x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Keep on shooting: Joey Lawrence, Twilight photographer

The photographic prodigy Joey Lawrence talks about his images of remote tribal people and his exhibition in Dubai.

Joey Lawrence's pictures are part of a new photography exhibition titled In the Blink of an Eye, at the Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre.
Joey Lawrence's pictures are part of a new photography exhibition titled In the Blink of an Eye, at the Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre.

Joey Lawrence was 18 when he shot the Twilight poster. Yes, 18, one eight. How many 18-year-olds are entrusted with handling the all-important publicity shot that might make or break a multimillion-dollar project like the vampire movie phenomenon? Not many. It's enough to make most of us feel positively decrepit. Lawrence is still only 20 and one of the hottest photographers in the business, sought after by television and movie producers, rappers and rock bands such as Def Jam, 50 Cent and the Jonas Brothers, who love his unique style of portraiture, which captures the essence of his subject's character with the maturity of a much older person.

Twilight posters adorn the bedroom walls of millions of teenaged girls all over the world and have brought the work of Joey L, as he is known professionally, to a global audience. They have also spawned a whole new community of budding moviemakers on the internet, where youngsters post their own video critiques of the various poses of Edward and Bella and speak knowledgeably about the deliberately dark and dangerous lighting that is so evocative of the movie itself.

Lawrence is in Dubai as one of six photographers whose pictures are part of a new photography exhibition titled In the Blink of an Eye, part of the sixth annual Gulf Photo Plus event. It is at the Gallery of Light, Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre (Ductac). As he walks across the foyer of his hotel, dressed in his normal jeans and T-shirt, he still looks impossibly young, but speak to him for just a few minutes and you soon understand that there is a very mature head on those youthful shoulders, a head that is not even slightly star-struck.

"My age can help but it can also work against me. There have been jobs I didn't get because they thought I was too young. When my agents show my portfolio they never mention my age. It's never used as a gimmick," he says. He sees the show-business work as a means to an end and that is to head off to Ethiopia, Abyssinia or India to film tribes living in remote villages and forests where they still adhere to ancient traditions and beliefs.

"It's a bit of a balancing act doing my personal work in between commercial work. I don't always take the commercial work. I have made enough money now so that if I didn't work again that year it would be OK. "Jobs like the Twilight shoot are great to have in your portfolio. I got Twilight because somebody liked a shot in my book, a picture of a guy sitting in an old rusty car. It had similar lighting to what they were looking for. We shot it in a studio in Portland, Oregon, where they were filming, and I did each shot against a grey backdrop and assembled the images later.

"Robert Pattinson is a very good-looking guy and they are all very professional. The main thing about the poster is that Edward is protective of Bella so he is looming over her. The lighting is pretty dark and he was wearing his contact lenses which look really bright orange and a bit eerie. "It was fun to do but it's just one job and it didn't change my career. It's just another shot in my portfolio that shows value."

Just once in a while he admits to "looking through the camera lens and registering for a moment that it's 50 Cent at the other end" and he makes a point of going to Def Jam concerts and networking with stars and their agents because that's what he has to do. "You need to be part of the scene and I get invited to a lot of their concerts. I go to a lot of gallery openings and 'schmoozefests'. It's very important in what I do. We meet some of the most powerful people in the industry," he says.

Lawrence grew up in Ontario, Canada, but moved to New York City where the opportunities are better for photographers, he believes. The name Joey L comes from his school days when there were two Joeys in his class. "The name Joey L just stuck," he says simply. Unlike many young people, he has known since he was a boy that he wanted to be a film director or a photographer and possibly both. He's totally self-taught and learnt his trade via a process of trial and error, encouraged by both parents. His father, George Lawrence, 56, is an airbrush artist who restores old appliances like popcorn machines, motorcycle helmets and old Coca-Cola bottles for resale as ornamental pieces.

His mother, Kim, 46, would always tell him to "keep on shooting" even if a school test was looming. "Not many mums would say that, but she always knew that what I was doing was more important to me than anything else." A straight-A student, he started photographing local bands and was already earning good money by the time he finished high school, although he missed the graduation ceremony because he had to fly to Amsterdam with one of his clients. All the time, he was teaching himself photographic techniques by watching tutorials on the websites of well-known photographers.

