It’s sorority bid night, and we’re standing outside Kappa Alpha Theta waiting for their newest members to arrive. It’s post-polar vortex but still freezing, and photographer Justin Barbin offers me a tissue.
At 6 p.m., the sky is pitch black. Barbin, who Theta hired to take pictures for the night, offers my photographer Josh the large, detachable flash from his camera. He won’t stop complimenting Josh’s photo skills, and as we make small talk waiting for the girls to come, he repeatedly says how grateful he is.
Grateful for this. Grateful for that. Grateful for the adulation and generosity of the Northwestern community.
As older members of the sorority file out of their castle of a house, music begins to blare and Barbin is a blur, darting between the girls. The ladies spot their newest “babies” entering the quad and pandemonium ensues. Justin wears leather wingtips, green socks and a fur hat as he bops along to Theta’s own version of Wiz Khalifa—Black and Gold. He balances on an icy snowdrift as girls come up to him constantly, asking, Justin, can you take a photo of me? Justin, can I have a hug?
They pose and, of course, he obliges. He’s all about giving. He gives himself over to these events, completely and totally integrating himself into these communities—his subjects.
“I hope that it comes across in my photos that I care about the people that I photograph,” Barbin says when we speak a couple days later. Theta’s newest sisters stream in, hugging each other as Justin records indelible images that he’ll later post to Facebook. The photos will make these girls’ days, and that’s all he cares about.
Barbin graduated from Northwestern in 2011, but often returns to campus to shoot Greek events and theater productions.
“I did shows all four years of college, and really that environment was what cultivated my reputation as a photographer,” he says. “I would photograph all the theater productions I went to, all the theater parties I went to. And from there, it really branched out to meeting friends of friends.”
In high school, Barbin was class president, on the debate team and involved in theater. He took his camera everywhere and posted photo-filled essays to his Xanga blog. “Everybody knew what I did and appreciated it,” Barbin says. “So they welcomed it, and I just kept it up.” Barbin met Kacy Smith (SoC ’11) during their sophomore year of college. The two played orphans in a campus production and quickly became friends. His genuine enthusiasm for the little things in life, Smith says, is what people love most about him.
Smith spoke of Barbin’s independence and self-reliance. It’s not easy to make ends meet as a photographer without working another job on the side.
“This is my only source of income and I can support myself through what I love,” he says. “It’s hard to be impressed, because I’m in it.” This success doesn’t come without adversity. At school, Barbin performed in plays, sang in an a cappella group and took a heavy course load. He was considering a career in advertising. Then in the spring of his junior year, Barbin learned his stepmother had cancer. Doctors told her she had a couple of months to live.
“Instead of being really enthusiastic and excited, when something happens that is the opposite of that, [if] it really hurts the person’s soul or hurts for a day, he’s very reluctant to show that,” Smith says. “So to me it seems like he’s changed, because he’s started to show that side of himself to more people more easily.”
One night, around the time he heard about his stepmom’s diagnosis, Barbin was walking home from a play, first stopping by 7-Eleven for a Coke Slurpee.
“I was about to open my front door, this guy grabs me from the back, chokes me and tells me to shut up and shoves me down on the ground and puts his foot on me,” he says.
The thieves grabbed his camera and nothing else, taking the only tool that allowed Barbin to exercise his passion. In response to the incident, Barbin’s friends took action. They organized a fundraiser, “Barbin Camera Bonanza Bar Night,” at The Keg of Evanston and launched justinbarbincamerafund.org to help raise money for a new camera.
“That’s the sort of thing that he inspires,” Smith says. “It’s sort of jaw dropping. I heard the news about my best friend being mugged and his camera being stolen, which I didn’t even hear from him. The next thing I knew, there was an event happening for him.”
The campaign raised a combined $1,257, according to an NBN article from May 2010. When asked what he thought of all the support, the word he fell back on so often to characterize his success didn’t suffice
“I can’t even put into words that would adequately describe how loved I felt, how grateful I was,” he says. “I mean, ‘grateful’ doesn’t even cut it to describe how I was feeling.”