Justin Hardiman had no idea his photo of a model with jet black skin and wearing a white suit would become a social media sensation when he cut his hand and leg climbing on top of a roof to capture the image shot in a field of kudzu.
“I was feeling the light, but it was something missing. It didn’t really show where I was. I wanted to show how big it was, how green it was and how beautiful it was. So, I decided to get on top of this building,” he says of his decision.
Many photographers, like Hardiman, 27, have done whatever it takes to land a stunning shot. But, it was after he shared his picture on Twitter that things got a little crazy. The tweet generated over 50,000 retweets and over 200,000 likes. Although this is not the first time Hardiman’s work has garnered attention, it’s a pretty big deal for the one-time basketball star whose only desire was to play ball.“I never thought someone like me, coming from an athletic background, would be a photographer. This is out of nowhere for me,” said the Jackson native.
After graduating high school from Christ Missionary Industrial College, Hardiman was offered a full-ride basketball scholarship to Alcorn State. A series of mishaps including failing to sign his letter of intent within the required deadline led the young athlete to take his talents to Jackson State University.
“I grew up around that school all my life. I was a baby Tiger. I always wanted to be a part of the Jackson State family,” he asserts.
At JSU, Hardiman was redshirted his freshmen year. On the advice of his high school coach, he left the university for Meridian Community College.
“I loved the game. I just wanted to play. I wanted to play organized ball as long as I could. I wanted to go overseas and play, make a living and then become a coach,” said the former point guard.
After receiving his associate’s degree, Hardiman returned to JSU but his father soon fell ill, and life-altering choices became a reality.
“I decided basketball is not the thing; maybe my time has run out,” he said. “I got a job to help my mom, and I just started growing up. In those few short years, I realized there was more to life than basketball.”
Once a biology major, Hardiman changed his focus to interdisciplinary studies at the suggestion of his middle school basketball coach, Dennis Williams. “He gave me advice on what I should do if I planned on coaching. He said get your degree take the Praxis I and II, and you’ll be on your way.”
Unbeknown to the laid-back, long-haired Hardiman, his career plans would take an off-beat path right before his 2015 graduation.
“I bought a camera, and I just started playing with it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I got on YouTube and started doing this and doing that. I used to have to take pictures of myself because no one was taking me seriously as a photographer.” He laughs.
One day, Hardiman bumped into JSU photographer Charles Smith who was on assignment. The two men exchanged numbers and a mentorship formed. “I started going out and helping him on different shoots. When I started seeing him do what he does, I began thinking I could do it, too. He really inspired me to get to where I am now,” he expressed.
Smith, 53, has been in the photography business for nearly 20 years. His work has won awards and appeared in prominent publications like the New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Tribune, LA Times and the Associated Press.
An economics major who graduated from Tougaloo College, Smith’s passion for photography derailed his plan to become a professor. “I like to see people at his age range that are willing to learn the craft early because I knew the travels I had to go through to get to where I am as a photographer. It was a long road,” he explains, seated in an office filled with all forms of camera equipment.
Although Smith will take on anyone as a mentee, he acknowledges a uniqueness in Hardiman. “In a very short window, he has shown a tremendous level of growth. I mean beyond anything I could have expected,” he reveals.
Hardiman credits Smith for helping him develop his photographic expression. “If you look at both of our work, it’s completely different from each other. But, he showed me that I could have my own style like he has his own style.”
He adds, “I didn’t know it at the time, but I realized he didn’t really try to tell me what was right or what was wrong with something. He just told me to do what I do. That’s some good advice because everyone has a different eye.”
Impeding a person’s potential is one reason Smith chooses not to micromanage those he helps. “As you go through the process of shooting, you learn. You don’t want to pigeon-hole someone in a manner by which they can’t grow,” he said. “I’ll critique it as you go through the process of it, but if you want to learn how to shoot, you have to shoot. That goes for any craft, especially photography. You have to physically do it to learn, and that’s what he’s done.”
Smith calls Hardiman a natural, but the young photog shrugs off the compliment and admits that with nearly three years of experience under his belt, he considers himself an amateur. Yet, his images seem to insinuate the work of a more seasoned professional, described by others as “art” “striking” and “captivating.”
Earlier this year, Hardiman’s vibrant and compelling pictures of models at a Shani Crowe natural hair event, produced by Solange Knowles’ Saint Heron brand, set the internet ablaze. However, viewers had no idea who took the shots, but Hardiman does not seem to mind.
His focus is on displaying the many facets of black women and not a one-dimensional sexualized version that he feels prominent in the fashion industry. “I want to show the way that I see black women. I want to show my experiences with black women like my mom. I look at every black woman differently. I don’t want to be cliché, but black women are powerful, resourceful, resilient and beautiful. I want to capture that.”
Based on the buzz that Hardiman has been generating, it appears he is well on his way to rubbing elbows with the likes of his favorite artist David LaChappelle, a commercial and fine arts photographer, music video and film director.
When asked if he has other plans if photography winds up not so picturesque, he laughs and says:
“My full-time job is photography. I put everything I make into it. That’s my plan A. I don’t have a plan B.”