Now, Barnes has received her first commission for Vice, where her photos can be viewed alongside a short story by Jamaican writer Alexia Arthurs. Barnes, who is also a first-generation Jamaican, says the assignment was a perfect fit.
Barnes came to John Jay as a transfer student from Queensborough College, where she won a photo contest and first purchased Robert Frank’s seminal book The Americans. It was this book that launched her interest in photographing the aspects of contemporary American life that often go unseen. At John Jay, she further developed this vision by working on “Doubles” while taking several classes in the humanities and arts.
“It was Professor Catherine Kemp who made me think about the philosophy of our everyday interactions,” Barnes said. “I thought about that when I went on this voyage to figure out why when we think about family, we think about white families. You don’t see representations of black female twins.”
Barnes, who grew up in Brooklyn but went to high school on Long Island, says that representation is something she’s thought about ever since she was a young child. “I was one of the only black kids at my school, and I also grew up with a white-passing mother. I remember feeling like an anomaly, or knowing that our family didn’t look the way we were supposed to.”
Though Barnes could have considered enrolling in a college for art, it was ultimately John Jay’s commitment to social change that inspired her to become a Humanities and Justice major to complement her minor in the arts. “I’ve always wanted to be on the right side of history and be a champion for people’s rights. I knew I didn’t want to be a police officer or lawyer, but I was intrigued by John Jay’s mission to seeing things through an ethical lens,” Barnes said. “History, philosophy, and law are giving me a broader context to understanding both the world and art.”
Barnes has seen the intersection between social justice and art modeled by faculty like professors Claudia Calirman and Isabela Villanueva, who curated an exhibit last year that featured art that exposed violence and injustice in Latin America. Opportunities like this have inspired Barnes to reflect on how she can further incorporate justice into her own work.
Barnes has high hopes for the future, and is considering becoming an immigration lawyer or launching a full-time career in photography. Even with her recent success, Barnes recognizes that it can be hard, especially for those without strong networks, to break into the art world. “The art industry is a bubble and I have to work three times as hard,” Barnes said. “The people in my photo world aren’t as diverse as they are here at CUNY.”
“But people love me because I’m authentic,” she said. “I represent what other native New Yorkers can be. People see me and think, oh—maybe we should give kids from the city a chance.”