Joey L.: Ripping!

Brooklyn-based photographer Joey Lawrence, known professionally as Joey L., has an unusual problem when he encounters new clients on a set. They think he’s the assistant.

A woman of the Bodi tribe has fallen ill and died. The elder women of the village shout to the spirits and chant of her death to bring her soul to peace. The men perform a ceremonial procession and will guard the body of the deceased for three months.

Born in the Canadian town of Lindsay, Ontario, in 1989, his face may be youthful, but the photography he produces has a maturity and sophistication well beyond his years. Joey understood early on that creating significant bodies of work on his own rather than waiting around for assignments to build his portfolio would put him on the path to both a successful and fulfilling career.

He’s able to seamlessly mix his commercial commissions from clients ranging from Coca-Cola to the History Channel with long-term personal projects on endangered cultures and traditions where he brings a fine-art humanistic portrait approach to subjects, usually portrayed in a more photojournalistic style.

DPP: Many photographers working today start out as assistants, but you made the hurdle to being a professional photographer bypassing this step. What was your path?

Joey L.: I never assisted, but sometimes I wish I did. That’s not to devalue where I am now. When I was in high school, I was working a lot as a music photographer. Many of my friends were playing in bands. Since I can’t sing and I don’t play any instruments, I would take their photos because of my interest in photography. I would go on tours with them and that body of music work created my first commercial portfolio. Some of the images were conceptual and that approach can be seen in the advertising and television work I’m doing today. When I started to do advertising commissions beyond music, I didn’t know how to act. I was always courteous and professional, but I had never been on any other photographer’s set, so there were things that I had to learn the hard way and there are some unique aspects to my productions to this day. I’m never against people going to school first and or assisting just because I didn’t.

Joey L. and his assistants don’t let the hazards of electricity and water deter them from getting the perfect photo.

DPP: What are some of the differences on your shoots?

Joey L.: I think the major difference between the way I run things and the way other photographers work is that I have a core team of people as assistants who are my friends who don’t have a photography background. On my trips, I’ll bring a friend from high school who doesn’t really know about lighting, but I train them to do what I need them to do. I used to do all my own productions, so I learned to be really scrappy with budgets and time. When I do advertising jobs, the clients ask, "Are you sure you’re going to be able to get all these shots?" I remember making reflectors out of tin foil, so the equipment I work with now is a luxury.

DPP: What was your big break?

Joey L.: There was no commission that changed everything. Freelance photographers are never really safe. Even the biggest photographers have to continually put out new work. I don’t think there’s one big break in photography. The people who are working, that are the most busy, are workaholics in the first place. They look at a lot of work and they try to apply their style in a very contemporary sense. There have been select photo shoots that have helped me build a cohesive portfolio. I have two different photographic voices. One is the commissioned commercial work and the other is the more fine-art, personal work. Seeing the photographs of Pieter Hugo, his "The Hyena & Other Men" series, and Phil Borges’ ethnic portraits have helped me shape my personal work.

An Aghori sadhu in Varanasi, India, covered with human ash, the last rite of the material body.

DPP: How did your Ethiopia project come about?

Joey L.: Growing up in Lindsay, Ontario, an hour and a half northeast of Toronto, I was kind of cooped up in this rural town. I was always watching the History Channel and National Geographic documentaries. I wanted to explore the world. As soon as I started making money from photography, I used it to travel. I went to all the places I had seen in documentaries. When I first started, I did more photojournalistic-style photography, which you don’t see in my work these days. But those early trips helped develop the way I shoot now.

DPP: If you had to label your style, what would it be?

Joey L.: Environmental portraiture. I have a more cinematic approach to subjects that are tired and fatigued by photojournalism. I use a very contemporary approach using a flash. The mission statement behind this work is although these tribes and religions are old, they’re still present, they’re still living. When I do something on how things are changing with the Karo, Mursi, Hamer, Daasanach and Arbore tribes in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia—the modern things that are happening there—it makes sense to do it in a more contemporary style.

