The man who takes your candids gets candid.
From Block 7 bliss to your only flattering formal picture, photographer extraordinaire Justin Barbin captures some of the most iconic moments of the Northwestern experience. He can be spotted at practically every signature event, taking exceptional photos as he dances around in his snappy suits and iconic bow ties. But Justin Barbin isn’t just a name venerated by Northwestern students — he’s known by an ever-growing number of companies around the world, from Nike to Disney to Hamilton on Broadway. NBN sat down with the legendary alumnus to talk about his many career successes, his time at Northwestern and the experiences that shaped him into the person he is today.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
When did you start Justin Barbin Photography?
Right after graduation. I had a rough end of my senior year — my step-mom was fighting breast cancer [for the third time]. As I was graduating, she was put into hospice care. That affected me deeply. [My family] didn’t have the funds for me to travel back and forth, so I ended up graduating without securing a job. My stepmom passed away the day before I was to fly home. That whole summer was spent just being with family and being present, trying to focus on rebuilding myself. During that time, people were already reaching out to me, asking ‘Hey are you coming back to Chicago? Can we hire you for shoots?’ That is when I made the decision to just go for it. I told myself if this wasn’t working out in six months to a year, then I’d work at some office job. But thankfully, there was a lot of support. The School of Communication hired me as their theatre photographer. That blossomed to more connections throughout the city and throughout the country. And now, I’m still doing it.
What does your family mean to you?
It’s been almost 10 years [since my stepmom passed away.] There are days when it is easier to talk about it than others, and there are days when I wake up sobbing because I think about what she meant to me. Before my step-mom died, I was always so focused on school and my future that family kind of took a backseat. They knew that and supported that because they wanted to see me succeed. But [that loss] helped me re-adjust my view of what family means, because they are the ones that will always be there ... and I need them to get through hardships.
Tell us one thing you’re proud of.
There was a point in my life when I grew up in poverty. My mom came from a very wealthy family in the Philippines. During the 1980s, my grandfather died and there was a shift in the government. Our family lost everything. I grew up seeing both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. There was a time when we couldn’t even afford school. I think back to the toddler who lived in that situation and think how proud he would be of where he is today. I’m proud of the fact that I can pursue this career that I love and care about so much. Also, I paid my way through college. My family wasn’t really able to support me, but I was able to pay off my student loans a few years out from college thanks to all of the photography jobs I was booking.
What is your favorite memory as a Northwestern student?
Junior year, I was mugged outside of my apartment. My camera was stolen. Right after that, the Northwestern community came together to raise money to get me a new camera. That was one of the first moments when I felt the impact my photography had on the community around me. The outpouring of support was really moving. Somebody made a website to raise funds, people were canning for me. There was an event to hold a fundraiser [at a bar called The Keg]. It was a devastating part of my life, but there was definitely a silver lining.
What gets you up in the morning?
I think my gratitude for my life and my career. I constantly pinch myself and cannot believe that I’m staying creative, staying fulfilled and able to support myself through this career of photography. It benefits others, it brings joy to others. It helps me create art and preserve other people’s art. The root of my work is for others — it’s living for other people. Knowing that helps me whenever I have to wake up for a shoot.