Hunter Barnes has carved out his career by knocking on the doors of society’s most marginalized -- gang members, maximum-security prison inmates, citizens of an Oregon outlaw community called Sammyville, to name a few -- and asking to take their picture. He’s even been known to live with them for extended periods, to gain their trust and capture them naturally. Either the 28-year-old photographer has no fear, or he hides it well.
“They’re not seen by people. They’re not even sought out,” explains Barnes, a grown-up skate kid with armloads of tattoos, of his subject matter.
People, however, will pay to own portraits of them. Like Mazdack Rassi, the managing owner of Milk Studios, who not only funded Barnes’ documentation of Espignola, New Mexico’s Lowrider car clubs, but is also – along with former Butthole Surfers’ frontman Gibby Haynes and model Noot Seear – one of Barnes’ biggest collectors.
This week, Milk Gallery will exhibit Barnes’ biggest solo show to date, with photos from the past five years. For $1000, you could go home with a 16x20 portrait of Sammy, Sammyville’s 90-year-old namesake rebel, grinning big with ill-fitting teeth, and a .44 pistol aimed right at you. “That guy – he’s the banker, the preacher, the mayor – he runs that town,” says Barnes.
The desire to give these people recognition they don’t always deserve, started when the North Carolina native took a road trip in 2001. He ended up in Joseph, Oregon, home to “ranchers, rednecks, hillbillies, and old timers – you know, regular people,” says Barnes. “I started taking pictures of them, and it just blew me away.”
Since then, he’s spent time with the Ni Mii Pu tribe of Lapwai, Idaho; a bunch of bikers in New York, the low-riders of New Mexico, inmates of Corcoran State Prison, and members of the East St. Louis Bloods. And the experiences haven’t always been chummy.
“They put me through a little test,” he says of his time with The Bloods. “They took me on a ride in my rental car -- took me out for ribs. They said, ‘We gotta go take care of something – will you give us a ride?’ So, they all go into this house, except for one dude who stays in the car. He kept looking at me in the rear-view mirror. Finally, he says, ‘So what are you gonna do if they come out here with a bag of money and a gun to your head?’ And I say, ‘I’d tell them we’d better go.’ And he was like, ‘He’s cool.’ After that they trusted me. Woke me up one morning and told me they were ready for their shoot. There were like 50 of them, all dressed up.”
Then there’s the experience at Corcoran State Prison, a maximum-security slammer in California. Barnes spent two hours in the prison yard with the inmates. The warden’s last words: “Watch your back.”
“Everyone’s out for themselves in there. You’re either in a gang, or you’re screwed. There were Bloods, Crips, Aryan Nation, Mexican Mafia. I just went up and introduced myself – some were cool with getting their pictures taken, others weren’t. It was definitely intense. I took off after those two hours. It made me appreciate freedom like never before.”
So how does Barnes choose the people he shoots? “It’s the people I naturally connect with,” he says with a shrug.