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.

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