After joining a Lowriders posse in Española, N.M.; a band of bikers in Harlem, and a gang of Bloods in St. Louis — all in the name of documentary photography — Hunter Barnes has perfected the art of fitting into situations where a Caucasian boy from Oregon with a camera might not otherwise belong. But the lensman’s biggest challenge in amalgamation took place last year when he disguised himself as a Canadian doctor and snuck into the Eastern province of Sri Lanka to document the post-tsunami devastation and civil strife plaguing the area. His images are on display at the Milk Gallery starting Wednesday, along with excerpts from a journal Barnes kept while living in the refugee camp.
With a government-imposed lockdown on tourism and a military-enforced ban on photographs of the region around Sri Lanka, Barnes’ mission was hardly an easy feat. “The day before I was smuggled into the camp there was a suicide bombing,” he remembers, happily back on American soil. “So my first night was spent in a safe house outside the border, and then at 3 a.m., I was transported across veiled as a medical professional, with a gun in my rib the whole time.”
Hiding his film in his bag and under the van he was riding in, Barnes managed to smuggle more than 50 rolls into the refugee camp. He slowly ingratiated himself with the local people and began sleeping in village huts, churches, on the outskirts of the camp and even alone under the stars, using his camera bag as a pillow. His photographic method was pretty simple: “Shoot fast, squeeze in a few quick frames and then keep it moving.”
Although he planned to document the military occupation in the area, Barnes found the citizens themselves more inspiring subjects. “At first I wanted the war and the guns and the violence and the men fighting,” he says. “But when I got there, I realized this story is about the people that don’t have the guns.”
In the end, the images are among the few to make it out of Sri Lanka. A small number of journalists have managed to get into the area, which is patrolled by rockets and AK-47s, only to face several film-seeking exit checkpoints. (Barnes’ photographs were confiscated at one point and sent through an X-ray machine intended to ruin the prints. “I’ve never sweated more in my life,” he remembers. “But, thankfully, they turned out.”)
This story first appeared in the June 4, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The week after Barnes’ departure, the one road to the camp was indefinitely closed. “I got out just in time,” Barnes says. “But in that month, I felt myself change as a person. It raised my moral consciousness. And that’s what I’m hoping these pictures do for others.”