Fstoppers Sits Down With Joey Lawrence

Fstoppers Sits Down With Joey Lawrence

It’s six o’clock in the evening; Joey Lawrence and I are having what could only be described as the trendiest cups of coffee in all of Williamsburg at that very moment. To be fair, this part of Brooklyn takes its coffee (as well as its trendiness) very seriously. Outside, it’s not unlike being inside of a freezer during a power outage – it’s bitingly cold, wet and smells like something somewhere is spoiling. Luckily, we’re inside, sans rainwear, meeting over a table made from reclaimed wood while Edison bulbs on simple fixtures drip unassumingly from the ceiling.


Joey Lawrence may be familiar to you already, and that’s because, at the age of 23, he has done a great deal of things right. A fair part of that “great deal” hinges on his ability to be uncannily instinctive. Which is why he’s here, in New York, downing a “café mocha” with a snowflake etched in chocolate into the foam.

It is also that very reason that he spends a great deal of time in places that are very much not New York. But where most people would visit a place once and move on, Joey’s approach is a little different. He will go back to the same place three, four, five times to permeate the culture just a little bit more each time.
“I could have gone to three or four times the places I’ve been, but instead I choose to really focus on one area… A lot of people ask me how long it took to take [my travel portraits]. Maybe three to five minutes to just push the button on the camera. But everything that was set up before that, I could say it took me four years to take that photo.”

It’s this dedication that has led him to his most ambitious project yet, “The People of the Delta.”


It’s an unquestionably impressive undertaking – finding members of indigenous tribes in sub-Saharan Africa and having them play scripted parts in a movie based on their lives. Think Beasts of the Southern Wild meets Furngully …in Ethiopia.

“In the South of Ethiopia, there are people who are on Kenyan safaris, and some guides will take people over and do a ‘cultural safari.’ They visit villages that are set up on the road for the purpose of tourism, and I’ve been to these villages and it’s fascinating. They put on a little show… and the [tourists] think they’re getting an authentic experience. And if you compare [the photos of the area that you see on Flickr] you can see the same guy wearing different outfits. It’s a game to try to get money from tourists...and from an anthropological perspective, it’s wrong. The reason why I think it’s important to tell this story is to avoid all that nonsense…The film is not going to solve the problem, but what it will do is be a piece of media to introduce people who would never know about the subject to know something about it. I get really funny about the term ‘raise awareness,’ but if a lot of people know about this, it makes it very hard for bad things to happen."
As of right now, his Kickstarter has 17 days left. So far, Joey has raised about two-thirds of his $150,000 goal. Backers are able to receive anything from digital copies of the film to signed prints to Skype portfolio critiques and even a photography workshop with Joey himself in NYC, London or Toronto.

According to Joey, it’s personal projects like these that inspire him and keep him sharp…throwing curveballs to keep him on top of things. When a photographer is able to reach a certain level of success, any toy imaginable becomes accessible. But it’s these adventures that inject unforeseen challenges and experimentation… not to mention, a certain amount of relishing in obsessive-compulsive detail planning.
“When I’m out on the road shooting personal stuff, I love all the unknowns that are thrown at me. And after a certain amount of time doing that, I just want to be back home doing commissioned work. But when I’m home doing commissioned work, where I can control every element, I crave a little bit of the unknown.”

hamar_tribe_ethiopia_omo_valley_school_01 2

With what almost seems like pre-planned timing, we are interrupted by Joey’s phone - on the other end, Aisha Tyler, who he has recently shot. Joey is following up, checking in and volunteering to add extra work – all so she is completely satisfied with the project. That’s when he mentions his film project. Joey asks her to please check it out and if she likes it, to mention it on her podcast, Twitter, etc. And therein is the essence of why Joey is where he is. He truly gets the power of networking and social media. Sheer force of talent and a pleasant demeanor will only get one so far. It’s his unstoppable work ethic and his second-nature integration of power networking into the way he operates.

“Instead of reaching one mass audience, you can reach a niche audience that cares more about what you do. It’s the age of niche…Nowadays, the way the world is moving, we are dissolving all borders, dissolving all countries, and what you find is, instead of governing people by country, people are governing themselves by shared interests.”

Exactly how Joey operates is due largely in part to his uniquely modern origin story. If the pre-existing generation of photographers is Generation X, Joey represents Generation Y. He has begun and subsequently evolved in a world where his first camera was digital and developed his own technique as film was crossing over into novelty.
“I didn’t start shooting film. I’ve experimented with it on shoots, because I think it’s interesting. [My first camera] was a 1.3 megapixel Olympus point-and-shoot… [Digital cameras have opened] up the medium to a new generation of people and that has both negative and positive sides to it. It kind of makes photography less of a science and more of a craft. In the old days you had to kind of be a chemist…What you have nowadays is more people being able to take a crack at it. But with that, comes an awful lot of crap, as well. Not to say there aren’t a lot of good photographers within that, there’s just a lot more to sort through… And if there are more and more talented people doing photography, it is only going to make rivals of the top photographers and create better and new explorations of medium.”

What follows could be labeled blasphemous in some circles, and heralded in others.
There are photographers doing stuff now that I would argue is better than any of the old masters in terms of technicality, in terms of masterful painting of light, because they don’t have to go into the darkroom. Technology is making us more in control, and the tools are making more things available…I think photographers that are working today are similar to the athletes of today. If we were to place the athletes of today against Olympians of 100 years ago, they would kick their ass, because we’ve fine-tuned the human body. And the same can be said for photography…The people who are at the top tier of today, I am a much bigger fan of their work than old masters… and if [most of the old masters] were shooting today, they would be using a digital camera.”

