Sherman Ave Interviews: Justin Barbin
If you've been to a Northwestern sorority's formal (ANY sorority), or if you've just creepily stalked pictures from any given formal, then you definitely know the name Justin Barbin. A photographer/entrepreneur/all-around awesome dude, Barbin graduated from Northwestern in 2011, and, after moving back to his hometown of Houston, began to dabble in his longtime hobby of photography. Flash forward to 3 years later, and Barbin is one of the best-known names at Northwestern - not only for his skills as a photographer, but for his personality, his style, and having a name that is eerily similar to that of Justin Bieber. Barbin was nice enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to sit down with Sherman Ave travesties Ross Packingham, Prince Giblets, and Felicity Jenkins, and allowed them to ask him a few questions about himself, his passion, and a lot of stupid shit. Mostly just stupid shit.
Ross Packingham: So we’ll start with a few questions about your background--
Justin Barbin: Like ethnicity, or…?
Packingham: That isn’t what we had in mind.
Felicity Jenkins: But feel free to answer that as well.
Packingham: So from my understanding, you just popped out of your mother’s womb with a Nikon DSLR in hand.
Packingham: That’s embarrassing, I didn’t do my research. And there are so many pictures online with the camera. Anyway, is that why she hated you?
Barbin: She hated me more because I was a painful birth.
Packingham: Because of the camera. It’s larger than the baby.
Barbin: Exactly, have you seen the lenses that come with the camera? This one alone adds six or seven pounds to my body. So like 10 pounds, plus me, I was 6 pounds and 4 oz.
Packingham: That’s a 16 lb baby. That’s like a bowling ball.
Prince Giblets: So you came in like a bowling ball?
Packingham: I hoped we’d wait at least a little bit longer for the Miley references.
Barbin: It’s never too early!
Felicity: We’ve got a quota to fill.
Giblets: So would you say that you get paid for each event on like a per-profile pic basis? Or is there some other metric?
Barbin: [laughs] I wish!...Although I give pretty good rates compared to other businesses I work with. I do give discounts to sororities and student shows. But maybe a few years down the line, I could do–how much do you think I’d make, if it were per profile picture?
Giblets: I’m speaking as an econ major, so I know what I’m talking about, and you could probably make, by my estimate, at least 20 million dollars.
Barbin: For one formal?
Packingham: How old were you when you realized photographing drunk people was your calling?
Barbin: I was probably 15.
Felicity: So everyone I’ve talked to about you has said you’re an incredibly, incredibly nice person. I don’t buy it. I think they’re all lying and you’re actually a total doucher. So can you tell us the worst thing you’ve ever done? And keep in mind that the header to this interview will contain your answer to this question.
Barbin: Oh my god. Well I ripped my mom open, so that was a pretty terrible thing to do.
Packingham: With a camera.
Felicity: I would never do that to my mom.
Packingham: There aren’t that many jokes I can make off the top of my head about matricide. Sadly.
Packingham: Where did you grow up?
Barbin: I grew up in the Philippines and Houston, Texas.
Packingham: Houston, Texas. Wow, I’m sorry, we can talk about something else. Did you like Houston?
Barbin: Um, it was good for what I needed it to be. I mean, I was there for middle school and high school—
Packingham: So a place?
Barbin: A roof over my head, there was oxygen, that was great. And I’m glad I’m here in Chicago now though.
Packingham: How long did you live in the Philippines?
Barbin: Five years. The first five years of my life.
Packingham: Nice. Do you go back?
Barbin: I haven’t been in probably two decades.
Packingham: Is it nice?
Barbin: Parts of it. The beaches.
Felicity: Nicer than Houston?
Barbin: Yeah, there’s a lot of trash. And then the oil spill, it hit Houston. We’re 45 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico.
Packingham: Yeah that’s no fun. But BP has awesome Olympics commercials now, so it’s better.
Barbin: They make you cry, right?
Packingham: Nope. Well, just a little bit.
Felicity: So I understand you went to Northwestern. Is there a reason you didn’t at least choose a school that breaks the US News and World Report Top 10? Or did you just really want to live in Boston?
