Most photographers don’t receive their training by shooting explosives for the Royal Air Force, but Neilson Barnard is not your average photographer.
Growing up in Stow Maries, Essex, a tiny village on the east coast of England, Barnard left home at 16 to join the RAF. For the next 13 ½ years, he traveled throughout the Middle East, Europe and Africa with the Explosive Ordinance Disposal team and photographed, as he put it, “anything that goes bang” to help the RAF figure out how to safely remove it. The photos, he said, were made for strictly utilitarian purposes, and there was no room for creativity.
Now, Barnard shoots quite a different subject matter. As Getty Image’s chief entertainment photographer for North America, he spends his days hopping from red carpet premieres to award shows to product endorsements with A-list celebrities.
“What I do now is a far, far cry from what I used to do,” he said. “Every day is completely different. One day I’m in Dubai, another day I’m shooting Sundance. I really enjoy it.”
When Barnard left the RAF, he didn’t envision that his life would be spent shooting Hollywood’s biggest stars. He moved to New York City, where he managed a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen for a year and didn’t pick up a camera professionally until a friend invited him to photograph alongside him during a record launch party at The Limelight nightclub. Though he’d spent more than a decade taking photos, he felt completely unequipped.
“I had no clue about white balance or exposure. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing with a flash gun,” he said. “The photos show that. It was amazing that I actually got anything.”
The experience, however, was transformative and Barnard became determined to pursue photography as a career. He moved to L.A. with his wife soon after and, with no portfolio to show, managed to sign with the photo agency Picture Perfect as a contributor.
“To this day, I’m still amazed that they hired me,” he said.
Barnard purchased a second-hand camera and every book on photography he could find and threw himself wholeheartedly into his new job. Every day, he showed up at movie premieres and parties and did his best “at the bottom of the totem pole,” as he puts it, among a scrum of other photographers capturing entertainment bigwigs on the red carpet.
“I was in the third row of photographers. I was craning over peoples’ heads to try to get a frame,” Barnard said. “If I made it to the second row, that was a good day.”
Eventually, Barnard rose through the ranks, becoming an expert at his craft and becoming represented by other agencies in L.A. Then, during a visit to New York City, he set his sights on working with Getty Images.
“It was during Fashion Week,” he said. “I snuck into the tent at Bryant Park and I managed to get an audience with a couple of the assigning editors. One thing led to another and they signed me as a contributor.”
Barnard has photographed many of the world’s most famous and powerful people, including President Barack Obama, who he met twice in 2016. But his all-time favorite assignment was photographing Kermit the Frog, Gonzo and other Muppets at FAO Schwartz in 2008.
“I have never laughed so hard whilst being at work,” he said.
Over the past four years as a staff photographer, Barnard has found that keeping up with changes in the industry requires constantly experimenting with new technology. At this year’s Golden Globe Awards, for instance, he and his Getty Images colleagues used a robotic camera to capture the stars as they got out of their limousines. No other photographer’s work could compare with their shots, since human photographers weren’t allowed there.
“I’m the biggest nerd on the planet and I’m proud to say that,” Barnard said. “I work really hard to stay ahead of the curve.”
He can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I’ve had a couple times where I’ve stood in the middle of a field at a music festival drenched, getting poured on, up to my eyeballs in mud, with all my cameras in plastic bags, saying ‘What am I doing again?’” he said. “But that only lasts for a short while. Then I realize I love my job.”
Explore more of Neilson Barnard’s best images at Getty Images