Susan A. Barnett: “Yes We Can” was seen everywhere on t-shirts


While creating your series “Not in your face” you were literally ignoring faces and took pictures of people’s backs. How did You come up with an idea like this?

As everyone in a city experiences at one time or another you find yourself stopped at a traffic light and are standing behind a crowd of people waiting for the light to change. That happened to me one day in New York City where I live and right in front of me was a woman who had a t-shirt on with a African mask stenciled on her t-shirt. She had beautiful dread locks and carried a very fashionable bag from a museum and I stopped and took her picture without asking her. After I processed the film I looked at the frame and realized while I did not see her face, I found from all the clues from her fashion and style choices that I could imagine things about her identity. From what she chose to wear and how she stood she was sending a message about who she was and what she wanted me to know about her. The next day I went out and looked for other people who were wearing messages on their t-shirts and this is when my project started.

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I can see  a lot of  people with crazy tops. Maybe You have T- shirt with funny or shocking image?

It is interesting that I don’t wear t-shirts with messages on them. But one that I find very funny I found this year at a state fair in Minnesota. It said “Ask your Doctor if getting off your ass is right for you”. It is funny because it is a play on the words of a Doctor giving you the right medicine.


“Yes We Can” was seen everywhere on t-shirts. Now seems so historic and hopeful.


How do you pick people, who you want take picture of him? Ask or steal?

I can wait for hours on the street looking for people with t-shirts with the messages on the back. You would be surprised but it is not the norm. When I spot one no matter if it is way up the street I set chase and approach the person very very calmly and respectfully. No sneak attacks. I tell them my name and that I am a photographer and a bit about my project. I then very cheerfully ask them if they mind having their picture taken. The fact that it is from the back relieves a lot of people and most people say “yes” right away. If they have hesitation I carefully ask them why and see if there is anything I can say or think of to help them through it. Sometimes it works, sometimes not and if not I don’t try to pressure them. Respect, politeness and sincerity all come into play. Afterall you are approaching a complete stranger on the street and asking a very personal question to photograph them from behind the most vulnerable position. I am lucky I am a bit older and they see me as no threat.

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You just take pictures of people in the street. Have You ever met unpleasant people, who were rude?

It is rare but I have had a few rude people. But mostly people are just happy that you noticed them and are excited about the project. The rude people are generally just in a hurry. But a few say nasty things. One said “I don’t believe in art”. I think he was being funny but I didn’t care to ask him. I had one bad incident that made me very sad and ultimately afraid. One day in a park I approached what I thought was a carefree student. I don’t know what happened but after I said my story this girl spit on me. Very forcefully and just screamed at me. Her friends looked at her and were surprised too. Coincidentally a policeman was nearby and saw what had happened. He came over and asked if I wanted to press charges against her as it was an assault. I just wanted to get out of there and said no. The interesting thing was for a couple of days after that incident when I asked people to take their photograph they must have sensed some fear in my voice and noticeably more people said no to me than normal.

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What about two examples of encounters with persons whose T-Shirt you wanted to picture: the one you rather not remember and the most pleasant / interesting one…

This is a difficult question and I question how honestly I should answer it. But I will try. I was traveling in a East Coast city and saw in the distance a group of young men and from far away I saw a black tee shirt with a white image and text on it. When I approached the fellow wearing it I stepped behind him and looked at his shirt. He very quickly said “What are you looking at”. I was shocked and very uncomfortable immediately. The image was of a rape scene and the text read “she must have asked for it”. Not only was the message beyond offensive but I oddly felt threatened as the group of young men just stood and watched me. I didn’t tell them I was a photographer or anything and just walked away. When I tell this story people have said why didn’t you take that picture. Are you serious?A photograph would validate his grotesqueness and just add more to his sickness.

On a positive note I have always liked the message from 2009 while Obama was running for President in the U.S. and his campaign slogan “Yes We Can” was seen everywhere on t-shirts. Now seems so historic and hopeful. This was the year my project started and I can see how things have changed since then. This is one of the interesting things about the project. It has become a time capsule where the issues and ideas that make up our daily lives are reflected and they change with the times.

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Posted in Interviews