Barbin: Actually, UChicago was my number one school for like two years out of high school, and then I visited, and then I realized that it’s not the place for me. I mean, I wanted to be in Chicago, so my brother told me to apply to Northwestern, and coming from Texas, we don’t really know a lot about Northwestern. So I just sent in my application probably 45 minutes before I went out to a New Year’s party. No joke. I was like scrambling, trying to finish the final question, sent it in the email and then I rushed for New Year’s. And I came here, I was in Chicago for a week when I visited Northwestern first and then UChicago, and I just loved the people. I read a lot of signs, like spiritually. I’m that kind of person--and there were just a lot of signs pointing to Northwestern. There were so many nice people towards me and it was just really good energy around you.
Packingham: Were the UChicago signs just like, pointing you away from UChicago?
Felicity: “Do not enter.”
Barbin: "You’re gonna die there."
Packingham: A more serious question: Pretty much everyone at Northwestern gives up on following their dreams and studies Econ instead. You seem to be the exception to that rule, so how were you successfully able to transition into photography as a job post-graduation?
Barbin: Well, I actually came into Northwestern with an Econ major, and then a quarter of that and I switched to Communications when I could. Actually I fell into photography as a career because I didn’t know I could actually do this, I could get paid to do what I love. I did it for free all throughout college, and then--I’m going to get a little real here--but the end of my senior year was really a pretty emotional time for me. My step-mom died of breast cancer as I was graduating. And I love Northwestern so much, and having to go through that, leaving a school that I love, plus I was also an actor, so I was having rehearsals, plus you’re a student, so you have classes to take care of. And it was just a huge amount of stress and pressure. I told myself, if I had to focus on a job right now, I would probably go through a mental breakdown. So I focused when I needed to, and I gave myself time to mourn after graduating, in the summer. And while I was back home in Houston, people were contacting me for shoots already. I told to myself, maybe I should just try this out for a few months and see where this goes. Otherwise I would have just been in advertising or marketing.
Packingham: So you’re trying to do this long term?
Barbin: I mean, if I can, I will. Obviously there is going to be a point when I’m gonna be too old to keep coming back here and not be that creepy old guy.
Felicity: But everyone loves that guy! What are you talking about?
Giblets: I aspire to be that guy.
Packingham: Just keep coming back here, with a cat in your bag.
Barbin: You see her, randomly, and it’s magical when you see her downtown. I’ve spotted her at McDonald’s at Union Station, and on the El on the red line. Where does she live? And has she been back?
Felicity: I’ve never seen her, actually.
Packingham: Oh, you’re missing out.
Felicity: She’s real though?
Giblets: She’s very real.
Packingham: Justin, I’m gonna ask you a few questions about what you do. When you’re at a formal and you just see a girl like just vomiting in her purse do you ever think, “I have to document this”?
Barbin: If there are good photobombs. If there’s good framing and good lighting then, yes. But if she’s in the corner and covering her face...
Packingham: Then it’s like an entirely sadistic thing.
Barbin: It’s also really terrible, I’ve never seen that happen.
Barbin: Never into a purse.
Packingham: Are we going to the same formals?
Barbin: [laughs] Which formals are you going to? Maybe in the bathroom...but, a purse? I feel like you care about your stuff, right?
Felicity: Not my stuff.
Giblets: I don’t care about her stuff.
Felicity: Or you can just go on the floor. It’s like how you’re allowed to throw peanuts on the floor at a baseball game.
Barbin: The thing is that bus rides are where all the dirty things happen. I’ve seen things, and heard things, and I don’t even make the effort to try and capture them.
Packingham: Have you ever thought of going into busride photography and just becoming like the most unscrupulous photographer known to man? Probably not.
Barbin: There could be money in that. I’ll look into that.
Packingham: Blood money.
Giblets: Vom money.
Felicity: Do you ever just take a picture thinking, “yeah, they’re gonna hate this,” and then chuckle softly to yourself as you upload it to Facebook?
