Interview with Photographer Joey L.
Joey Lawrence, better known by his professional name, “Joey L.,” is a Canadian commercial photographer, director and published author based in Brooklyn, New York. Visit his website here.
PetaPixel: Can you tell us about yourself and how you got started in photography?
Joey L: When I was 16 years old and in high school, all my friends were in bands. I could never sing (I’m beyond horrible) or play any instruments, so instead I became the photographer. I would help them build press kits and band profiles for their websites, experimenting along the way and learning everything I could about the technical side of photography.
Around that same time when I began pursuing photography professionally, I was earning money for the first time in my life. Before that, I had never really had an actual “normal” job that allowed me to save and put money towards my photography business. So, I used any extra money to go on trips to different countries, and that’s how the personal side of my portfolio developed.
My thirst for travel comes from not being able to travel anywhere outside of Canada when I was younger. I was always mesmerized and attracted to all the foreign and cultural places I read about in books or saw online, but never could go. Then all of a sudden, I was able to go, and I’ve been drawn to remote corners of the world ever since. My personal photo series’ have always been very important to me, and part of why people are drawn to my work in the first place.
PP: What was your first camera, and what equipment do you shoot with these days?
JL: My first camera was called an Olympus D-600L. And what a gem it was! 1.4 megapixels of fury.
Nowadays, I have a nice camera on the outside, but inside we have a love/hate relationship. I have a Phase One P65+ digital back that I mount on a Mamiya 645DF. I wish there was more competition in the medium format camera industry so Phase One would be forced to compete and make more innovative products.
For example, at the time of writing, all medium format digital backs perform very poorly in low light. There have been advancements since my P65+ came out, but they are still a far cry from decent. Sometimes the camera displays errors never before seen, and even experts dismiss it with a “take the batteries out and then put them back in.”
Having said that, the camera performs beautifully when put in the right situation. The quality and resolution cannot be matched. You see, I used to be endorsed by Phase One but now I’m not, so I can tell you the truth. There are some awful things about the system, but it’s all we’ve got for now. I speak my mind about the camera system hoping it will spark them to make a better product. I do this because I love you, Phase One. (But I also hate you.)
I also hope either Canon or Nikon make a competitor, but it’s a small market.
PP: How would you describe your photography to someone who has never seen it?
JL: I would describe my photography as “stylized environmental portraits.”
In my personal work, I like to stylize seemingly “ancient” subjects with hints of contemporary flavours. For example, one may see a tribe from Ethiopia and wrongly conclude this is an ancient way of life, unchanged and preserved. The truth is, these tribal people live in the 21st Century as well, and a lot of my photographs from that area in Africa are about modern influences in their daily life. In my own work, perhaps a contemporary device (such as using a flash) can better demonstrate the goal of the photo series. A “stylistic date-stamp”, if you will.
The struggle is always finding a happy balance between stylized and tasteful. Photographers only have one sense to guide a viewing experience: sight. Therefore, we are absolutely dependent on visuals to narrate the story we are trying to tell.
I’ve said this before in other articles, but my favorite photographers usually do two things in their images: 1) they reveal something about the subject, and 2) they also reveal something about the photographer. I love when I see a photographer’s vision so strong & cohesive that even their personal touch slightly glimmers through the image, and transcends being just another picture of someone.
PP: At what point did you realize that photography is what you wanted to do as a career?
JL: I remember watching a behind the scenes featurette of how they made Jurassic Park when I was a kid. It came out in 1993, so I was about four years old. From that moment, I knew I wanted to make films and be a photographer. It’s still one of my favorite movies.
PP: What are you thoughts about getting a formal education in photography? Would you recommend against it?
JL: I never had a formal education in photography myself, but I am not against it in any way. In order to make the decision on what is best for you, you have to know yourself and your learning patterns.
Speaking for myself, I never really enjoyed school as a learning environment, even though I had some nice teachers in the past. In retrospect, I know a lot of young people aren’t sure of what they want to do as a job, and I’m lucky that I knew what my interests were early on. This certainly shaped my path and made me choose not to pursue a formal education.
I was working as a professional photographer in the last year of high school, and I was feeling held back doing assignments for grades instead of photography assignments for career development. If I was studying photography later in a college or university, I’m sure I would have felt the same. I was learning more experimenting in the field.
