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Southern Cultures 11.4 (2005) 78-95

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Forty Years after the War on Poverty

Interview with Photographer Billy E. Barnes

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Figure 1
Influenced by the Farm Security Administration photographers of the New Deal era and the activism of the Civil Rights movement, Billy E. Barnes shot more than forty thousand documentary pictures. All photographs courtesy of Billy E. Barnes. (See
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Billy E. Barnes is one of America's most widely published photographers. His pictures have appeared in hundreds of publications, including the New York Times, Time magazine, and 117 books to date. The most meaningful and prolific time in his career occurred when he was with the North Carolina Fund, the statewide antipoverty agency. The Fund served as a model for the federal War on Poverty program begun by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, which consisted of a series of initiatives to combat poverty. After serving a stint in the Marine Corps in the early 1950s and as a writer and photographer in New York and Atlanta for McGraw-Hill magazines, Barnes returned in 1964 to his native North Carolina to become the Fund's public information director. The organization's activities included funding eleven community action agencies across the state. Influenced by the Farm Security Administration photographers of the New Deal era and the activism of the Civil Rights movement, Barnes shot more than forty thousand documentary pictures in order to promote the Fund, awaken the public to the problem of poverty, and change negative public perceptions about poor people. A self-taught photographer, he has been compared to Walker Evans, and his photographs were featured alongside those of Evans, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, and other well-known documentary photographers in an exhibit showcased at the Smithsonian Institution and organized by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the federal office mandated to carry out the War on Poverty effort. Since the Fund ended in 1968, Barnes worked as a freelance photographer, journalist, and television producer. His documentary pictures are housed at the Library of Congress and at the North Carolina Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work also can be seen at

Elizabeth Gritter interviewed Barnes at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the fall of 2003. She would like to thank Billy E. Barnes, William R. Ferris, and Tom Rankin for their assistance with this project.

Shooting Photographs for the North Carolina Fund

Elizabeth Gritter: It's astounding to me that you shot more than forty thousand photographs during your days with the Fund. How did you do that?

Billy Barnes: Most of [the photographs] were shot in the early days of the Fund, before I became blessed with or burdened with, depending on how you want to look at it, a big staff. At one time I had fifteen people working for me. When you have fifteen people working for you, you don't get much time to go out and roam around shooting pictures, and shooting documentary photographs requires a lot of time and patience. It's not like going to a news event and shooting pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger shaking hands, where it all takes place in five minutes, and then you get on the phone and send digital pictures back to Newsday or USA Today. It takes a lot of patience, because, for one thing, you're intruding on other people's lives, and you have to do it gently. You have to first find a trusted third party who can introduce you to these people and assure them that you don't have any negative intent. Then you have to take time to kind of dissolve into the wallpaper, while letting the people be themselves. Probably 75 percent of those photographs were shot in the first two years I was there. I traveled a lot. I tried to get into these communities as they cranked up their programs, especially after the federal...


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