April 16, 2007 / Photo Quest / Spring 2007

Photo Quest – Photographic Role Model 3

Written by Bill Hankins

For the third spring in a row, this column is profiling a professional photojournalist so they could share their stories and expertise. For this issue, I talked to Jim Barcus, staff photographer of The Kansas City Star. Jim’s story should be interesting to young photographers because his professional journey began not in journalism school, but the nationally renown Kansas City Art Institute.

You got into photojournalism by way of art school. What do you bring to the profession that is different?
I can only guess what a straight j-school graduate would learn. For myself, I never liked the term artsy. If a typical photojournalist sees the story, I have to be true to that also, but it is all a big design to me. I see the story with the larger context. I look at the foreground and background. I look for something symbolic of the event, something beautiful.

How does your approach fit in with the overall approach of your newspaper?
The Star wants us to flex our muscles, to bring something special to the viewer. You try to have those special moments every day, but you can’t win every day. Some assignments are just so mundane, but any creative person wants to put their own stamp on their work. You try to inject yourself into every assignment.

Does your art background help with that?
Yes, art helps me to be a photojournalist. Just because I am thinking things through with a camera does not mean that the art has left me. I think of things graphically even before I show up for an assignment.

You mean you pre-visualize some possible approaches in your mind? How does that work? Can you give an example?
It’s calculating. It’s imagining being in more than one spot at a time. This means thinking in layers. If “Bob” is standing in the center of a city square, what does the foreground and background contribute in the end. Sometimes “Bob” isn’t the most important thing to be thinking about.

What specific art influences do you have?
The Cubists were known to take subjects apart and then put them back together in their art. As a photographer I can approach an assignment from inside out, from top to bottom, left to right. What I illustrated above… you have to put yourself sometimes in up to four different positions at once to anticipate a visual idea.

What other ways does art influence your work?
I had to go through tons of art history, studying artists and movements. The Renaissance was a favorite of mine because they placed so much importance on composition. Also, modern art is an influence. Photographically, I don’t really look at names, but composition. I can’t really say. I think Ansel Adams was an influence because I loved his black and white contrast. But I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and the photographers at the Des Moines Register were an influence (as a group). There was a real sense of documentary work there. They would balance light and shape with a real moment. The work there just really seemed right in my mind.

How about your favorite photos that you have shot?
It is hard to pick out individual photos. I have had photos in everything from The National Inquirer to The New York Times to Sports Illustrated, but it would be hard to leave newspaper work because of the range of assignments I get. I have shot in New York and Washington, D.C., in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I have also shot fashion photos, portraits and college football. Where else can you shoot the war and then the next week shoot the pet of the week? It is that kind of range of assignments that keeps you from getting a big head. I do like the variety of the job, and I meet a lot of nice people. It has taken me to lots of places.

So, would you recommend art school to budding photojournalists?
At least take some art history courses and some design. Listen to the teacher. Understand what artists were doing, and you can learn from that – even if you don’t like their work. Then apply the same principals to your photography.

Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.