There is so much information available online and access to other photographer’s workshops that you can put any sort of tuition money to better use, if you know how to properly manage it. This only works for people who have an independant learning style, many people prefer a classroom setting. I have friends that studied in a photography or film school, and it is a big part of their success. They made great contacts they still work with today, and learned things I had to learn the hard way.
PP: How many countries have you been to so far? What’s your personal goal in terms of seeing the world?
JL: I’ve been to many countries around the world, but I value in-depth repeat trips more than just skimming across a continent and only seeing the surface of many different places. I prefer to focus on one specific area or group of people within a country.
If I added up all my repeat trips to specific countries (Ethiopia 5 times, India 4 times, Indonesia twice, etc, etc), then I could have easily visited many more places instead. However, the style in which I shoot in doesn’t favor quick trips. It takes a lot of time.
Why this is important is because I photograph people. The most important things are accomplished before any images are taken. The actual event of taking a picture is the shortest. Before that, I am trying to understand the culture, the location, and the light. For example, you can see a noticeable difference in the images I made on my first Ethiopia trip and my most recent trip, just in terms of how the people look in the photograph. They appear more comfortable, more involved in the image, and more trustworthy of me creating the image. I have a better understanding of them, and they have a better understanding of me.
PP: How do you go about connecting with your portrait subjects? What have you learned about that topic over the years?
JL: My process is this: I travel to a new place and come across a group of people I want to photograph. I have researched them in-depth long before getting there, and know certain key elements to their culture which would be hard for the average foreigner to come across. This could be information from an anthropologist who has worked in the area, or a translator / guide I’ve made contact with before the trip. Often times, these topics include religious beliefs or knowledge of specific events in their culture’s history.
I don’t take any pictures for hours, days, or even a week. I simply observe, but make it known that I am a photographer and I do intend on taking images later. I embarrass myself with the local language and customs to draw a sort of human empathy and connection. If I‘m invited to stay, I’ll live with them but never try to pretend I am “part of the tribe”. I am still an outsider who has come to respectfully observe. I travel to understand how people interpret the world differently than I, and respect the differences.
I make it known to my potential subjects that my presence as a photographer can inform the world of their way of life, and why this is a good thing. If they aren’t familiar with why photography is important, I will explain it’s the way that my culture shares stories.
If the local people start asking me about what it’s like where I live, and want to see photographs of my family, then I know there’s a mutual interest in one another. This is usually when I can start creating photographs. From this point, it’s a collaboration because they really want to present things to the camera that shape who they are.
When/if I return one day, I will bring prints for them. At this point, the hard part is over and more and more will be revealed to you with every moment you dedicate to the project.
PP: Can you briefly tell us a little about your new “People of the Delta” project?
JL: I’ve been traveling to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley for over four years now. What started as a slight fascination with the tribes living in area, has now turned into numerous personal photography trips and adventures.
Up until this point all of my trips have been mainly for still photography. However, now that I have a better understanding of the area, I feel like it’s time to start this film project.
(Editor’s note: You can find out more about this project and support it financially over on its Kickstarter fundraising page.)
I like to describe “People of the Delta” as a cinematic narrative film, collaborating with the tribes of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. It is not a documentary — it is a narrative film in which the tribes play themselves and share stories based on personal past experiences. I spent 2 months scouting, planning and writing the plot with people I know from my previous trips. (It’s incredible how natural they are on camera!)
We hear a lot about endangered animals and ecosystems, but we seldom hear about endangered cultures. There are some tribes in the Omo Valley that have languages that only a few thousand remaining people speak, and traditions that are unique to their ethnic group only. The goal of the film is to celebrate our human diversity, and to share their stories on the world’s stage.
We find ourselves in a critical moment in time to make this film happen. Even over the last 4 years I have seen tremendous changes with my own eyes. When we lose a language or way of life, we lose a unique identity shaped over time that will never be repeated on Earth again. This film is a cinematic exploration of the Hamar and Dassanach tribes traditional way of life, and how their tribes co-exist within the modern era.
PP: Do you have any tips for keeping you, your team, and your gear safe when traveling abroad?
JL: As far as keeping your gear safe, I always recommend taking on a low profile and doing things to make your camera look less expensive. You can junk it up with tape and cardboard, or put it in old cases and bags that don’t scream “HEY, I’VE GOT A LOT OF EXPENSIVE STUFF OVER HERE.”
