Justin Hardiman had no idea his photo of a model with jet black skin wearing a white suit would become a social media sensation when he cut his hand and leg climbing onto a roof to capture the image, shot in field of kudzu.
“I was feeling the light, but it was something missing,” said Hardiman, 27. “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.”
Climbing onto rooftops isn’t uncommon for photographers wanting to land a stunning shot.
But after Hardiman tweeted the picture, things got a little crazy: The tweet generated more than 50,000 retweets and 200,000 “likes.”
Although this is not the first time Hardiman’s work has gotten 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 Jackson’s Christ Missionary & Industrial College, Hardiman was red-shirted at Jackson State University, earned an associate’s degree at Meridian Community College and then returned to JSU.
“I loved the game (of basketball). 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.
But soon after Hardiman returned to Jackson, his father 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.”
Hardiman was still focused on a career path in coaching, and changed his major from biology to interdisciplinary studies.
But unbeknownst to him, 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 said with a laugh.
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 (Smith) on different shoots,” Hardiman said. “When I started seeing him do what he does, I began thinking I could do it, too.”
Smith, 53, has been in the photography business for nearly 20 years. His work has won awards and appeared in places like The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and 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,” Smith explained, seated in an office full 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.”
Hardiman credits Smith for helping him develop as a photographer. “If you look at ... 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,” Hardiman said.
Smith said he chooses not to micromanage those he helps. “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 ... but if you want to learn how to shoot, you have to shoot. ... and that’s what (Hardiman has) done.”
Smith calls Hardiman a natural, but the young photog shrugs off the compliment and admits that with three years’ experience, he considers himself an amateur.
Earlier this year, Hardiman’s vibrant pictures of models at a natural hair show produced in part by Solange Knowles set the internet ablaze. Viewers had no idea who took the shots, but Hardiman doesn’t seem to mind.
His focus is on displaying the many facets of black women and not a one-dimensional sexualized version that he feels is 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,” Hardiman said. “I look at every black woman differently.”
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 and music video and film director.
When asked if he has other plans in case photography winds up being not so picturesque, Hardiman 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.”