Melbourne photographer and seasoned traveller Paul Barbera has photographed over 90 creative offices all over the world for his personal project Where They Create, which began as a blog and has since culminated into a book concept for Frame, a renowned book publisher in Amsterdam.
Living an enviable lifestyle, Barbera journeys between two hemispheres, with occasional stopovers in other corners of the world, for that perfect shot. In his photography work, he has had the pleasure of meeting some of his design heroes including the Campana Brothers, Rossellini Missoni and Martin Baas.
But it was a slow start for Barbera, who took a while to find his proverbial calling in life. As a 16-year-old, he did not think much of classroom learning. This was evidenced by the number of hours he clocked up in the darkroom.
“School never made any sense to me – all the kids sitting still in a classroom for hours on end not moving. It was weird,” recalls Barbera. “I ended up spending lots of time in the dark room and weekends working at a lab and taking lots of pictures with dad's old Minolta SR-T 101.”
Barbera, who has dyslexia, struggled at school and felt that he would never get into university. His work, however, spoke for itself and the passionate Melburnian gained entry and later graduated from VCA in Fine Arts. Barbera went on to do photography professionally, taking on all kinds of jobs shooting commercial ad campaigns."
A significant career turning point came in the form of his neighbour, a furniture designer whose work, photographed by Barbera, appeared in a Marie Claire magazine; the shots subsequently impressed the lifestyle editor, who asked him to do some editorial for the magazine. Needless to say, Barbera’s career took an upswing from there, bringing him to his current projects and successes. He is careful to state, however, that Where They Create is not a new concept. “It’s more me documenting the spaces around me the past 15 years,” he says. “Also, it's a complete reaction to shooting for Vogue Living and Elle Decor type magazines, which are super stylised.”
Despite Barbera’s humble admissions, the photographic blog is a fascinating and intimate look into the lives of creative studios in Melbourne and around the world, studios that would often only been seen by a privileged few – either friends or clients. The studios, which include locals Tin & Ed, Tongue and Groove and Alpha60, and further afield Fantastic Man, IDN magazine and Marcel van Doorn, range from the messy and chaotic to the beautifully furnished and well appointed.
“I am a voyeur by nature and most of my work is about that,” admits Barbera. “I use it as a way to go and meet the people I most admire, and it’s a way to explore a city – you get to go to places you would never normally go. The book doesn’t talk about their work, how successful they are, or who they are. It talks about the shared common ground we all have as creative people, and the struggles we go through.”
When asked why the project has been successful, Barbera’s answer is simple but astute. “I guess people like to see other spaces and everyone loves to have their space documented,” he offers. But Barbera attributes much of this success also to social media. “My blog has given my work exposure to so many markets, and to so many people,” he explains. “It’s got me into many magazines and led me to shooting studios all around the world.”
Although Barbera doesn’t generate any money from the traffic that comes to his site, he has built a community around his projects, with the people in these communities acting as ambassadors, bringing his work to the attention of Amsterdam’s Frame, for instance. Known in the design industry for creating beautiful magazines such as Frame, Mark and Elephant, the Dutch publishers will turn Where They Create into a book for release in September next year.
“I think in the past, the power of social media was in the hands of a few who curated a certain view and perspective,” explains Barbera. ‘That's changed; it’s flattened out so that many more people hold that place and that power, and there are more unique voices and it has made the process of information flow more fluid.” It’s taken almost 20 years of taking on every type of job for Barbera to find his style, but he now feels he is on the right track. ‘I am really only now at the start of my career.’
For many creative folk, Barbera is an example of a self-made man, someone who has created his own success through trial and error, with a bit of help from his friends. His work, tangible in his blog, is something he has personally crafted, achieved on its own merits. Though he has sought other, less fulfilling, projects he has still managed what most of creative people have struggled to obtain: a life based on a passion and a well-honed talent. As Barbera’s experience of school illuminated, “I think once you’re told you are good at something, you become better at it.”