"I probably spent as much time doing things myself and experimenting and looking up stuff on the internet as I would have done going to college. I definitely put in the hours but I learnt it myself through trial and error, rather than sitting in a classroom with a teacher teaching you things that you can learn on the internet. You learn more from real photographers than from a teacher," says Lawrence, who now has his own tutorials on his website, www.joel.com.

"I started off with my grandfather's video camera making home movies of myself and my friends being chased down the street by dinosaur puppets. Then I moved on to my father's vintage train set. I would make a small village and the dinosaur would crash through it and we would videotape that and then we'd videotape my own village and us running away and I would splice the two together so that it looked like a chase. It was pretty amateur stuff.

"I really cared about school because that's what I thought I had to do in order to do well and I would get really stressed during the final year. At the time I was shooting a band and I also had an art assignment to submit. It was to draw my hand, but I knew what I was doing was more important." His client list today includes Channel 4, FX Channel, Discovery Channel, Kawasaki, Summit Entertainment, History Channel and he has shot covers for prestigious publications such as Forbes magazine. "I'm happy to get this work but at the end of the day I don't care about that stuff. It's the personal work that is important to me," he says.

This is the work that really excites him, including his Abyssinian Holy Men series and work in Ethiopia's Omo Valley with the Mursi and other tribal groups, and in India among the Aghori sadhus. In the past 12 months Lawrence has visited India, Romania, Moldova, Ethiopia, Vanuatu and Indonesia, often living with local tribes, absorbing their cultures and traditions and photographing the people and their lives. "In Indonesia it was all done very slowly. I slept on a porch for three weeks. The pictures were a collaboration with the people and myself as a photographer," he says.

He does not feel he is exploiting simple, unsophisticated people but knows there are others who do. "There are people who do exploit them and they make my job harder. I'm interested in their belief system and tribal cultures like why they decorate themselves as they do. Some of the tribes live closer to the road so they are used to being visited. Each tribe has a different ethnic skin tone and different ways of decorating themselves."

Lawrence says his approach to photographing tribal people is the same as it would be for a commercial shoot. "Why should I travel all the way to Africa and use a different approach just because I am photographing someone of a different culture? I give all my subjects the same level of care and attention. "When photographing tribes I try to do it with a sense of dignity, knowing who they are. You have somebody's life and you have to represent that in one frame. It's something that is overlooked more and more with digital and how easy it is to shoot. It's all about slowing it down."

He stresses that he is not a photo journalist; his shots are all carefully posed. He does, however, keep a journal and writes it up after every trip. He's particularly proud of his work in Indonesia. "I spent three weeks with the Mentawai tribe in Indonesia this year. They forget that you are there, eventually, which is the most important thing. At the end of the trip we bought goats as a thank-you and we had a big feast with singing and dancing.

"We were there during a series of earthquakes in August last year and felt the tremors every day for four days when there was a quake every two hours." Another memorable series in his portfolio is the holy men of northern Ethiopia where there is a strong tradition of orthodox Christianity. Some of his shots are breathtaking, photographed from ledges on the sides of mountains where the men live in caves.

He says he can't wait to get back to this work and hopes to go to Varanasi, India, soon to photograph Brahmin priests. Every now and then he gets home to his apartment, decorated with spears and arrows given to him by the tribes he has visited, in the unfashionable area of Bushwick, New York, which he describes as "very Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican". "In five years time it will be a very cool place. I prefer to live there because every time I step out of my door I feel like I'm going on a trip."

His role models are photographers like Phil Borges, who chooses the same sort of subject matter, and Edward Curtis, a schoolmaster who died in 1952 aged 84 and spent a lifetime and photographing the native tribes of North America. He would like to be remembered and respected for work like that. "I want to focus on what I have been doing and build momentum," he says. "I want to do the things that I see as important. I don't care so much about making a name but if I keep on getting the commercial work that allows me to do the personal work that would be fantastic."

In the Blink of an Eye, part of the sixth annual Gulf Photo Plus event, is at the Gallery of Light, Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre, Mall of the Emirates until Saturday.