Barbin: Probably once or twice! But usually they’re good friends of mine. So they know it’s good fun.
Felicity: Are they still good friends of yours?
Barbin: Maybe they defriended me and I just–I don’t know.
Packingham: How much would you say Colin Creevey shaped the person you are today?
Barbin: He’s definitely one of my heroes. I did dress up as him for one of the biggest college parties I went to. And everything I do, I think, “this is for Colin.”
Packingham: Thanks. That’s, that’s really touching. That’s a more in-depth and involved answer than we expected, to be honest.
Barbin: Although I do have to admit I am more of a Hufflepuff.
Packingham: A Hufflepuff?
Packingham: There’s nothing wrong with being a Hufflepuff. [pause] There’s nothing especially honorable about it. But there’s nothing bad about it.
Giblets: So, anyways, which sorority is best?
Barbin: I can’t–I can’t say! They all have different personalities.
Giblets: Okay, but like which one is the hottest?
Barbin: [pause] Again, it cycles through. So it differentiates from year to year.
Packingham: I feel like we’re interviewing Mitt Romney, the way he’s dodging these questions.
Barbin: I love the sororities I photograph, I care about them. And I could never...
Giblets: That’s the right way. You handled that the right way.
Packingham: So we’ve all heard the rumors that you’re starting a Facebook page called “Humans of Tantrik.” Can you confirm these rumors?
Barbin: I don’t even know what Tantrik is.
Felicity: It’s like that club you go to to photograph sorority events. You’ve definitely been there.
Barbin: Oh Tantrik! That’s a club! Yeah I have been there.
Packingham: Did you think it was like a planet?
Barbin: I thought it was like a yoga class.
Giblets: I didn’t know what that was either but I didn’t want to ask. I’m not very cool, so that’s probably why.
Felicity: So on the topic of Facebook...the Justin Barbin Photography Facebook page currently has 3,091 likes, while the Sherman Ave Facebook page only has 2,808 likes. So my question to you, is can you teach us how to be more popular? [Editor’s note: figures accurate to the time of this interview]
Barbin: Just photograph a lot of people. And tag them.
Felicity: We do that.
Barbin: [laughs] You do that?
Packingham: Well I did notice on Facebook that you work at Justin Barbin Photography. How much of a douche is your boss?
Barbin: Depends from day to day. I mean, if I’m not raking in the cash, he brings out the whip.
Packingham: You know what? This is getting really dark.
Giblets: Obviously, you’ve been to a lot of formals. We’ve been discussing that. With that in mind, what is the record would you say, give or take, for the most times that you’ve heard “Timber” in a three-hour period? And keep in mind that a girl singing it to herself or with her girlfriends also counts.
Barbin: This happened last weekend...the DJ we had is so great because he takes all requests from all the drunk people. And he just does what they say. So Timber’s played three times, and usually DJs don’t like to play the same song twice in a night. So three times, and probably average it by–
[“Timber” starts playing from Felicity’s computer]
Felicity: I’m sorry; if I don’t play this at least once every hour my lungs will literally collapse.
Packingham: It’s actually a serious medical condition. You shouldn’t laugh.
Barbin: Is that your oxygen?
Felicity: It’s my everything.
Packingham: So, the Hopi Indians believe that a photograph steals a part of your soul. How does it feel to have completely proven that wrong by showing that photographs really only steal your dignity and maybe your career prospects?
Barbin: [laughs] That’s really good...It makes me money. And, who says I don’t have peoples’ souls?
Packingham: That’s true.
Barbin: I put them in little jars.
Felicity: What do you get in exchange for the souls? Like is there a deal I can cut you?
Barbin: Depends on what you do with them, and how much of a soul you want.
Packingham: Is this Ghost Rider happening right now? Are we about to see Ghost Rider come in?
[Someone makes a poor impression of a screaming ghost]
Felicity: Do you ever run into turf wars with other photographers…do you guys ever have to settle who gets a gig with shoot-offs, where two photographers meet at high noon, stand back to back, take three paces, turn, and then whoever takes the most unflattering photograph of the other person wins?
Barbin: [laughs] I wish! Where would you do this? Like at Norris ice rink?
Felicity: Norris ice rink, in front of an old saloon…
Giblets: Or Tantrik.
Barbin: I’ve never done that, but you’re giving me ideas. There was a crush party that I was invited to, that I ironically went to, where they had another photographer. And I always bring my camera around with me. So throughout the night people would call me by the wrong name and they would call him by the wrong name, and we’re both Asian so it was confusing a lot of drunk people that night.
Packingham: I’ve found in my experiences with drunk people that they aren’t super difficult to confuse.
Barbin: The Northwestern drunk is usually pretty friendly, so I enjoy those people.
Giblets: So did you win the fist fight with that guy?
Barbin: It was more of a flash off.
Giblets: Oh, okay. Did you win the flash off?
Packingham: You’re gonna have to elaborate on flash off.
Barbin: Flash off, the more clicks, the faster finger?
Giblets: Okay, not the more dicks.
Barbin: Did you read the AMA on reddit with the guy with two penises?
Felicity: I’ve seen that reference in every thread, but I’ve never read it.
Barbin: You have to read it!
Giblets: I’ll have to write that down…
Packingham: Just Google search "AMA double dick reddit.”
Barbin: Yes! Exactly. That’s all you need.
Packingham: I’ve got a hypothetical scenario for you: you are attacked, suffer head trauma, get retrograde amnesia. You want to hunt down and kill your attacker, but you have no short term memory and you can only piece together your life through photographs. So using every photo you’ve ever taken at a crush party or formal, how would you piece together your life well enough to track down and kill the man who ruined it?
Barbin: Ooh…it’s like Memento.
Packingham: It’s precisely like Memento. In fact, I wrote this question right after I watched Memento.
Barbin: I’d have to go backward and see the last formals I went to.
Packingham: Yeah, which sorority do you think it would be?
Barbin: Ooh…let’s see, the darkest…it’d probably be the darkest, sketchiest location I’ve ever recently been to…Oh! It’s probably Estate Ultra Bar. I would never want to go back there.
Packingham: Estate Ultra Bar? Where’s that?
Barbin: Mhm, sororities beware. It’s uh…I don’t even know where it is. It’s somewhere in the west part of Chicago. Terrible security, pretty sketchy area.
Packingham: Maybe we can have Sherman Ave formal there.
Barbin: Do you need a photographer for your Sherman Ave formal?
Packingham: It might come to that.
Felicity: We’ve mostly been relying on the selfie, so…
Barbin: With your phones?
Felicity: Phones, with whatever will take a photograph…whatever’s closest.
Packingham: So when you’re running late to an event—I’m sure you don’t run late very often—does the organizer every get really angry and come up to you and yell “Justin time!” and then kick you in the genitals?
[confused silence, peppered with uncomfortable laughter]
Packingham: This is a yes or no question.
Barbin: Umm…to my knowledge that has never happened, but I should brace myself…
Packingham: But you have retrograde amnesia, so you never know.
Giblets: That’s something you forget pretty easily.
Barbin: I know, but the pain, like, with a high heel. Imagine how painful that would be.
Packingham: That’s something I would not want to happen.
Giblets: Uh…okay. So, have you ever photographed someone drinking updog?
Barbin: Please describe to me what updog is.
Packingham: You don’t know updog?
Felicity: You know? Updog.
Barbin: No? Describe…explain it to me.
Felicity: Explain what?
Barbin: Explain updog.
Giblets: God damn it.
Giblets: You’re supposed to say “What’s updog?”, and then we all high-five, but you didn’t do it, so…
Packingham: He said “explain updog”, like “you, dawg, explain up”…it doesn’t work.
Giblets: No it doesn’t work. Nice though, you totally thwarted that.
Packingham: So, obviously we don’t care, but you photograph a lot of people like, in the presence of or engaging in underage drinking. Has Mayor Tisdahl ever left a severed puppy head in your kitchen as a warning?
Barbin: She has sent me some nudes.
Packingham: Did you take them? Like, were they sent to you asking if you could touch them up?
Barbin: Boudoir sheets, yeah we’ve done some.
Packingham: For anniversaries?
Packingham: I really wish we had not gone down this road.
Barbin: I don’t even know what she looks like, to be honest. I only know her name.
Felicity: So for a man in the business of taking pictures, there are relatively few photographs of yourself online. What are you running from?
Barbin: I just, I don’t like to look at myself.
Packingham: [pause] There’s something more here.
Felicity: Yeah, dig deeper.
Barbin: Maybe it’s a sense of…a lack of self-esteem.
Giblets: That’s basically what we want you to say.
Felicity: We have to validate ourselves after the “updog” incident.
Packingham: The great Updog Tragedy of 2014.
Giblets: What’s up dog…
Packingham: So Justin Barbin: super catchy name. It’s a great name for someone trying to be self-employed or have their own business. Do you ever attribute any of your success to how catchy your name is? Do you think you’d have as much success if your name was something like Colin Powell?
Barbin: It’s a more powerful name. Justin Barbin; I have to live with Justin Bieber all the time…
Felicity: He must be a terrible roommate.
[5 seconds of silence]
[Laughs; Felicity and Giblets high-five]
Barbin: But I like how even my name is. Actually, my mom thought long and hard about my name - I was born in September, and I’m a Libra - and “Justin” means “justice,” and “fair,” which is like Libra scales. And coincidentally, there’s six letters in my first name, and six letters in my last name. So it’s pretty even.
Packingham: I think you’re also very much a “firsty lasty” kind of person.
Barbin: What do you mean?
Packingham: People would never say “Justin’s taking pictures,” they’d say, “Oh, Justin Barbin’s taking pictures.” I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It just means you have a good brand. You’re like McDonald’s. Where the cat lady frequents.
Giblets: You know, Mick Donald. He’s a firsty lasty guy.
Packingham: Speaking of the whole name thing, who’s your favorite celebrity who’s also named Justin and has a six-letter last name that starts with B?
Packingham: And, if you’re wondering, yes, Bieber does have an “I” in it.
Barbin: [after a 5-second pause] Ooh! Justin Bartha.
Packingham/Giblets/Felicity: [collectively] Wow!
Packingham: So one of the other editors, Walter Klondike™, actually commented on the interview questions and said “if he’s a good person, he’ll say Justin Bartha.”
Felicity: AKA Riley from National Treasure.
Giblets: He’s also in that, I’m assuming, horrible movie with the hot old chick - what’s her name…
Felicity: The Hangover?
Packingham: Are you talking about the Rob Schneider movie--
Giblets: No. Catherine Zeta-Jones. He’s in some movie with Catherine Zeta Jones, she’s like a cougar…
Barbin: “Titanic.” What?!
Giblets: It’s like a--
Felicity: This doesn’t sound like a real movie.
Giblets: Well, whatever. Fuck you guys. It’s a real movie. Just--let’s just move on.
[Editor’s note: The movie Giblets was trying to think of is The Rebound, which does in fact star Catherine Zeta-Jones and Justin Bartha. So screw you, Felicity.]
Felicity: Who is your favorite pop star married to Jay-Z?
Barbin: Aw! Beyonce!
Packingham: Oh. That’s an interesting answer.
Barbin: Who else is married to him?
Packingham: The New York Knicks. [with satisfaction] Got ‘em.
Packingham: What’s your favorite ICP song?
Barbin: I--I was actually in a class where this kid did a presentation on ICP. He played like, 30 seconds - which is way too long - 29 seconds too long. So I can’t say what the title was. But it probably had something to do with cocaine. Or meth.
Packingham: Oh, that ICP song.
Giblets: Wait--is ICP Insane Clown Posse?
Giblets: I just pieced that together.
Felicity: Not a juggalo?
Giblets: No, I’m not a juggalo.
Packingham: We have a quick question. So you’re an expert in photography--
Barbin: “Expert.” I just do it lot.
