I am seated with an eighty one year old man whose colourful traditional attire reminds us how our brothers in West Africa tend to be proud of their cultural heritage. James Barnor was born in Ghana in 1928 and became a photographer from a very early age. He witnessed the independence of Ghana in 1957 and got closely attached to the then acclaimed first President Kwame Nkrumah as well as Jerry Rawlings. Rawlings led a military coup in May 1979.
As a photo journalist Mr Barnor not only worked with the national press in Ghana but also for the excellent historical Drum magazine.
Drum was hatched in 1951 in South Africa and throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s featured various aspects of African life including politics and glamour. Drum took a principled stand against apartheid, too.
Yes, I am seated with a legend.
Believe it or not, despite all what I have just told you above, I never heard of the man before. In the media world, it is rare for photographers to be as well known as reporters, television presenters or radio broadcasters; I have to therefore, be reminded of his achievements.
It is Ghana independence celebrations in London hosted by Greenwich’s Global Fusion Music and Arts. After the national anthem has been sung a trio of musicians play Ghanaian music. One of the performers is Alfred Kari Bannerman a guitarist who once worked with the renowned Osibisa. Osibisa was founded in 1969 under the leadership of Ghanaian saxophonist Teddy Osei. According to Wikipedia “it was one of the first African bands to become world wide popular leading claims to creating the World Music...”
James Barnor’s photographs are on exhibition here subsequently, he is the guest of honour. His images captures his amazing life from when he set his own studio in Accra in 1949 with portraits, glamorous models and politicians in the 1950’s and Muhammad Ali the esteemed boxer preparing for a fight in London in 1966. Termed “Ever Young” the exhibition is a matter of Ghanaian pride as well as an international event. Research for archives and photos have been set by Autograph a charity supported by the British Heritage Lottery Fund and has already been displayed at Rivington Place in London.
In other words Barnor’s work running over sixty years is finally being recognised and highlighted.
Without such exhibitions people from far away lands (like you and me) would not have known who James Barnor is.
“Etiseng?” I salute in typical Ghanaian greeting.
“Bokor,” he answers lightly.
Although Ghana has around 79 languages, Twi and Ga are the most widely spoken. Alongside Tanzania, it is one of the few countries in Africa with little tribal conflict. Many have attributed this lack of strife to the political vision of Kwame Nkrumah and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.
And I wonder if he knows Mwalimu.
He is quiet, thinking hard, reflecting past times.
“I recall meeting and photographing Nyerere yes. He was very, very calm and polite...”
As we chat there is an interruption by either a young photographers or journalists asking him questions. He is accosted and loved. He also runs a charity for young people in Ghana. Yes, a soft spoken Mzee who smiles, easily.
“What is the secret of living such a long life?”
“My secret?” Mr Bannor muses leaning forward.
“Happiness. I don’t let things bother me. You see if someone would take a photo of us as we sit now speaking, in fifty years time the picture would be priceless. You know why? Each time we do something we should enjoy that moment. As a photographer I believe that a picture captures the moment. No one is going to remember what is happening now as we speak. But a picture will preserve the occasion. So my philosophy is to always enjoy what you do at that time; do not be anxious by thinking about something else, tomorrow or next week.”
Soon he is grabbing a young woman and dancing happily. Everyone claps and pictures are taken. Watching him you wouldn’t believe this is an Octogenarian. He is behaving like a little kid.
More info visit: www.autograph-abp.co.uk
-London, 14th March, 2011.
Published in Citizen Tanzania:
Published in Citizen Tanzania: