In his signature bow ties and colorful suits, professional photographer Justin Barbin (Communication ’11) has captured everything from Nike products to the Broadway production of “Hamilton.” Although quarantine hindered his projects, Barbin discovered new avenues for creativity to retain his fervor for photography. Barbin, who has covered numerous Northwestern events and has traveled extensively for his work, sat down with The Daily to discuss his recent projects and plans amid the pandemic, as well as his secrets in capturing photographs.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Daily: How have you been capturing events in light of COVID-19?
Barbin: When we went into quarantine, it was two and a half months of no work, no events. The biggest thing that has and is still sustaining my heart through all of this lack of traveling is finally having the time to edit thousands of my travel photos that I just didn’t have time to go through until now. After the months of March and April, I joined and documented the protests in Chicago; it was strange to be out in the world again, around people who are hurting from injustice, and it was really important for me to be surrounded by that energy and to have an outlet for that pain and confusion. I felt that I was getting back into my purpose in this world, because my career as a photographer is so embedded in the way I connect with the world. After that, I was able to do some graduation shoots at Northwestern, and I was just so grateful to spend more time around campus with old friends capturing some moments.
The Daily: What sacrifices did you have to make in your career because of the pandemic? What would you be doing otherwise?
Barbin: Normally I would be traveling to photograph different places. Traveling is really exciting for me; it’s about exploring, it’s about getting photos and meeting different people and broadening my horizons. Going through all these photos from my past travels, I was able to relive the excitement and the joy I felt then, and that keeps me alive in my wanderlust. I am so grateful to be able to call my career my passion as well. So when all that was ripped from me because of all the closures, that was a devastating, heartbreaking blow to everything: financially, emotionally, physically. Despite the lack of actual jobs in my photography, I felt very productive throughout this time, trying to make sure that I am honoring myself and I’m remembering the little joys of accomplishing things. Staying creative during the pandemic is one of my coping mechanisms with all of the changes around me, but others shouldn’t be hard on themselves if they (don’t) feel productive. Taking the time to rest, to breathe and recharge is so important and productive in its own right.
The Daily: What are your plans for the near and more long-term future?
Barbin: My plans for now in terms of photography is just waiting it out and also trying to discover new streams of income. I have been in the process of recording travel videos, trying to incorporate photos into video and seeing if there is an engaging story. I am optimistic, but I am carefully optimistic. I haven’t planned any international trips at all until 2022, which will be my next huge adventure, finally visiting my very last continent of Antarctica. And I love every stage of travel, so planning this Antarctica trip has been another one of those anchors in this time quarantine.
The Daily: I would love to hear a bit more about your technique and advice for budding photographers. How do you find the right angle and lighting for the shoot?
Barbin: I guess it’s just been years of experience. I think I have shaped a natural intuition within me, and I have developed this instinct in feeling it out. Also, my training in theatre as an actor has helped; I react to whatever is around me, and whenever I am in an event, I am constantly searching for the pulse of it. I am scanning and feeling out who are the people who are authentically enjoying the event, and that’s what I am really drawn to. And every situation is different in terms of lighting. I think the more you photograph, the more you make mistakes, the more you can learn how to tweak what you like and don’t like about your capture. I think what makes a great photographer, what I’m constantly aspiring to be, is not only having the technical skills, but also having an artistic eye, having flexibility, creativity and a sense of fearlessness to approach people and make them feel comfortable.