Joey L: The Soul Image
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Carol Guzy once said, “It’s eyes and minds and hearts, tenacity and caring that make the most compelling images.”
Canadian-born and Brooklyn-based Joey Lawrence has made it his business to find and document such qualities. At just 23 years old, he has worked with the likes of Robert DeNiro and Jennifer Lawrence. His clientele include Lavazza Coffee and Coca-Cola. His personal portfolios are comprised of images as familiar as Halloween in Brooklyn, and as foreign as the Ethiopian countryside. Artist, documentarian, Joey L’s work is familiar, yet exotic—and always mesmerizing.
When did photography become a part of your life?
Photography has been in my life since I was seven. Professionally, I have been working in the industry since I was 16. Things began to get really busy after high school, and photography became my full dedication. While I was in high school in Ontario, Canada, I was being pulled in every direction imaginable with potential work. I missed my graduation for a job. Looking back, sometimes I wish I would have just quit earlier. I have deep respect for teachers and those who follow a school path, but it was never for me.
Tell us about your first camera.
My father restores vintage Coca-Cola machines from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and needed a camera to record his work. He bought a 1.3 megapixel Olympus point-and-shoot camera when I was about seven years old, and I began using it to take pictures of my toy Jurassic Park dinosaurs. I had a website on which I set them up as dioramas (“DINO-RAMAS!”) and posted the pictures online. Then as I grew up, I had a lot of friends [who] were in bands. I definitely can’t sing or play any instruments, so I became the photographer who made their press kits. I’m from the generation that got started purely on digital. I’ve worked with film on many projects—even recently when I had to do a period-correct photo shoot for National Geographic’s “Killing Kennedy.” We shot on Kodacolor that expired in 1962. If the project needs a certain medium, I’ll just use what’s correct for the job. I’m not someone who thinks film is better than digital. Most times, my style and workflow are better suited to the digital format.
You are often described as hardworking and disciplined. From where did you get your work ethic?
My work ethic comes from passion. A lot of people think all photographers do is shoot. In reality, that’s only about five percent of the job. In order to align yourself with opportunities and experiences in a career so competitive, you have to be extremely disciplined. There’s no way I could pour this much of my life into something I wasn’t passionate about. I absolutely love photography and filmmaking, so to me, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. If I did work I didn’t care about, nothing would ever get done! When you care about what you do, it’s easy to stay up all night long setting up for a sunrise shoot.
People tack the word “dignified” on to your photos frequently. What does that mean to you? What creates a dignified portrait?
The work involved in photography starts way before any shutters are clicked. A “dignified portrait” means a photographer is working with integrity, presenting his or her subject with respect, or being knowledgeable about culturally important artifacts that must be presented visually. This extends to both my commercial and personal work.
Ten years ago, Carol Guzy gave a speech to the National Press Photographers Association. When talking about her work as a photojournalist she said, “It’s haunting to voyage into so many different souls. What we behold clings to us and changes us in some small way, sometimes greatly.” Would you agree?
Yes, I would absolutely agree. Most of my experiences in life so far have all had something to do with photography and filmmaking. It’s almost impossible not to take something away from your subjects, even if it’s just within your own head. If you don’t take away something from your subjects, you may be a soulless zombie.
You really recommend people seek knowledge instead of better equipment, and that this is crucial to developing a craft and a personal style. The preview videos for your tutorials say they’ll get you into the photographer’s head. What makes the tutorials an effective method for learning photography?
I’ve been creating tutorials since the start of my blog five or six years ago. The idea initially came because I was asked often to teach lighting and Photoshop workshops by different organizations, but never had the time to commit in between projects. I like to think of the tutorials as a sort of recorded workshop that someone can watch any time. I learned photography myself by reading things online, books, attending other photographers’ workshops, and yes, buying Photoshop and lighting tutorial DVDs.
How do you bridge the commercial parts of your portfolio with the artistic? Do you see them as a continuation of each other?
The two have a lot of similarities, but they are very different worlds. Lately, I’ve been blurring the gap between the two and getting hired to create portraits in my more personal style. I think that shooting personal projects is essential to any photographer’s growth. Then, they can apply what they learned to commissioned projects.
The work you’ve produced in Africa is staggering. The portraits provide an eloquent voice for subjects who seldom get studio-photography treatment. What were you trying to reveal?
The first time I went to Ethiopia I did a lot of research before the trip, but when I arrived I realized I didn’t know jack-shit. There’s only so much you can read beforehand; the rest must be learned through experience. So it has taken many trips since then to dive deeper, often times putting the camera aside. I’ve been to many places around the world, but it’s often the second or third trip when I actually get good photographs. Or, the locals trust me enough to do what I do. Especially when you think about the gear involved, it’s just intimidating to some people. Besides photography, I also find it an inspiring place to get a lot of writing done.
Do you think Brooklyn is a good perch? Where are you now? And where would you like to go next?
I live in Williamsburg and being based in New York City is a great spot for any workaholic. I love the creative energy boiling together. At the moment I am in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I’m doing some pre-production for a film project. I have been to Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and can’t wait to visit again and again. I tend to choose an area of focus for a couple years then move on to a new place.
What is your WILD Wish?
No overweight airplane baggage charges for all humanity, for all time.