people cleaning up a street

Men, women, and children using shovels and brooms to sweep a street during a clean-up campaign at McDougal Terrace in Durham, North Carolina, March, 1968. Photo by Billy E. Barnes. About the photograph

Billy E. Barnes is a photographer known for his documentary work on racial and economic justice issues in the 1950s and 1960s. Barnes grew interested in issues of inequality while working as a photographer for McGraw-Hill Publishing in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1950s and early 1960s. After establishing a reputation, Barnes was offered a job with the newly formed North Carolina Fund in 1963. In a 2003 oral history interview, Barnes talked about his involvement with the North Carolina Fund and how he tried to use photography to change perceptions of poverty.

Breaking the cycle of poverty

In this excerpt, Barnes discusses the ideology of the North Carolina Fund. Because Governor Terry Sanford envisioned the North Carolina Fund as a way to break the cycle of poverty, the fund was focused on providing impoverished people with opportunities and the skills necessary to help themselves, rather than on offering welfare. As Barnes explains, this emphasis required a special focus on children.

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Elizabeth Gritter
This leads me to question about the ideology of the Fund. I noticed… looking through the literature, you know, viewing some of the films — about the emphasis on [the notions of] “We’re helping people help themselves.”
Billy E. Barnes
Hm. Hm.
Elizabeth Gritter
That we’re not giving people handouts.…
Billy E. Barnes
Hm. Hm.
Elizabeth Gritter
It’s a hand up.
Billy E. Barnes
Hm. Hm.
Elizabeth Gritter
If you could talk a little about that. I’m curious as to how that was developed. Is it something that you and other fund officials sat around talking about? Or, was it more the public information department? And, how, also, that was influenced by the context of the times… the War on Poverty and so forth?
Billy E. Barnes
Well, I guess I had a little something to do with the notion that the Fund is adopting the public posture of being in the business of helping people help themselves rather than as the old [saying goes], “Teach a man how to fish and he’ll eat forever or give him some fish and he’ll eat one meal.” Terry Sanford’s rubric was to break the cycle of poverty. He and his folks had done their research before the fund was formed. And he could see there is a cycle in which poverty isn’t just a one generation problem. It is the children of poor people are 90 percent assured of being poor. And the children of welfare mothers, their daughters are about 90 percent likely to be the same. And so, it keeps on going on and on and on. Unless something occurs to break that chain of events, that pattern, it’s going to be forever and the same people are going to suffer. I kind of took that when I came to work for the fund and tried to add to it the notion that: A) What we were trying to do was to break the cycle of welfare as well. We were trying to give people a chance to learn how to work, not only a skill but the mental mindset of work. I found it amazing when we got into training people for jobs that the first thing you have to train them is how to work‚ not how to do a specific skill‚but the importance of being to work on time, the importance of getting along with the boss, the importance of calling in if you’re sick instead of just letting it go, the discipline of work. There is a discipline of work. And if you’ve never worked at a real job, if what work you did always consisted of cleaning somebody’s house for half a day or working in the tobacco fields [for] a couple weeks during the year during the harvest time, you didn’t know how to regiment yourself to acclimate to a factory job or a job in a small woodwork shop or in an office. That all has to do with breaking the cycle of poverty. If you’ve ever seen the North Carolina Fund logo, what it says on it is “opportunity” and we called our magazine “Blueprint for Opportunity.” I never had thought about this question you asked me. I had never felt like I deserved any great credit for introducing this idea and it certainly wasn’t my idea. I’m not the first person whoever thought of it but it seemed to me that the idea of opportunity, that we are in the business of making opportunities available for people instead of giving them something to people to sustain them for awhile especially because we were a temporary organization. And I thought from the start that we would be a temporary organization. Most other people didn’t, especially people in the press. They had never seen a nonprofit go out of business on purpose before if they could continue to get grants; it just wasn’t done. They were all amazed when we went out of business in ‘69. But, I guess that logo that I worked with a guy in Raleigh on. I had a little competition. I asked three or four different artists to work on a rendering and I kind of gave some ideas about what I wanted. I guess that’s a manifestation of the notion I tried to instill in my staff people, that I tried to bring out in speeches I made, that [what] we were trying to do [was] present opportunities for people who wanted to break out of what Terry Sanford called the cycle of poverty.
Elizabeth Gritter
What interests me, too, [is] how your fund had the foresight, before even Head Start existed, [to focus] on children and on day care programs and [know] that in order for opportunity to occur, it starts at a really young age. So, if you could talk too about the early childhood part of it. And, I noticed too in a lot of the photographs, a lot of the films, [there was an] emphasis on children.
Billy E. Barnes
The first chairman of the North Carolina Fund board was a newspaper editor. He was editor of the Charlotte Observer. His name was Pete McKnight. The second one was a guy from Rose Hill who either was at the time or had recently been the chairman of the state school board. His name was Dallas Herring. He was a little guy. He wasn’t a very impressive looking person physically and he didn’t talk a lot. But he was a very scholarly fellow. And he had been a professional educator. He and Terry Sanford had a lot to do with the North Carolina Fund’s notion that if you’re going to break the cycle of poverty, you don’t wait until somebody is a teenager or in their middle twenties, you start as early as possible to inculcate in them an appreciation for books or the ability to read and start getting them ready for public schools so when they get there they can compete with middle-class kids as they move through school and aren’t always stunted. By 1964, things were moving along pretty well in the direction of school integration. Terry was doing all he could to accelerate this without throwing the state into civil war. By the mid-’60s, the schools were pretty well integrated, and this idea of early education which eventually turned into Head Start in North Carolina made a whole lot of sense in terms of getting in there early and helping break cycle of poverty at that age level.

