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Regulars / The Graduates 2018

Photographer Miranda Barnes offers softly witnessed glimpses into the human experience

Words:

Bryony Stone

It’s Nice That Graduates has traditionally been the highly contested territory of art school leavers. So it was to our surprise and delight that humanities grad Miranda Barnes applied with a remarkable photography portfolio of softly witnessed glimpses into the human experience; images which have both challenged misconceptions of people of colour in America and won her pages in The New York Times, ESPN and Vice magazine in the process.

Miranda describes herself as a Caribbean-Anglo American photographer but, first and foremost, she’s a New Yorker — through and through. “New York will forever be my home,” she says. “Whether travelling domestically or abroad, I still find myself reverting back for inspiration. I love that. New York created my hustle and savviness. I pride myself on my Caribbean culture, and I feel like I’m surrounded by family when among strangers, regardless of if I am in Brooklyn, Queens, or Long Island.”
 
The city ties together two of Miranda’s greatest passions: photography and criminal justice. Miranda’s interest in photography began during her teenage years as a junior and senior in high school. “I started carrying around disposable cameras and would get them developed and upload on to my Tumblr,” she explains. “There really was no clear intent, and I continued because it was fun. However, my direction shifted during 2014 and the death of Mike Brown. His murder hit me really hard and I felt compelled to start documenting the protests around the city.” 

Miranda’s BA degree at John Jay, a criminal justice school and one of the public colleges in the city, is a degree which she considers inextricably linked to her photography practice. “There’s such a range for what justice is, so half the student population studies to be correctional officers, forensic scientists, NYPD, while the latter are lawyers, humanitarians, activists, etc,” she says. “My BA degree was a mixture of three parts: law, philosophy, and history. While you could study all three areas, I really honed in on classes that were based around law and history. I think it’s hard to separate my degree from photography. Art and activism are intertwined and have always been. I think differently now that I have taken the courses I have. I see race, class, and politics in a new way.” 

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It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study humanities and justice as opposed to photography?

Miranda Barnes: Well, for starters I couldn’t afford private art school. Of course there are public photo programs I could have applied to, but my main goal was to stay in New York City and nothing really jumped out at me. After shortly realising this, I decided that I could pursue my second love, which is criminal justice.

INT: What was the best bit about your time at university? And the worst?

MB: The best part of my experience during college was realising that I had other loves than just photography. I love immersing myself in history courses, especially crime and punishment in America. I wrote papers that I am still proud of – for example how the Ku Klux Klan terrorised Sicilians during the 1870’s-1930’s in Louisiana. Another crucial part was how reasonable all my professors were of me pursuing opportunities outside of the classroom, especially during my final semester. I had two travel assignments this past semester, one during a week where I needed to submit my senior thesis draft, and the other during the last two weeks of classes. Graduating on time, cum laude, with everything I accomplished was kind of a miracle and would not have been possible without them.

The worst? There were a few months last year where I was taking 18 credit hours, working two part-time jobs, and working on my thesis- all the while trying to keep up with my photography.

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INT: Can you describe a project you’re most proud of and why?

MB: I had the opportunity this past April to go to Memphis, Tennessee to cover the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination for The New York Times. I knew I was being afforded a historical and sensitive assignment, but I didn’t think it would be as big as it came to be. It was my first time working for the NYT, and first time I’d ever been to South, so I figured only one or two photos would be used. Four of my photos ended up on the cover page/A1 that morning, and a double spread of 11 photos on pages A12-A13. All shot on 120 film, all colour. My mom bought like, 15 copies. My phone crashed several times that day. Instagram notifications were crazy. It’s surreal to even think about now, months later. 

There are no words to truly express how much this assignment meant to me. Americans are taught in school about Martin Luther King and his non-violent resistance during the Civil Rights Movement, yet it is looked over that he was assassinated in cold blood. I took a step back for this project to remind myself that before he became an activist, MLK was a father, husband, brother, friend. He was a black man in America gunned down.

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INT: Is there a particular person who has shaped your university experience or creative outlook?

MB: So many people, but mostly women: my mom first and foremost. She taught me the value of working hard, balance and being nice. Reading work written by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and being exposed to the photography of Carrie Mae Weems, Latoya Ruby Frazier, and Ming Smith. Having photo professors like Corinne Botz teach me the value of tangible work and long-form projects, and history professors like Andrea Balis for always making sure I completed an assignment thoroughly and understanding the value of research. Brandi Barber, who I met through a non-profit I used to intern at, who has become a go-to person for advice and opportunities… and all my girlfriends. Photography can be stressful! I am so grateful to have a network of photo girlfriends and non-art girlfriends that inspire, uplift, and support me. 

INT: If you could create your dream project, what would it be?

MB: Documenting Caribbean culture throughout America on a large format camera.

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Supported by Polaroid

Polaroid Originals is the new brand from Polaroid, dedicated to original format Polaroid analog instant photography. Find out more about their new and vintage cameras, plus film and accessories, on polaroidoriginals.com

The It’s Nice That Graduates 2018 is supported by Lecture in Progress and Polaroid Originals.