I’m also extremely paranoid about the hard drives containing my images. I know that the most valuable things I have with me on trips are not my camera gear, but the images I have created. Gear can be replaced, but the photographs can not. I typically back up on 2-4 external drives while I travel, carrying one with me at all times while the others are safe in other locations, or are mailed back home at halfway points in the trip.
In regards to keeping my crew and I safe, it all comes down to research before a trip. The Internet is an incredible gem in which you can find various articles, first-hand accounts, and reports from other travelers or journalists who have been to a destination before you. Knowing what precautions to take is most important before you step foot on a plane.
I wrote a blog post on this topic called “5 Critical Tips For Travel Photographers”, where I go more in depth about these things.
PP: What are your main sources of revenue, and how many people are involved in your photography business?
JL: My main source of income is the advertising and entertainment photography I do. Although these are less frequent than editorial assignments, they require a lot more pre-production and time due to their complexity. I’m very fortunate to have repeat clients that I enjoy collaborating with, such as the History Channel, National Geographic Channel, Pennzoil, FX, Nickelodeon, etc.
The second way my business operates are the exhibitions I have at galleries showing my fine art work. Although I’m only represented by a few galleries (hoping to expand to more in the future), they do a pretty good job of keeping things flowing and I try to have openings at these locations every time I have a new series to show.
Oddly enough, another source of revenue are my tutorials which cover the techniques from the photoshoots I’ve done in an educational way for other photographers. I’m very involved in this side of the photography community, and find it a fascinating way to share among those who appreciate how important visuals are. I don‘t think the tutorials devalue what I do in any way, as long as they are kept engaging and informative. These tutorials have been important for me because I spend a lot of time away working on personal work. It’s always nice to have this little boost while I’m off somewhere far away, missing assignments here in the United States.
PP: What has been the most challenging part of running a photography business, and what advice do you have regarding that?
JL: The most challenging thing about running my own business has been focussing on one task at a time and understanding the hours in the day are limited, (even if I’m staying up until 4am working on something.) Any time I dedicate to a project has to be strategic, because if the business fails, so do I!
I’ve found that when dedicating myself to one task, I can often be distracted by new projects and ideas that come my way. Over the years I’ve learned to choose a project and stick to it until the end, but I will admit that I am constantly tempted to jump ship when things get tough.
I used to burn myself out by saying “yes!” to absolutely everything that came my way. If something comes my way that seems like a great project but I just don’t have time for it, I’ve found that people actually respect it more if I politely decline and explain that I am prioritizing other tasks. A job may become compromised if I can’t put my heart into it.
I’ve found a sense of freedom lately by outsourcing tasks I don’t enjoy, or aren’t adequate uses of my time. For example, I love retouching and still retouch 99% of my images, but I always dreaded working on skin and hair in my commercial photographs. I still tone and color all my images, but since I started passing on meticulous details like skin and hair to a friend, I have “bought back” a lot of my time.
I’ve done the same thing with other tasks I used to do myself such as bookkeeping, customer service in my tutorial shop, and overseeing print sales. Although it costs money to have these processes going on in the background, it has freed up my time to dedicate where my attention is needed most.
PP: What career would you go into if you had to abandon photography and filmmaking?
JL: I would stop being such a slacker and go to school for anthropology. I love the idea of being able to interpret and share the things I appreciate now in photography from an academic standpoint.
PP: What advice do you have for an aspiring photographer looking to follow in your footsteps?
JL: Having a direct focus is very important when pursuing any career, and especially true when it comes to photography. It is very easy to lump all commercial photographers into one category. We all use cameras, but the clients we work for, or the places our photographs are displayed are all very different. You don’t go to an ear doctor to fix your eye. In the same way, photographers who shoot environmental portraits are often different than those who shoot architecture.
You need to specialize in the beginning, and get really good at one thing instead of mediocre at many things. Then people in that field will recognize that work, and it may just be the style of work you one day get paid to create. In the beginning, I suggest working in one focussed path that you are passionate about. I would start by choosing to photograph a subject matter that is important to you — something to keep you full of passion during the hard times.
This doesn’t mean that will be the only kind of work you ever do, but it will become a launching pad for getting your work recognized and help create a unique identity in a sea of photographers.