Terry Barnett finds the humanity in people.
Look at the faces of the people he captures in his photographic portraits. A woman spice picker in India is wary, cool. A camel owner is proud, a bit disdainful. A Vietnam vet on Franklin Street is careworn. A young girl is joy incarnate, her dancing image reflected in a fountain in Wales.
These character studies are just part of an eclectic portfolio that Terry has assembled over the past decade – others are arresting landscapes, mysterious abstracts, funny street scenes. But the portraits reflect the humanity in Terry, as much as in his subjects. They are full of dignity, reflective, sometimes playful, often soulful.
Terry’s photos are on display this week though Thursday, May 14, at Chapel of the Cross in an exhibit organized by his friends to share the art of a talented and courageous Chapel Hillian. I’m privileged to be among his large circle of friends.
For much of the past year, Terry has been battling a brain cancer that struck him suddenly during a trip to California last summer. His time since has been spent in a demanding regimen of treatment and rehabilitation, now slowed to savoring the peace of a life well-lived, bathed in the love of his wife, Virginia Carson, and a close-knit group of family and friends who visit daily.
Terry’s journey has been a rewarding one. A Harvard-trained lawyer, he is co-founder of an international conflict-resolution firm that serves corporations, government agencies and nations. Among his clients were the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and he has played a role in untangling knotty conflicts from Eastern Europe to the Far East.
In 2000, he and Virginia left Washington for Chapel Hill so she could become head of the Campus Y at UNC, where she was the self-described “den mother” for students seeking refuge from classroom pressures. Terry began winding down his practice and channeled his energies into photography, honing his skills through workshops, classes and groups like the Chapel Hill Camera Club.
He took to posting a single picture every day on Facebook, often accompanied by a comment reflecting his wry way of seeing the world. An image of two culvert openings says: “Entries into other worlds. Half full? Half empty? Mysteries await!”
The Facebook postings, Virginia said, brought discipline and purpose to his work. “He said he did that so that he would focus on what he was doing, rather than just stack up lots of digitals.” The Facebook images, now collected in several hardbound books, are the source for the current exhibit.
After Virginia retired in 2011, the couple began travels that took them around the world, to Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Korea and Eastern Europe, as well as the American West.
One of his most haunting images is from Slovenia, showing a churchyard cemetery that was the burial ground for soldiers killed in World War I. That trip was a return for Terry, who helped the Slovenian nation negotiate a bloodless withdrawal from the former Yugoslavia during the collapse of Communism.
The images from India came during a seven-week trip in the winter of 2012. Terry went to India intent on shooting not the Taj Mahal and other postcard scenes, but rather the ordinary people of the teeming population. “He always asked every person if it was OK if he took their picture, because by doing that you open up a conversation,” Virginia said.
He did the same with his images of a turquoise vendor in Santa Fe, a street preacher in Sanford, N.C., and the Vietnam Vet on Franklin Street. The images reflect a shared humanity between photographer and subject.
I was talking to a friend this week about Terry’s illness, and he sympathized, “What can you do?”
I’d say: Just try to live a rich and full life, as Terry has, having fun along the way, appreciating the humanity in others.
Terry Barnett’s photographs can be seen Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Chapel of the Cross, 304 E. Franklin St. Admission is free.