A foot in the door: Jim A. Barker's COVID-19 'Doortraits'
With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent implementation of social distancing and isolation, the world of photography has been thrown a curveball. For the first time in living memory, the world’s population has been forced to retreat to their homes, with streets emptied and the subject matter for a whole spectrum of photographers evaporating right before our eyes.
For most people the frustration of taking pictures under socially restrictive laws is palpable. One such victim was Sydney-based photographer Jim A. Barker.
Having made a brave career switch from public relations to photography just months before the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, what could have been a tough transition for Barker was instead a period of creativity marked by a genius idea that has allowed his portraiture work to flourish.
On a lonely drive home one morning, Barker coined the term “doortrait”, a concept which sees subjects photographed in the doorways of their own homes. Subsequently, this moment became the foundation of an intimate series of images that cuts to the core of life for Australians under COVID-19 restrictions.
While creating the work, Barker has showcased both his technical and conceptual prowess with a collection of photographs sure to help solidify his career on the photographic stage.
It was only three years ago that Barker first picked up a camera. At the time, the Sydneysider was well immersed in the PR world and took to photography as a form of release from a fast-paced and, at times, stressful professional life. But as he suggests,
it was his skill set and interest in the world through the lens of a publicist that came to inform his vision as a photographer.
For someone inherently interested in other people, no global pandemic was going to stop him pursuing his passion for photographic portraiture.
“I’ve always enjoyed talking to people and getting stories out of them as it is kind of like a combination of a few different things, like the photography stuff and chatting to people. And PR as well,” he says.
“I was in the car one morning and I thought you can still take photos of people. You don’t have to touch them to take photos. So this would be a great chance to work on my portraiture and get out there to talk to people.”
The result of Barker’s fortitude is nothing short of photographic genius during a time when creativity has felt collectively stifled by the grip of social distancing. Off the back of his pondering, the term “doortrait” was born: an amalgam of “door” and “portrait” that seemingly offers a workaround for an insatiable need to make portraits.
So on a Tuesday afternoon, Barker advertised on social media seeking participants in his new endeavour. “I put out the call on Facebook and Twitter saying this is my idea, I’ll be shooting at arm’s length or further than that, I’d like to come and make someone’s portrait while they’re self-isolating, quarantined, distancing or whatever,” he recounts.
“I said, ‘It’s a weird time. Let’s try to make a positive memory out of it.’ And the response to that was really good. I think I had 20-30 people by the end saying they were keen. I sort of figured I was onto something by that point.”
A foot in the door
Taking the positive reception to his callout as a sure sign he was onto a project worth pursuing, Barker admits the initial stages of shooting his doortraits would test both his conceptual and technical ability with a camera.
As a relatively green photographer, who is not yet fully practiced in the collaborative process of portraiture, Barker recounts focal length as being a particular sticking point during his first forays, especially when navigating the precarious balance between traditional “portrait lenses” and the need to convey a sense of intimacy for his images.
“I used to think a portrait could only be made on an 85mm lens and it had to be made almost head-on with the subject sitting a particular way,” says Barker. “These photographs made me realise a portrait isn’t just in a studio setting or someone standing against a brick wall looking at you, you can take everything around them into the scene as part of the context.”
Using a Canon 6D and a trio of Sigma Art lenses, Barker’s relatively modest kit went a long way to overcoming creative limitations as he relied solely on natural light and emphasising the nuances of his self-imposed brief.
His 35mm and 24mm lenses made more appearances on his camera than his 85mm lenses but just as his lenses were put through a thorough rotation near to the beginning of his project, so were his subjects as he democratically approached who he chose to photograph.
As the series gained traction with the outside world, he was forced to curate his selection of sitters. “At the start, it was very much anyone and everyone,” he says. “Then as I had more people in the can, I just decided to focus on the ones whose stories were a little bit more interesting,” he recalls. “There’s my friend who is a burlesque dancer and I was like, ‘Well, of course we need to get you in and answering the door.’
I’m trying to think of interesting residences and people with interesting stories. It’s become a little bit like Pokémon in that sense – I haven’t got that shot yet, I need to get that one.”
Undoubtedly, this drive to collect images is what has propelled Barker’s quick adaptation to the art of portraiture. Being able to see through the cliches of the genre with such ease, combined with his knack for storytelling, make for portraits that have
a quietness to them, but at the same time, seem dynamic and improvised.
When asked about this, Barker says his intuition for behaving around people and for projecting a narrative of his own was honed by his time as a barman and his love for the greats of street photography such as Joel Meyerowitz and Vivian Maier.
“I think from working at bars I must have cultivated some love of just observing people,” he says.
“I’m constantly looking at people around me and wondering what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, where they’re going. And that is really handy for portraiture and street photography because you can create a narrative out of that. It might be right, it might be wrong, but I think half the job with those sorts of photos is finding the story in it.”
Without a doubt, Barker’s doortraits will prove to be a career-launching project. And with a number of publications requesting to take the series online and to print, this is surely a testament to his ability to translate good ideas into well-executed images.
But as Barker details, his move from the high-flying PR world to the precarious profession of a freelance photographer was made with certain values and goals in mind. Namely, a priority for good mental health was what drove his new pursuit and he’s already set his sights on giving back in this respect: a doortraits collaboration project with Lifeline.
“Mental health is a big priority of mine. That was the reason I stepped back from full-time PR work to focus on photography because it’s what makes me happy,” says Barker, recalling a call from Lifeline detailing the charity organisation’s desperate situation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They need about $5 million right now to help answer phone calls. They had their busiest day ever on Good Friday with 3500 calls coming in.”
Barker admits his doortraits might not raise $5 million, but he says he’s happy his work can be put to good use during such a trying period.
At the same time, his project offers many lessons for the up-and-coming photographer about all aspects of photographic practice.
Looking to the future, he says whether the doortrait stays or not, his pursuit of portraiture will live on well after his flying start in the industry.
“I know portraits are something I want to do forever.
This has definitely shown me that a portrait doesn’t have to be sitting in front of a backdrop with one or two lights hanging around.
A portrait can be almost whatever you want it to be, and I’d like to explore that a little bit more.” ❂
The online only doortraits exhibition runs until August at twelvepoints.photography/doortraits