Eghan at Piccadilly Circus. He also photographed celebrities, such as Muhammad Ali minutes before his match against Brian London at Earl’s Court.

CPP dispatch riders by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

Odwira procession by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

"Everything we do comes down to belonging. This is all [that] we have: our humanity and how we take care of each other. Despite our differences, all is well when you have around you who care. Community means more than 'family': it is the cultural groups, markets, associations and friends who we encounter throughout our lives that matter."

James Barnor 

His years in London were equally punctuated by his first encounters with a multinational cohort of aspiring models and Drum cover girls.

Women’s cultural group by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

The Drum cover girls would later pose for him against the backdrop of the city’s most iconic monuments, thus becoming fashion icons at the meeting of cultures.

Osekre & Friend by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

Towards the end of the decade Barnor was recruited and trained as a representative for Agfa-Gavaert, before returning to Ghana in 1969 where he opened the first colour processing laboratory and studio X23 in Accra. For the next two decades, he worked independently as well as for several government agencies in Ghana. Today Barnor is retired and lives in Brentford, London.

Birthday celebration, Mr Kotey, Accra by James BarnorOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

James Barnor's incredible work spans more than six decades. His life and legacy continues to inspire and is of great importance to Ghana.

A Luminary Talk with James Barnor by Tarimobowei EguleOriginal Source: Nubuke Foundation

Credits: All media
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