Packingham: We’ve been trying to figure out this photograph for a really long time, so can you tell me - what the hell is on Joey’s head? [shows JB the photograph below]
Barbin: [laughs] [imitating Chad Kroeger] “Look at this photograph”...I don’t know. Could it--I mean, they look like they’re at a party. It could be a drone - or, like a--
Giblets: Keep in mind this was pre-drone.
Packingham: It’s like early 2000s.
Barbin: Could that be like one of those Jamaican hats?
Packingham: One of the rasta hats?
Felicity: Like a beanie?
Giblets: Looks to me just like a bunch of ribbon, that like someone made into a turban.
Barbin: It could be like a Star Wars drone, or--
Felicity: Oh, that kind of drone.
Giblets: Like a not-weapons drone.
Packingham: Well, kind of like a weapons drone.
Giblets: Well, ehh…
Packingham: Ok, awesome, good. Cleared that up. So this is one of the last questions we have. We want you to rank these historical photos in order of significance. [Packingham shows Barbin the following three photos, in order]
Barbin: Lindsay number one--
Barbin: Iwo Jima number two, and then the Nat Geo girl number three.
Packingham: Okay. That’s a good answer.
Giblets: Probably how I would’ve done it.
Barbin: She’s most relevant today, so…
Giblets: It’s also the most powerful image, by far.
Packingham: Just raw power emanating from those eyes...
Felicity: No makeup. No filter.
Packingham: While we’re on the topic of Instagram - top 8 favorite Instagram filters?
Barbin: I stopped using filters. I use this thing called Snapseed, which is a really--it’s free, and it’s a really nice, high-end editing tool.
Packingham: It’s not as good as Instagram, though.
Barbin: [laughs] Off the top of my head, I love--what is that--it really hightens the saturation of a photo. Can I pull out my [PRODUCT REDACTED]?
Giblets: We’re gonna have to cut that. We can’t have smartphone product placement.
Packingham: We’ll have to say, “can I pull out my product redacted.”
Giblets: We can say, “can I pull out my” and then a line.
Packingham: There will be no ambiguity there. “Can I just whip out my…”
Barbin: “My electronic telephone.” [pause while JB browses Instagram filter names] You said top 8?
Felicity: Yeah. Like MySpace friends, basically.
Barbin: You know, I didn’t have a top 4 on MySpace, because it caused a lot of issues with friends. So usually you put your family, and then your one best friend that everyone knows you’re best friends with at number 4.
Packingham: There was a lot of psychological damage that was done with MySpace top friends.
Barbin: [still browsing through filters] Lo-Fi. Love Lo-Fi. Willow is a nice black and white one...I love the highly saturated ones: X-Pro II...if I wanted to go for vintage, I’d probably go with Rise; it’s like the morning sunrise...Kelvin’s too yellow; I don’t really like that...1977; another really good one.
Packingham: Great year.
Barbin: What happened in ‘77?
Packingham: Carter took office.
Giblets: Lot of inflation. Probably.
Packingham: Star Wars came out.
Barbin: Wow! Look at your memory! That’s great.
Giblets: [thinking] Iwo Jima.
Packingham: The War of 1812.
Barbin: [still browsing filters] Early Bird and Toaster, because of it’s name.
Packingham: Toaster’s good. One of our writers is named Toaster.
Giblets: So this is our last question: Do you do mugshots? We’re asking for a friend.
Barbin: For the right price, I could, yeah.
Felicity: Like...price of bail?
Barbin: That’s pretty good! I mean, how much is bail in the state of Illinois?
Giblets: Well, it depends what you do.
Felicity: Average is about $85,000.
Giblets: Let’s hypothetically say it’s that much. Hypothetically.
Felicity: For a friend.
Barbin: That’s the income of a single household already right there. You could take travels around the world...actually, before I go, can I take your picture?
Giblets: I was actually gonna ask anyways. Not gonna lie.
[Barbin proceeds to take Packingham's, Giblets's, and Felicity's picture. And it’s fucking awesome.]