Seeing the photographs of Pieter Hugo, his ‘The Hyena & Other Men’ series, and Phil Borges’ ethnic portraits have helped me shape my personal work.

DPP: How do you do the lighting in these distant locations?

Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth and Billy Campbell as Abraham Lincoln from Killing Lincoln, which aired on the National Geographic Channel.

Joey L.: Profoto 7Bs and an Elinchrom Octabank. Sometimes I wrap CTO around the bulb if I’m shooting at sunset. I don’t like to use lighting tripods because they’re too cumbersome to travel with. I have my assistant hold the light head out on a Manfrotto pole. The main thing is shooting at the right times of the day. For example, for the "Holy Men" series I did in India, I photographed either before the sun rose or during sunrise or sunset and used the rest of the day to plan out the next photo shoot. For what I do, I don’t walk around and find things and document them. I really respect that approach and love to look at that work, but I don’t do it. Whether I’m using my Canon 1Ds Mark III or Phase One with the P65+ DIGI back, I like creating and composing images of real people. These aren’t commercial assignments, but they’re funded by my commercial and editorial work.

DPP: It’s interesting that you grew up watching National Geographic and the History Channel, and now you’re photographing for them. Do you think your interest in their programming had anything to do with this?

Actor Robert De Niro. Joey L. credits his lifelong interest in the programming on the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel with his success in creating evocative images for t
hem as clients.

Joey L.: Absolutely. That interest really helps in portfolio meetings. People don’t want to work with somebody who takes just good photos. If I meet a creative director and I’m knowledgeable about what they have on their channel, it’s more likely I’m going to get hired for the shoot because I can better represent it.

A lot of photographers shoot things that don’t necessarily fit together. You have to remember that although the photography industry seems vast, you have to specialize. You wouldn’t go to an ear doctor to get your eyes fixed. I’m very focused on doing projects that interest me and that mean something to me. The things I spend my time on are typically the things I get hired for. That’s the sort of stuff I get hired for to re-create on a commercial project. What I do is very research-based.

Actress Jessica Chastain.

DPP: Your work in Ethiopia and India has a very warm tone, just the opposite of the movie poster work you did for Twilight, with its steely cool feel.

Joey L.: That’s the most visible work I’ve done so far. Twilight came about because I photographed a friend who’s in a band with similar lighting. When I had a meeting at the movie poster company, they were looking through my portfolio, and when they came to that photo, they said, "This is the look we’re going for." They wanted to match the lighting vibe—strong backlight and cold tones. I lit it pretty dark, as well, to match the mood of vampires.

DPP: You often blog about portfolio presentation. Your overseas work and your studio commercial work are part of the same presentation, not an easy thing to do successfully.

Dramatizations of momentous historical events are one thing, but the multitalented photographer also has worked with less weighty subject matter. Here, we see one of a series of images he shot of the cast of the off-beat TV comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Joey L.: I strive for a sense of cohesion in my work. When I first started, it was all over the place. Then, like everyone else, I found out what I really liked doing and what I was good at. Now my commissioned work takes on the vibe of my personal work, and vice versa. I structure my portfolio in an order that when you turn the pages, it doesn’t feel like a sudden departure with two different visions.

I like showing hard portfolios. It’s physical, it’s real—you have to flip through the thing. My paper choice is the 325 gsm Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta. I’ve always felt like the photograph is complete when it’s printed out on paper.

There are a lot of great shooters, but you need business knowledge if you want to make photography a career. I knew I had to approach it this way to keep a roof over my head. One of the most important things I did was to move to New York when I was 19. My agent Bernstein & Andriulli and many of my clients are based here. But, also, the city is full of inspiring people. We all sort of have the same mind-set. New York is full of workaholics. We call it ripping. We want to rip all day, and work and better ourselves. New York attracts those sorts of people. I’ve met a lot of people who I collaborate with. It’s really inspiring to be around people doing similar things. There’s a complete vibe here.

To see more of Joey L.’s work, visit his website at

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