With respect, that is Joey - unapologetic and earnestly so. The successful tend to avoid the banks of appeasement. They take a stance. They own their convictions. Joey is steadfast in his and bolsters them with unconditional follow-through. He will win you over, but even if you don’t come to his side, you will at least understand his point-of-view.

And then without much more, we leave …our “world’s trendiest” coffees finished easily an hour ago. We abandon our mismatched mugs on the table and reenter the evening, and we walk, in opposite directions, to rest on our respective shelves in this frigid meat locker of a city.

"The People of the Delta" Kickstarter




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Good post. His travel photography features his very best work. I pray he makes his goal for his project.

“There are photographers doing stuff now that I would argue is better than any of the old masters in terms of technicality," I really hope when he says old masters here he is talking about the greats of photography..Avedon, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and not Da Vinci,Rembrandt or Caravaggio. Knowing light set-ups and having a photographers eye is truly a far cry from a complete mastery of a paint medium and the myriad of surfaces and treatments that need to be called on for a work to live.I'm sure (hopes) he must be making a comparison within Photography.

Tobias Solem's picture

Yes, yes he is referring to the photographers, hence why he mentions "chemists" and film in the same sentence. 

He was referring to photographers but I'd argue that the most talented painters today are also painting circles around the likes of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, etc. There are artists today that pump out work in 30-60 hours that at a technical levels obliterate things that took the ancient masters decades. Furthermore, were those ancient masters alive today their work would be miles ahead of what it was then. The combination of evolutionary learning and more advanced tools ensures that in virtually every aspect of mankind we are and will continually get better.

Mike Kelley's picture

Awesome stuff. Some great thoughts and musings in there.

Tobias Solem's picture

This guy is what photography is about. Joey is an inspiration. 

Jens Marklund's picture

“There are photographers doing stuff now that I would argue is better than any of the old masters in terms of technicality, in terms of masterful painting of light, because they don’t have to go into the darkroom. Technology is making us more in control, and the tools are making more things available…"

Uhm. First off, todays darkroom is software (mostly Photoshop). This doesn't make things easier since you now have to be a retoucher as well. Having more control isn't always a good thing. The tools are even more complicated today then they were back then.

"I think photographers that are working today are similar to the athletes of today. If we were to place the athletes of today against Olympians of 100 years ago, they would kick their ass, because we’ve fine-tuned the human body. And the same can be said for photography…"

There's a difference between art and science. I personally love the imperfections in a photo. If we fine tuned every photo (even before taking it), the image would get boring. There is a lack of mystery in the world today.

Seems like a great guy and photographer though.


True, but photography is further trending towards intentional flaws added by the artist. In the past the flaws were simply the reality of the medium. They were unavoidable. You can argue that they gave the work "character" but they ultimately were not creative decisions, they were creative hindrances. Where as today adding a flaw is a creative decision It is at the artist's whim.

When I look at a vintage photo by an old master and compare it to the work of a modern master who was intentionally making it look vintage there is no contest in the quality of the work. A good example is the work of Jennifer Hudson (http://www.jenniferhudsonfineart.com/)

The most fantastic aspect about the evolution of any artistic medium is that we have to face fewer and fewer technical limitations which allows for more creative freedom. In the end isn't that a VERY good thing for art?

Von Wong's picture

really like your writing. And respect to Joey

Chris Knight's picture

Thank you Benjamin!


excellent stuff -- keep it coming please! his work is phenomenal. 

Amazing story and of course, photographer. I've been a big fan of Joey L's work for a while and never ceases to amaze me in what he does, and what and why he creates such imagery.
And this is a fantastic article, as well! Well done!

- Joe Gunawan
SLR Lounge Editor

Joey is just sooo cool. That kid just gets it.

Can't wait to see this project finished (It better get finished!  also read- Go donate!).  =)

i wonder how to get such deep colors ....

It is a combination of shooting with a 16bit medium format back. Capture One's superior color conversion process for RAW files and Joey's mastery of color curves in Photoshop.

It's true that the coming era will be dominated by the "niche" market. However, Bohemians have always pandered to an audience of fellow Bohemians, so it's not really a new phenomenon.

joey has always fascinated me by his use of light on location and is always such an inspiration.  I would recommend any of his dvd's to anyone wanting to learn some new lighting and post skill.

I do not think Joey is excessively  sophisticated to his lighting.

I believe his more is toward Photoshop as well as his concept wants to convey to viewers.

His photoshop skill is strong no doubt, but his knowledge of light is also fantastic, you should watch the creative live course he just did, I was amazed at how amazing his images were coming right off camera, I had always thought he depended much more on photoshop than he does. His lighting skill set is VERY impressive.

He isn't ahead of guys like Joe McNally quite yet but he is light years ahead of where guys like that were at 23. If Joey continues his trend he will be one of the best photographers in history after 20-30 years of experience.

Yes I watched his entire creativelive workshop, this comment was way before the workshop started. Now I have a new view of him.


Amazing work! Lovely look and feel to the images.

now if someone could tell me what brand of leather jacket the guy is wearing in second photo would be great

The guy in the second photo is Joey himself. I can't remember the brand off the top of my head but in the creative live course he just finished he was asked and answered the question. I googled it at the time, it was about a $1000 jacket.

As always his work and vision are an inspiration.

R. J. Kern's picture

I just hope he treats people with the respect they deserve. I'm supporting him in a big way on this project, but fear the fame might alter his perspective on his roots. Joey, please continue to be true to yourself.

Bringing Mac Powerbooks into the OMO Valley does not really help to preserve their lifestyle. It's fires up desires in the young generation- they did not know. Something I see over and over when I visit places like that. Nice thought- but.....