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.”
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