Using photography

In this excerpt, Barnes discusses why he decided to use photography to promote the work of the North Carolina Fund. He explains that photography helped to humanize statistics about impoverished people. His photographs were widely used by the media during the War on Poverty.

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Elizabeth Gritter
Why did you use photography to such an extent in promoting the North Carolina Fund and doing the work of the Public Information Department as opposed to doing more press releases or more films or other means of communication?
Billy E. Barnes
Well, partly, because it’s something I really felt I like knew how to do because of my McGraw-Hill experience and my general photographic experience. But I justified it—the expense and the time I was spending—in this way: You can write all you want to about people’s problems. Until you see the people you’re talking about—until you see their faces and see how they’re dressed and see the looks on their faces, the children, the adults, the homes they live in, and see that A) they’re human beings, the type that God loves just as much as He loves anybody else, just as much as He loves the president of the United States. There’s beauty there. It’s just been beat up on a little bit. Until you see these faces—I don’t think until you have faces that go with the statistics about how many poor people there are and the statistics about median income and stuff and discrimination and all that—I think it really lacks impact. Because you can think, “Well, they’re talking about somebody who lives in Lithuania.” But, to show, especially the communities that we helped try to get their antipoverty programs off the ground, I developed a core of pictures. Then if we needed a slide program for Charlotte or for Rocky Mount, I would develop a whole lot of local pictures that obviously were in local places that these people could look at and see. You know, “This is something in my community that I’ve never seen. I didn’t especially want to see it. But, dang, I drive within four blocks of that place every day.” I think, well, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In many ways, that’s true. So, I felt that if we had a library of photographs from which to draw—and this is something we could offer to the media and also use for our own use and could use it in little neighborhood presentations—that this would be at least as effective as all the words we could crank out with whatever kind of copying machine we had at the time.
Elizabeth Gritter
I know we talked about public relation efforts are hard to measure. Did you see concrete instances or concrete examples of the impact of these photographs on communities, on people?
Billy E. Barnes
No, I don’t know that I did because it’s just like all of our other efforts. It’s hard to document the changing of people’s minds or the awakening of people’s minds. However, I guess one way to gauge not the effectiveness but whether these were photographs were worth doing was the extent to which the media used them. [Barnes motions to a scrapbook of newspaper clippings on the Fund.] When you look in these scrapbooks, you’ll see that when the Winston-Salem paper decided to do an opening front page of one of their Sunday sections on the War on Poverty, there’d be more space taken up with pictures than words. I think that to some degree is a measure of whether the effort and expense that we expended on these photographs—and keeping a file of them and knowing where they are, and keeping a log of every roll that was shot, and keeping a file of contact sheets, of proof sheets—was worthwhile. I think that was one measure of it. They were used. They were widely used. They were used by the national War on Poverty effort. They were almost always used by reporters who would come in to see what we were doing. So, I think that’s about the only way you could measure. You knew that they weren’t just sitting in a file. They were out there being used. They were being seen by anyone who flipped through the paper that morning.